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 🙂

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 🙂

Three Unusual Things To Do If You Write Yourself Into A Corner

Well, at the time of preparing this article, I was also busy preparing last year’s Christmas stories. In particular, I’d just written the fourth one. This one was a bit more of a challenge than usual since, thanks to what I’d thought was a clever plot twist at the end of the third story, I had placed my main character in a seemingly unwinnable situation. I’d written myself into a corner.

If you take a slightly more laid-back approach to planning your stories, then this can allow you to surprise yourself in all sorts of cool ways whilst writing. But, it can also sometimes lead to situations like the one I mentioned earlier.

So, what can you do if you’ve written yourself into a corner?

1) Think it all through: As counterintuitive as it might sound, look closely at the “impossible” direction your story is going in. Think about it in as much depth as you can and look for any small flaws or gaps. Once you find one of these, exploit it for all you can!

For example, I’d ended the third story in my Christmas collection by showing the main character – a private detective – almost being put out of business by a trendy new start-up company (which was meant to be a parody of “disruptive” crowd-sourced companies). It seemed like a really clever modern twist on an old plot device.

But I suddenly realised that there was no way that, if I wanted to keep the story vaguely realistic, my main character could actually “win” against a company like that. My main character also didn’t seem like the kind of person who would want to join such a company either. But, of course, I’d planned to write six or seven more stories. What could I do?

Simply put, I thought about the idea in more depth. One of the problems with crowd-sourced companies is that the “staff” aren’t always as experienced or qualified as those in more traditional occupations. As such, with something like private detection, they might find themselves “out of their depth” fairly quickly. What does someone do when they find themselves in this situation? They find an expert.

As soon as I had this thought (from thinking about my “unwinnable” story situation in more depth), the blockage cleared. The direction seemed obvious. My main character could become a Sherlock Holmes-like consulting detective! A detective for other detectives.

So, if you want the solution to an “unwinnable” situation in your story to fit in with your story, then just think the situation through from every possible angle until you find a flaw that you can exploit ruthlessly.

2) Look back: Look at the earlier parts of your story and see if there’s anything there that you can use to solve your current problem. It could be some background element or a throwaway line of dialogue or something like that. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes a possible solution to your problem can actually be hiding in an earlier part of your story.

For example, when I started writing the troublesome fourth story in my collection, I’d started it with a cynical piece of narration about how Sherlock Holmes made everyone want to be a detective. This was a brilliantly cynical opening line.

It also, perhaps subconsciously, helped me come up with a solution to the writing dilemma I found myself in about two paragraphs later. After all, Sherlock Holmes is a “consulting detective”. But, surprisingly, I didn’t consciously realise this until I’d gone through the thought process I mentioned earlier in this article.

Again, this doesn’t always work with every story, but sometimes you can use something you’ve included earlier in your story to solve your problem.

3) There are no unwinnable situations: Simply put, the best attitude to take to these situations is simply to remember that there is always a solution. It just involves determination and a willingness to think outside the box.

If it helps, think of your story like a challenging computer game. A computer game may contain difficult situations, but no game is intentionally designed to be unwinnable – however it may appear to the player. In other words, there’s usually a solution. It may be hidden or it may involve the player having to do something that the designers hadn’t planned for (eg: exploiting a glitch in the game’s code in order to defeat a challenging level boss etc..), but it’s there.

If you take an attitude like this, then it will put you in a much better frame of mind for dealing with the times when you’ve written yourself into a corner.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For How To Look For Inspiration

Although I’ve written about how to deal with writer’s block and artist’s block more times than I can remember, I thought that I’d do something very slightly different in this article and talk about how to look for inspiration. Because, yes, sometimes you actively have to look for inspiration – rather than waiting for it to come to you.

So, here are a few tips and/or reminders that will help you search for inspiration.

1) Know how to take inspiration: I’ve written a more detailed article about this subject but, in short, taking inspiration properly means looking at the underlying concept/idea behind something and then doing something at least slightly different with that idea.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer (and this isn’t legal advice), my reading on the subject seems to show that most types of copyright law are explicitly designed to promote this type of inspiration. In short, copyright laws usually protect the exact way that a particular concept or idea is expressed, but not the underlying idea/concept itself.

For example, both “Babylon 5” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” are science fiction TV shows about everyday life on a space station far from Earth, with a focus on the military-like officers who run the station. This basic concept probably cannot be copyrighted. However, the specific characters, alien designs, set designs etc.. in each show are copyrighted because they are a highly-specific interpretation of this general idea.

Once you know how to take inspiration properly, then the number of inspirations available to you will expand rapidly. Plus, if you’re worried that this means that your art or fiction won’t be completely “original”, then don’t worry. All that these feelings mean is that you need to find more inspirations. Basically, the more different inspirations you have, the more original your creations will be. Plus, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a “100% original” creative work. Everything is inspired by something.

2) Learn to think like a critic: Although there’s the famous saying that a critic is just a failed artist/writer, there’s a lot to be said for thinking like a critic if you’re an artist or a writer. You can learn how to do this by reading and/or watching as many reviews as you can find, in addition to possibly trying to write reviews yourself.

