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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Using Connections To Beat Writer’s Block- A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk quickly about one rather interesting way to get past writer’s block that I discovered whilst writing a couple of the short stories that appeared here last March.

Simply put, I was able to feel inspired whilst writing both stories because I tried to connect two (or more) seemingly different inspirations in each one.

For example, one story called “Common Factor” was inspired by the fact that the story was originally written whilst I was reading the cyberpunk novel (“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson) that I’ll hopefully review tomorrow and after finding several interesting Youtube videos on a channel about an instrument called the hurdy gurdy.

So, not having any better ideas, I tried to cram “Snow Crash”-style cyberpunk and something to do with a hurdy gurdy into the same story. And, surprisingly, it worked. I looked at some of the themes in “Snow Crash” (eg: futuristic technology, social fragmentation etc..) and I remembered how I was fascinated by the hurdy gurdy videos even though I’m terrible at playing instruments.

Then, somehow, the two things coalesced into the idea that geekiness/fascination is a common trait that finds many different expressions. And, suddenly, I had a theme and an idea for my story. After that, the rest of the story appeared reasonably easily.

Likewise, I was still reading “Snow Crash” before I wrote another story called “Rusty“, so I was still in the mood for cyberpunk fiction. However, the bulk of the inspiration from this story came from two rather different sources.

The first was the experience of playing the fan-made “Doom II” level that I reviewed yesterday. I hadn’t played the game for a while and, to my surprise, I found myself playing a little bit more clumsily than I expected. Likewise, the game seemed a little bit more difficult than usual. As soon as I started feeling surprised and regretful about getting so out of practice, I realised “This would be a perfect theme for a story!” But I didn’t know quite how to put this idea into a story.

Then, later that evening, I found the hilarious pirate-themed music video (Explicit lyrics) for “Drink The Rum” by Lagerstein and suddenly it all came together. A cyberpunk story about someone being out of practice with a pirate-themed virtual reality videogame.

So, yes, one way to beat writer’s block is to look around for a few things – the more different the better – that interest or fascinate you in some way, and then try to find some way to fit the basic underlying themes of these things into the same story.

This works because it forces you to think about things on a thematic level, it gives you the basic building blocks for a narrative and it changes the focus from “what do I write about?” to “how can I cram these two awesome things into one story?“. This change in focus might sound trivial but it turns the process of trying to write a story into an intriguingly puzzle-like exercise, rather than a frustrating search for ideas.

Best of all, it can also result in some gloriously bizarre stories too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Sneaky Ways To Be An Inspired Artist Again

Well, it’s been a few days since I wrote about making art. So, I thought that I’d talk about how to get into an inspired frame of mind because I seem to be feeling very inspired at the time of writing. This has led to digitally-edited paintings like these:

“Metal Returns” By C. A. Brown

“Cyberpunk Ruins” By C. A. Brown

But, during the weeks before this, I found myself grappling with uninspiration a few times. Whether it was the uninspiration that comes from thinking things like “what’s the point of making art? It feels like a chore” or whether it was the type of uninspiration where you just can’t think of what to paint, it was a world apart from the inspired phase I’m going through at the time of writing.

So, I thought that I’d offer a couple of tips for getting into a highly inspired frame of mind. Enjoy 🙂

1) Enjoy something new!: This may sound counter-intuitive, but find a creative work that you really enjoy, then enjoy it. This works especially well if it’s something that is new to you, but it can also work with fairly familiar stuff too. But, why can this make you feel more inspired?

First of all, it reminds you of how awesome creativity can be. If a game, comic, song, novel, film, TV show etc.. can make you feel amazed, then it means that it is possible for creative works to evoke these emotions. And, guess what? You also have the power to make things that make you feel awesome. So, it can be a great motivational tool.

Not only that, seeing things that you enjoy makes you think “I want to make something like that“. This then means that you’ll have an incentive to work out how to take inspiration from the thing you’ve seen and then create something new and original. In other words, seeing something that amazes you not only gives you a starting point for an original piece of art but it also gives you a thrilling challenge too (eg: how can I make something new and original that makes me feel as awesome as I did when I saw that other thing?).

