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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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 🙂

Three Tips For Building A “Buffer” Of Stories, Comics, Articles etc.. To Post Online (If You’ve Already Started Posting Stuff)

When I went through a phase of writing daily short stories last February-March, I foolishly didn’t bother to prepare a “buffer” of stories in advance. What this meant was that I’d have to write and post each story on the same day.

Needless to say, this was ridiculously stressful – especially when I got writer’s block a few times (which led to me churning out stories like this one), with my daily deadline looming just a few hours away.

For a while I felt overwhelmed, until I remembered that I’d been in exactly the same position with these daily blog articles back in 2013 when I’d just started this blog. Of course, these days, I’ve got a large “buffer” of articles prepared in advance (that I add to each day). Or, to put it another way, why do you think that I’m talking about last February-March instead of anything more recent?

And, remembering this, I was able to use a few tricks to create a little 2-3 day buffer for my short stories, which expanded to about 4-5 days during the later parts of the daily story series. But, how do you create a buffer if you’ve already started posting stuff online regularly?

1) Filler: One of the easiest ways to create a stress-reducing “buffer” of stuff to post online is simply to make the occasional filler article, comic etc.. whilst keeping up your usual schedule. This way, you can make two things in one day (eg: one piece of normal content and one piece of quick filler content) and then post them over two days – adding an extra day to your buffer.

But, how do you make filler content? One of the most subtle and unobtrusive ways to do this is simply to collect links to the stuff you’ve already posted and present them in a single online post, as either a handy guide or a retrospective or something like that. You can even turn this into a monthly or weekly feature (like with the “Top Ten Articles” posts at the end of every month on here, monthly “line art” posts like this one, or monthly round-ups of short stories like this one).

But, of course, you can just make something shorter and simpler, with a quick explanation for your audience attached to it. The trick here is to create something that quickly fills up a day’s worth of updates, whilst also allowing you time to make another piece of content on the same day.

2) Inspired days: This trick isn’t worth relying on, but it can come in handy. As the title implies, this just involves waiting (whilst still making stuff every day) for a day when you both have the time and the inspiration to make more than one thing, and then just making as much as possible on that day.

Once you’ve done this, you can spread what you’ve made out over several days’ worth of updates, allowing you to increase the size of your “buffer” slightly.

As I said before, this trick isn’t exactly the most reliable one in the world. But, when the time and conditions are right for it, then it can allow you to easily gain 1-2 days on whatever you are currently posting online.

3) Take a break: If worse comes to worse and you feel totally overwhelmed, then take a break from posting stuff online for a while, whilst still making stuff (at a slightly slower pace).

When you return to posting stuff, you’ll have all of the stuff you made more slowly during your break, which will give you a bit of a “buffer” that you can add to at a slightly less frantic pace in future.

Just be sure to post a quick explanation of what you are doing on your site, with perhaps a few occasional previews of what you’re making – so that your audience know that you haven’t abandoned your project.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Tips For Writing Daily Short Stories

Last February, I randomly started writing daily short stories (like this one, this one and this one) and, unlike both these articles and the previous short story collections I’ve posted here, at least some of those stories were actually written on the same day that they were posted. In retrospect, I should have prepared a buffer of stories first (seriously, do this!) but it was a somewhat unexpected thing.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about writing daily short stories.

1) Have an idea ready the night before: One of the best ways to make sure that you aren’t stricken by writer’s block when you sit down to write your next short story is to have an idea (or at least a theme) prepared for it the night before.

Even if you only have a general theme (eg: “I’m going to write a story about…”), then knowing which direction to go in before you start writing can make the horror of the blank page significantly less of an issue than it might be if you have no idea whatsoever. The tricky part is, of course, finding a theme that’s interesting enough for you to want to write about.

And, yes, if you have an interesting enough theme/idea/mental image, then your story will pretty much write itself. For example, the best one of the first three stories I wrote last February happened because I remembered that I was fascinated by Youtube videos about abandoned shopping centres in September 2017. So, yes, thinking of a good idea the night before you write your story can help alleviate writer’s block.

