Three Tips For Finding Topics For Short Stories

One of the most annoying types of writer’s block is when you can’t think of a topic for a short story. When you’re faced with a blank page and all you can think about is “what the hell do I write about?“.

When I was writing short stories last February, I worried about this problem. After all, most of the short online collections (like this one or this one) that I’d written during the previous couple of years had a single over-arching theme. I’d write them at Christmas or Halloween, which gave me an excuse to write several stories that were related to these occasions. But, of course, I ended up writing stories at other times of the year too. And I needed ideas.

Surprisingly, it only took me a couple of weeks to get good at finding ideas – something probably helped by my regular art practice (eg: thinking of things to paint on a regular basis). But, finding ideas for short stories is different from finding ideas for paintings. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips.

1) Intelligent procrastination: Procrastination gets a bad reputation. The best kinds of procrastination can ensure that you’re never stuck for ideas again.

Although I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, a bit of research will show you that copyright generally doesn’t cover facts and ideas. The only thing that copyright covers is highly-specific expressions of these things. For example, the idea of a bald spaceship captain can’t be copyrighted – but “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Captain Picard character can be copyrighted.

In other words, provided that you do something different with a pre-existing idea, theme, fact etc.. then you’ve got a story idea. And this is where procrastination helps.

If you can procrastinate by looking at something you find interesting – such as Youtube channels filled with random facts , if you read a variety of interesting novels, if you listen to interesting music, if you play interesting videogames etc… Then these things will help provide you with topics, themes and ideas that you can do your own thing with and turn into stories.

2) Experience: Although there is the old advice that you should “write from experience”, it is often misunderstood. Unless you’ve lived a fascinatingly exciting life, you might find this advice to be depressingly annoying. Likewise, you might find the idea of writing an autobiogrpahy to be awkward or embarassing. But, don’t worry, this isn’t what the “write from experience” advice is all about.

What it means is to find some theme, emotion or event from your life and then use your imagination to turn it into a fictional story with fictional characters. You can also add elements from other inspirations too. For example, this sci-fi comedy story was partially inspired by the fact that I hadn’t played one of my favourite computer games for a while and found that I was out of practice.

So, you don’t have to have had a spectacularly exciting life to write from experience. You just need to know how to turn mundane experiences into dramatic fiction.

3) Sequels: If you’ve written short stories before, then one way to shake yourself out of writer’s block is just to write a sequel or prequel to an interesting story that you’ve already written. After all, you’ve already got the characters and you’ve already got the basic idea. So, all you’ve got to worry about is the writing.

This is what I did with this “1990s America” story (which is a sequel to this one). However, I probably made a mistake that you shouldn’t. I didn’t really include that much in the way of recaps in my sequel (although I included a link to the previous story, it isn’t really the same as a recap).

If you’re writing a sequel to a short story, then you need to remember that new readers might read your sequel first. As such, it should seamlessly include a few short, quick recaps of anything relevant from the previous story. In other words, your sequel still needs to be a self-contained story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Three Tips For Finding Topics For Short Stories

  1. Janel Comeau says:

    I’ve started carrying around a small notebook and pen that I can use to write down ideas – now my main problem is actually sitting down and writing them.

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