In addition to this, it also makes you think about your favourite things. After all, if you are amazed by something, there has to be a reason for it. This will probably cause associative memories of other things that fill you with enthusiasm, fascination etc.. and help you to feel inspired.

For example, a couple of days before I made the inspired paintings I showed you earlier, I remembered reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and this made me think of the 1980s, cheesy horror movies, gloomy rural locations, ominous things lurking in the shadows and other wonderfully cheesy and atmospheric things. Needless to say, this also led to a highly inspired painting:

“Rural Gothic” By C. A. Brown

Finally, it makes you relax. Feeling uninspired is stressful, depressing, annoying etc… and if you focus on these emotions, then it’s only going to get worse. So, distracting yourself by spending some time with an awesome creative work can be a good way to get into a more relaxed and cheerful frame of mind. This can help you feel inspired.

2) Try something different:
Another way to make highly inspired art is to think of an artistic technique, art material, art style etc.. that you either haven’t used for a while or are vaguely curious about. This can help you feel inspired again for a couple of different reasons.

The first is that it adds an element of novelty to the “ordinary” process of making art. In other words, it makes making art feel excitingly new again. This is one way to deal with the “making art feels like a chore” type of uninspiration.

For example, both of the two example paintings at the beginning of the article use digital lighting effects. Although I’ve used these effects a few times before, they aren’t something I’ve really used that regularly. So, they were something that seemed worth experimenting with – especially since they require you to think even more carefully about lighting (eg: placement of light sources etc..) when painting. And, since lighting is one of my favourite elements of painting, this revitalised my interest in painting again.

Likewise, the painting that I’ll be posting here tonight also allowed me to experiment again with adding mist effects to my art digitally (using the “airbrush” feature in GIMP, but with the brush size cranked up to over 300-400). Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here later tonight.

So, yes, trying different or new things can be a great way to feel inspired again.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Library Of The Imagination – A Ramble

A while before I wrote this article, I happened to read this online article which speaks in defence of binge-watching TV shows. But, one thing that the article didn’t mention was the value that binge-watching, binge-reading, binge-playing etc… all sorts of entertainment media has if you are a creative person.

Simply put, it results in less writer’s block/artist’s block and it also allows you to make better creative works too.

Ok, doing nothing but watching/reading/playing lots of stuff won’t instantly turn you into a good artist or writer. You actually have to practice your craft too (regularly, no less!). Likewise, you also need to learn a few other skills like how to take inspiration properly (eg: how to be inspired by something, without directly copying it). But, in combination with these things, spending a lot of time immersed in creative works can have all sorts of brilliant benefits.

Why? The best way to think about this is to think of your imagination is as a chaotic, disorganised library. The more things that you put into it, then the more chance there will be that – when you browse it – you’ll find an interesting mixture of things. Not only will this result in more unique creative works, but it will also mean that there are more things for you to be inspired by. Which means less writer’s block/artist’s block.

For example, here’s a preview of a digitally-edited painting of mine that will be posted here late this month:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 28th November.

The initial inspiration for this painting was the memories of watching old 1990s episodes of “Twin Peaks” evoked by watching the modern version of the series. This made me want to make a “cosy” painting, set in a wooden building during the 1980s/90s, with some surreal elements.

But, in addition to this, I also wanted to include gloomy tenebristic lighting (like in a Caravaggio painting, or an old heavy metal album/horror novel cover). I also wanted to give this gloomy lighting a slightly more futuristic cyberpunk-like look (inspired by films like “Blade Runner”), whilst also adding a few gothic elements (inspired by classic horror games like “Resident Evil”, “Silent Hill 3”, “Clive Barker’s Undying”, “Alone In The Dark”, “Realms Of The Haunting” etc..). And, of course, my use of colours was also partially inspired by these fan-made “Doom II” levels too.