2) Read!: Even though I prefer other horror authors, there’s a very famous quote from Stephen King where he talks about the importance of both reading and writing regularly. And, yes, reading is more important than I’d previously thought. After I got back into reading regularly, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d start writing again.

But, why? Simply put, reading novels that you enjoy shows you how amazing the written word can be and makes you think “I want to do this!“. It shows you what techniques do and don’t work. Seeing lots of different people’s narrative voices also helps you to refine your own one too. Plus, reading something gripping also helps you to practice the sustained focus that you need whilst writing.

However, and this is the cruel irony of all of this, time spent reading usually means less time spent writing (or vice versa). So, finding a way to balance both reading and writing can be a little bit of a challenge. Even so, it is worth at least attempting to do both because of the motivation that comes from reading regularly can really help your writing.

3) Opening sentences: It’s a good idea to develop an instinct for what a good opening sentence sounds like. This is because coming up with one of these sentences can make you want to write more of the story, which can be a good way to get past writer’s block.

For short stories, good opening sentences usually consist of intriguingly mysterious statements, first-person narration that makes the reader feel like they’re being let in on a secret, moments of dramatic action and/or slightly unusual descriptions. In short, your opening sentence needs to be something that grabs the readers attention and makes them want to read more (in addition to making you want to write more).

This, again, is one reason why reading is a useful activity to do if you’re writing short stories regularly. Because, when you’ve seen enough opening sentences in professionally-published books (the thriller genre is an especially good source of examples), you’ll start to develop an instinct for what a good opening sentence sounds like.

4) Minimalism:
If you’re writing short stories every day, then they’re probably going to be on the shorter side of things. The three stories I linked to earlier are all about 600-800 words in length. This is something that can be written in an hour or two. But, how do you tell a story that is this short?

Simply put, you focus on what is essential. In other words, you should only include 1-2 locations, 1-3 characters and one central event or theme. In a lot of ways, a short story is a little bit like a painting or a panel from a comic. In other words, it’s a depiction of a single well-chosen moment that hints at a larger story (through implication, visual elements etc..).

So, yes, part of writing a good short story is cutting away everything that isn’t essential and focusing entirely on a single location, a single moment, a couple of characters etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

All Ten Of My “Halloween 2018” Short Stories :)

Happy Halloween everyone 🙂 In case you missed any of them, here are links to all ten of this year’s Halloween stories. If you want more stories, be sure to check out my 2017 Halloween collection, my 2016 Halloween collection and the interactive story that I wrote in 2015. You can also find lots of other short stories here too.

Anyway, the theme of this year’s collection was “The modern world”, which allowed me to include a good mixture of horror, dark comedy, satire and even a little bit of dystopian sci-fi too 🙂 If you don’t have time to read the whole collection, the best stories are: “VR“, “Zero“, “Update“, “Void” and “Killer App

The production for this collection was also a bit random too. In short, due to being busy with lots of stuff, I’d expected to only have time to write five stories rather than the full ten. Because of this, I also wrote (and queued up) this year’s stories in the opposite order to the order they were posted here. So, if you want to read the stories in the order I actually wrote them, then start with the tenth one and work backwards.

Anyway, here are the stories 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

VR: In the neon-drenched future, Trey is on the run from Blue-Corp’s security bulls after a hack went wrong. But, things aren’t quite what they seem.

Rules: University students Joanne and Toby have got tickets for the Halloween party at the student’s union. But, can they comply with the union’s costume policy?

Zero: Bert is congratulating the branch managers of his company after a few contractual changes have resulted in increased profits and relatively little grumbling from his employees. What could possibly go wrong for him?

Update: Sally isn’t enjoying her date with Tom. There’s just something strange about him…

Pop Up: When a giant ossuary appears in the middle of the high street, Dan and Tina aren’t sure whether to go inside and take a look…..