But what does any of this have to do with looking for inspiration? Simply put, a critic’s job is to study and analyse creative works and then write a brief description of how the creative work in question “works”.

A critic has to look at, say, how a director uses lighting to create a particular atmosphere or how a thriller writer uses sentence and chapter length to ramp up the tension. Not only does a critic have to be able to “reverse-engineer” creative works in order to see what techniques have been used, they also have to judge whether these techniques work… and why.

In other words, being a critic forces you to take a more scientific and scholarly approach to films, games, novels etc… Although this might sound like it would take the fun out of these things and turn you into an insufferable snob, this is only a potential problem if you aren’t a creative person.

If you’re a creative person, then thinking like a critic just means that everything you see could potentially teach you a new technique that you’ll probably want to try out. And, well, wanting to try something out is usually a good sign of being inspired.

3) Look everywhere: Simply put, there are no dividing lines when it comes to inspirations. Writers don’t only have to be inspired by other writers. Painters don’t only have to be inspired by other painters etc..

For example, the largest influences on my art include things like: a film called “Blade Runner“, the use of colours in a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels, various heavy metal/punk album covers, the 1990s, Youtube videos of abandoned shopping centres, manga/anime, the film noir genre, old horror novel covers, old “survival horror” videogames etc…. Very few of these things are paintings. Yet, I can use the techniques and ideas I’ve learnt from them to create art that looks like this:

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

“Derelict Sector” By C. A. Brown

“Vehicles” By C. A. Brown

So, the important thing to remember here is that good sources of inspiration can be found anywhere. Inspiration is everywhere. Just remember that you don’t only have to be inspired by things in the genre that you’re working in.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When To Wait For Inspiration (And When Not To) – A Ramble

Well, since I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series (which will be a stand-alone mini series that also follows on from the events of this mini series) at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about when to wait for inspiration (and when not to).

But, first, here’s a preview of the first update from the new mini series which will start appearing here tonight:

Stay tuned for the full comic update this evening 🙂

Although I’ve written before about how waiting for inspiration can reduce your creativity, there are circumstances where it can come in handy.

The trick is to either set yourself a deadline and/or have some kind of backup plan for what to make if you don’t feel inspired. Basically, if you know that you are going to make something in the near future regardless of how inspired you feel, then waiting for inspiration can actually be useful.

The trick here is to see waiting for inspiration as a chance to improve something you’re already going to make rather than something that is absolutely necessary in order to create anything. In other words, getting a moment of inspiration before you start your next project should be a bonus rather than a requirement.

But, it is very important to set time limits to stop yourself waiting for months or years, instead of days or weeks. Plus, if you know that you are going to make something before a specific time, then this shifts your focus towards searching for ideas and being attentive for any moments of inspiration rather than the tedium of just waiting and waiting for a good idea to finally appear in your mind.

Likewise, having a backup plan (even a mediocre one) for your next comic, story etc… means that the stakes are slightly lower. It means that, even if inspiration doesn’t arrive, it isn’t the end of the world because you can still make something. This takes a lot of the pressure off of you and this can help to put you in a better frame of mind for having moments of creative inspiration.

To give you an example of all of this in practice, the webcomic mini series I’m making at the moment was something I’d initially dreaded making. I realised that I had to make a comic for this month, but I just didn’t have the enthusiasm or energy for it.

But, I knew that I was going to make one within the next few days (after all, I’d set myself an informal time limit). Then, that afternoon, I happened to see a parody of “Star Trek” on the internet. And, shrugging, I thought “A ‘Star Trek’ parody is as good an idea as any“. So, I started making a rough plan:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] This is an extract from the rough plan for a “Star Trek” parody comic I’d planned to make for the next instalment of my long-running occasional webcomic.

So, I started to plan out a six-page parody comic where my characters travel forward in time and get mistaken for the inhabitants of a desert planet by a visiting spaceship. But, the planet turns out to be the barren post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth in the distant future and Derek gets blamed for destroying the planet (after foolishly claiming to be the leader of it).

But, before he can be put on trial, he gets let off because one of the other characters mentions that they’re from the 21st century. The spaceship captain has a geeky obsession with the 21st century. So, the captain shows them his collection of 21st century artefacts but Roz and Rox end up looking at books/films that haven’t been released yet, causing a rift in the space-time continuum that….. Yeah, it wasn’t the best idea ever.

But, it was an idea. It now meant that I didn’t have to worry about not having an idea for a webcomic mini series. Still, since I had a few days, I decided to wait and see if a better idea would turn up. And, the next day, there was a power cut in the early evening. Needless to say, this seemed like a much more amusing source of inspiration for a comic. And, to my surprise, I’d planned and started the mini series the day afterwards.

So, the lesson here is that it’s ok to wait for inspiration if you also have a deadline and/or a backup idea (in case inspiration doesn’t appear). But don’t rely on waiting for inspiration if you don’t have either of these things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening 🙂

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..