Three Tips For Finding A Short Story Idea

Well, I thought that I’d talk about how to come up with ideas for short stories today. This is mostly because the types of ideas that really work for short stories are at least slightly different to those that work for novellas, novels and other longer projects.

When short stories are at their best, they will often focus on one core idea, event or theme. The difference between a novel’s storyline and a short story’s storyline is kind of like the difference between a comic book (containing lots of pictures) and a single, detailed painting.

So, how can you find an idea for your short story?

1) Background: Start by focusing on the things that interest you. Watch films or TV shows in your favourite genres, read novels that interest you and/or spend some time randomly researching whatever fascinates you on the internet. Whatever you do, try to expose yourself to as many things as possible that make you feel fascinated or curious.

Then, after you’ve done this for a while, ask yourself what fascinates you about these things. Try to work out why they are so fascinating. If possible, try to distil your answers into a few short descriptions.

For example, if you love the movie “Blade Runner” or if you love modern Youtube footage of people exploring old abandoned shopping centres, then your answers would be something like: “The contrast between old and new”, “mysterious places”, “decaying civilisations”, “1980s/90s nostalgia” etc…

Once you’ve got your list of answers, you’ve got what will become the core of your short story. This will be the central theme or idea that your short story focuses on.

2) The plot: As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the plot shouldn’t be too complex. In short, you need a basic single-sentence plot idea which you can use as a skeleton for adding lots of extra depth, character and complexity to when you start writing. Something like “Two washed-up rock musicians have a conversation”, “Someone finds a secret page on a website” or “A criminal is on the run from the police.”

Just come up with a single, short idea. It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly spectacular or groundbreaking. If you’re really stuck for an idea, just go for something really basic like – someone finding something strange, a contest between two rivals, someone encountering a monster etc….

The thing that really makes short stories distinctive isn’t the plot, it’s how the plot is handled. Since you’ve only got a small number of words to work with, it’s usually better to add lots of creativity to a fairly basic and simple plot than trying to cram a complex, multi-layered storyline into just a few thousand words.

Plus, of course, having a basic, simple idea means that you can get on with writing a lot more quickly than you would if you try to think up something too complex.

3) Characters and locations: In short, you want to keep the number of characters and locations in your story reasonably small. This means that you’ll have more space to really add some depth to them. So, you might only have to think of, for example, 1-5 main characters and maybe 2-3 main locations.

This means that each character and location matters a lot more than it might do in a novel. However, if you’re stuck with one element of your story, then you can always get around this by compensating for it by focusing on the other elements.

For example, if you’re stuck for character ideas, then just use the old trick of writing a first-person perspective story using a nameless narrator and focus more on things like the settings, the atmosphere or the themes of your story. If you can’t think of an interesting setting, then just choose a fairly “ordinary” one and make sure that the characters are really interesting. I’m sure you get the idea….

Yes, you should ideally pay equal attention to the characters and the settings. But, if you’ve got writer’s block and just need a way to start writing, then don’t be afraid to focus more on one than the other.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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