The number of different inspirations for this painting is probably at least ten or more.

But, the bulk of these inspirations are things that I’ve discovered over the past few years. Back when I started making daily art in 2012, I obviously had less practice (and my art didn’t look as good as a result) but I also had fewer inspirations too. Not only that, I didn’t really know how to take inspiration properly too. As such, my imagination felt somewhat more limited then than it does today. Likewise, when I felt uninspired, it was much more of a panic than it is now.

So, spending time watching/reading/playing things that interest you, in combination with regular art and/or writing practice can work wonders for your imagination. It’s like adding more books to a reference library, adding more colours to a palette, planting more seeds in a garden or adding more music to a playlist. It gives you more things that you can take inspiration from in new and creative ways.

So, yes, binge-watching a TV show or binge-playing a game isn’t a “waste of time” if you’re a creative person. Well, except when it gets in the way of your art and/or writing practice, of course.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Personal Humour And Creative Inspiration – A Ramble

[Ooops! Sorry about the late article everyone. I accidentally scheduled it for the same time as today’s art post.]

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about the value of personal humour in the creative process. When I talk about “personal humour”, I mean things that you find hilarious for no real reason, in-jokes amongst friends, amusing thoughts and this kind of thing.

I was reminded of this when I was making a slightly random and stylised self-portrait painting. The idea for this picture came to me when I was playing a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels and I suddenly thought “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if there was a Caravaggio-style painting of someone playing ‘Doom II’?

After all, famous historical artists like Caraviaggio, Manet etc… would occasinally paint what would have been ordinary scenes from everyday life. But, of course, these “ordinary” paintings revered as famous works of art today. So, the idea of doing a “modern” version of this just seemed too funny. Here’s a preview of the self-portrait:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 13th November.

But, why is personal humour such a great source of creativity?

The first reason is that it usually involves thinking about familiar things in different ways. Usually, an in-joke or a personal joke appears when something is compared to or combined with something else. It often involves, for example, combining something serious with something silly. Or it involves applying a particular viewpoint to something different. In short, it prompts different and original thought – however weird or random it may be.

The second reason is that other people won’t always get the joke. Although this may seem like a bad thing, it doesn’t have to be. Usually even the weirdest of personal jokes has some kind of logic behind it. So, even if your audience think about it in a “serious” way, then things inspired by a personal joke will come across as “unique” or “quirky” rather than “incomprehensible”. As such, it can add personality to your creative works.

The third reason is because a good personal joke makes you want to laugh more. It’s the sort of funny thing that you don’t want to forget. As such, this feeling can make you want to immortalise the joke in a drawing, story, comic etc… Or even to make something else, so that you can sneak the personal joke into it. So, personal jokes can be a great driving force for actually making stuff.

The fourth reason is that personal humour is usually completely unfiltered and uncensored. Although this means that you might not be able to directly translate it into something that can be published or posted online, it does at least put you in a more irreverent frame of mind (and this feeling of irreverent rebelliousness can prompt creativity). Plus, trying to work out a way to turn said personal jokes into something publishable can be an interesting creative challenge in it’s own right.

The fifth reason is that personal humour encourages you to be more “well-read”. In short, the more things that you’ve seen/read/played, the more material there will be for your imagination to surprise you with via amusing thoughts (by comparing things). And whilst this can be an obvious source of inspiration for parodies, it can also provide the beginnings of more original ideas too.

Finally, having random amusing thoughts is usually the sign of a healthy imagination. So, it’s usually a good sign that you’re feeling inspired.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Brutalist Architecture And Creative Inspiration – A Ramble

Although I’ve written about Brutalist architecture before, I was reminded of it again after seeing this fascinating gallery of photos.

If you’ve never heard of Brutalist architecture before and don’t have time to look at the gallery, then it’s an absolutely awesome style of architecture from the 1950s-70s which consists of large, imposing, angular concrete buildings.