Limelight: Two people sit in a cafe and discuss the sorry state of the modern horror genre.

Void: Reza is combing a field for historical artefacts. But, just as he detects something, it starts to rain…

Let’s Play: ‘Tis the season for low-budget jump-scare indie games and two people are determined that their ‘let’s play’ video will be hilariously watchable.

Remnants: Driven off of the high street by the rain, Steve takes refuge in a large chain bookshop. But, something is very wrong with this shop…

Killer App: Laura is bored, so she goes shopping on her phone’s app story. One of the apps on offer looks a bit unusual. But, hey, it’s free…

COMING SOON! Halloween 2018 Stories And Comic :)

Well, Halloween draws closer and this means Halloween stuff 🙂 Like last year, there will be both a comic and some short stories (last year’s Halloween stuff can be seen here and here).

The new comic, which begins on the 21st October, is called “Nocturnal” and if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the characters from my occasional webcomic met some vampires, then you’re in luck 🙂 Here’s a small preview:

This is a preview. The comic will begin on the 21st October 🙂

The daily short stories will probably begin appearing in a few days’ time (and will conclude the day before Halloween, with a compilation post on Halloween itself. Each story will appear at 9:30pm GMT too).

At the moment, I’m not sure how many I’ll write (so far, I’ve prepared seven) but the theme of the collection is “The modern world”. So, expect lots of cynicism and dark comedy too 🙂

When A Story Fails At The Last Minute – A Ramble

Since I write these articles quite far in advance, I was still preparing last year’s Halloween stories when I wrote this article. So, I’ll be rambling about the creative process behind the fifth story, which was probably one of the weakest stories in the collection.

It was the kind of story that started out well, but then fell apart near the end. Originally, I’d planned to include a much grislier and more shocking ending (with the implication that one character was a cannibal). But, this seemed a bit out of step with the tone and style of the collection. So, I had to think of a new ending. However, I really couldn’t.

Worst of all, my enthusiasm for the story was rapidly running low. I found myself regularly procrastinating and reading random online articles instead of writing the ending.

Although some writers think that you should strictly eliminate the possibility of voluntary distractions whilst writing, I often find this to be counter-productive. If your story grips you enough that you don’t get distracted, then this is a sign that it is going well. But, if you get distracted, then this usually means that there’s a problem with your story. So, having a few possible distractions nearby can be a useful way to gauge how good your story is.

For a second, I thought about starting a new story instead. But, my enthusiasm for writing had been drained slightly already. Plus, I didn’t want to fall behind schedule. Not only that, I’d been having an uninspired day – and it had already taken me long enough to think of the idea for the story that I couldn’t think about how to end.

So, I didn’t want to let the story go to waste. But, I also didn’t have the enthusiasm or inspiration to think of a good ending for it.

What did I do? Well, I wrote an ending. It certainly wasn’t the best, most surprising or most logical ending in the world. Even after going back, improving the dialogue and adding a tiny amount of foreshadowing to an earlier part of the story, it still seemed like a slightly contrived ending. But, that didn’t matter, it was an ending.

When a story fails at the last minute, the best thing to do is to find some way, any way, to end the story.

Once the first draft of the story has been finished (however clumsily), then this removes a lot of uncertainty about writing the ending. This can put you in a better frame of mind. For starters, finishing a story badly is a lesser type of failure than leaving a story unfinished.

Not only that, there’s something of an emotional difference between working out how to end a story and working out how to improve a pre-existing ending. One involves thinking of a totally new idea, the other merely involves modifying or replacing something that already exists. So, there’s slightly less pressure if you’ve already written a crappy ending.

This approach probably won’t work for every story or for every writer. But, if you get near the end of your story and suddenly realise that you don’t know how to end it, then coming up with a badly-written ending can be a good way to make some progress. You can edit or replace it later (without the stressful feeling of “how do I end this story?”). But, even if you end up keeping it, then it’s still marginally better than an unfinished story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