Even though some philistines loathe it with a passion (to the point of actively trying to get it demolished, like with the much-missed Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth), there’s nothing quite like this wonderfully unique architectural style for firing the imagination and making the world a bit more of an interesting place.

But, what’s so interesting and inspirational about Brutalist architecture? Simply put, it looks like a piece of futuristic sci-fi in real life. When the Tricorn Centre still existed during my early-mid teenage years, it was like a little piece of the dystopian sci-fi novels I was so fascinated by at the time. It was like a real-life piece of J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise” or Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that I could actually look at in real life.

Photo via Wikipedia, by Foofy (original image from this site). CC-BY 2.5

Not to mention that, even though the Tricorn was disused long before I really noticed it, it still spawned it’s own mythology. It was nearly impossible to go to school anywhere near Portsmouth during the early 2000s without hearing at least one secondhand tale of someone’s friend of a friend who had supposedly sneaked into the centre’s abandoned Laser Quest arena.

When I went to university in Aberystwyth, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the university campus has a large Brutalist area – consisting of a central courtyard that is surrounded by the Hugh Owen building, the Arts Centre and the Student Union. All of these buildings are giant, imposing, angular concrete things which look like they could have come from “Blade Runner” or something like that. Seriously, this whole location is an absolute joy to paint.

“Aberystwyth – Campus Corridor” By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Taxi Ride” By C. A. Brown

In fact, talking of “Blade Runner”, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Blade Runner 2049” at the cinema last year. During about two parts of the film, there are some wonderful exterior shots of a snow-covered Brutalist building. It fits into the world of the film absolutely perfectly, with little to no exterior changes.

So, why are Brutalist buildings so wonderfully inspirational? Simply put, they’re unique. No two are exactly identical. They look very different from the vast majority of other buildings surrounding them. Not only that, they somehow manage to look both intriguingly old and fascinatingly futuristic at the same time. They’re creative buildings.

Their bare, dystopian future- like exterior design is also inherently mysterious too. If you see a Brutalist building, then you’ll probably wonder what it looks like inside or what it was built for. This sense of mystery is one of the reasons why these buildings can really fire the imagination.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Alternate Versions Of Recent Paintings – A Good Idea If You’re Uninspired?

Well, although I was still busy writing last year’s Christmas stories at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about making art today. This was mostly because I found myself feeling somewhat uninspired.

Basically, I’d made a 1980s-themed drawing that didn’t really turn out as well as I’d hoped – even after extensive editing. So, I thought that I’d try to make another piece of art instead. But, I was a little bit pressed for time and needed to come up with a good-looking painting quickly.

Luckily, I remembered the view from the kitchen window earlier that morning. Thanks to the season and the time of the day, the world outside was shrouded in wonderfully atmospheric dark blue blue light. Needless to say, this seemed like it was worth painting. But, I’d already made a painting of the same view about a month earlier:

“Kitchen Window” By C. A. Brown

So, thinking quickly, I decided that my upcoming painting would be a companion piece to that one. I could use the old painting as a reference, whilst also doing a few things differently in my new painting. Here’s a preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 5th October.

So, is this sort of thing a good strategy when you’re uninspired?

Simply put, anything that works when you’re feeling uninspired is a good thing. Plus, since you’re partially repeating what you’ve done before, then it also means that you can make a good-looking piece of art quickly too. So, as a way to make art when you’re uninspired, it can certainly work!

However, I’d advise either not doing it too often, making extensive changes or waiting as long as possible before making new versions of your existing art. The thing to remember is to set your new version apart from the old version in an immediately noticeable way, and to make sure that there’s still a decent level of variety in the art you produce.

The main advantage to waiting as long as possible is that you’ll have become a better artist (if you practice regularly) during the time gap, so a remake of a painting from say – a year or two ago- can also be a good way to show how much you’ve improved.

Still, if you’re feeling uninspired, then making a new alternative version of one of your more recent paintings can be a good way to actually make some art. Just don’t rely on this technique too often.

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Sorry for such a short, basic and rambling article, but I hope it was useful 🙂