8 Tips For Generating Short Story Ideas
8 Tips For Generating Short Story Ideas
Short stories are the building blocks of great writing. Many great writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King, got their start writing and publishing short stories. But for the beginning writer or even a writer with slightly more experience, short story writing can be a daunting task. For starters, where do ideas come from?
If you don't approach short stories with a game plan, you'll quickly find yourself flinging your notebook across the room in frustration and giving up entirely. But have no fear, there are many simple things you can do to come up with ideas — and to help ideas come organically to you. Here are eight tips for generating story ideas. Note: This list is geared towards short stories, but these tips can help you generate ideas for any piece of writing!
1. Get a writing journal.
This tip is one of the most important writing tips I have ever stumbled across, and it truly revolutionized my short story writing practice. Here's the thing about ideas — they'll flutter away if you don't tie them down. That is when you have an idea at 3 AM when you're trying to get to sleep, don't count on yourself to remember it at 8 AM when you wake up late for work or school. So get in the practice of keeping a writing journal.
Starting your writing journal is a lot of fun because you get to pick a journal that expresses your personality. Currently, I use a little leather notepad, but I've used both comp and spiral-bound notebooks in the past. Your journal will become the base for several other writing practices, and you'll want to have it and a writing utensil on hand wherever you go.
Remember, the number one purpose of your writing journal is to serve as a record of your ideas. Whenever you have an idea about anything, jot it down. Some of your ideas will be small. Others will be large. And one, sooner or later, will be just right.
2. Freewrite for ten to fifteen minutes a day.
Freewriting is a simple, relaxing practice that will help you exercise your writing muscles. It can also help you naturally gravitate towards story ideas. For freewriting, you'll need a notebook or your computer, whichever you feel more comfortable using, and a timer. Set the timer for however long you want to write — I recommend at least five minutes, with ten to fifteen being a happy medium — and simply write whatever comes to your mind. Ramblings about your day, plans for tomorrow, that interesting lady you saw on the train — any topic is acceptable when it comes to freewriting. It's a very freeing experience (no pun intended), and you'll likely discover ideas lurking beneath the surface of your subconscious. Freewriting will also help you get into a writing groove, and you may want to launch yourself straight into story writing once you finish freewriting.
3. Read short stories.
When I first started out writing short stories, I had no conception of which ideas were short story-sized and which were not. In other words, I would sometimes start with an idea, but that idea was way, way too big to end up as a short story — it was more likely to become a novel!
A large part of the reason for this was that although I had read many novels, I had not read very many short stories. Above all else, writers read. They read even before they write. If you want to write short stories, then you have to read short stories — to see what you like, what you dislike, what's been written about before, what hasn't been touched on, what works, and what doesn't. You may even find yourself wanting to write a spin-off or a parody of one of the short stories you read. Perhaps you hated a single aspect of a story — so write a new story that fixes what you hated. Maybe you want to subvert a narrative, switch characters' genders, or change settings. Or perhaps you simply want to try your hand at writing a story your way. Many beginning writers get their starts by writing "copycat" stories — stories based on ones that they've read and loved.
4. Watch people and write character sketches.
For this one, you'll want your writing journal in hand. You'll also need to find a place where there are a reasonable number of people present. This place could be on the train, in a park, in your public library, in a coffee shop, or anywhere else where you can find a vantage point to set up shop and do some spying.
Once you've situated yourself at a table in the library or a bench in the park, whip out your writing notebook, look for interesting characters, and start taking notes. That lady in the bright red floral suit? Perfect! That flustered looking businessman yammering into his telephone? He's your next character, just waiting to be discovered.
Later, in the comfort of your own home, flesh out these characters. Why was the businessman flustered? Clearly, you can't know the truth — but you can invent several plausible explanations. Once you've fleshed out your character, write a quick character sketch — a scene or two about the character in a situation. You could have your character go to the grocery store or have a fight with his or her significant other (or mother or sibling). This exercise will encourage creativity and may also lead you to your next compelling character.
5. Dig up some memories and experiences from your own life.
This tip is essential, which is why it's buried near the heart of the list. Short stories, in essence, are based on a writer's real-life experiences — the best moment of the writer's life, the worst, the most embarrassing, the most interesting, the strangest, etc. The list goes on and on. To make use of this tip, brainstorm some of your memories and experiences. You can start with your favorite and least favorite childhood memories and work your way up to the present day. In the end, you'll have quite a few ideas to develop into full-fledged short stories. You'll probably end up tweaking some aspects of events and changing some faces to fit your desired plot better, but otherwise, each one of these ideas is a ready-made story waiting to be written.
6. Think of some genre-bending ideas.
Some of the best short stories are born out of unique, genre-bending twists. Short stories are famous for breaking genre lines, and it's often in short stories that writers pioneer new genres. Short stories are the reason why genres such as magical realism and cosmic horror exist. Some author, somewhere, thought that it was a good idea to bring fantastical elements into contemporary fiction — and that combination is still making for some great stories today!
To run with this tip, you'll probably want to explore several genres first. So if you usually read literary fiction short stories, try reading a couple of sci-fi or fantasy stories. Write down what you like and what you don't like, and then try to apply what you've learned to some stories of your own. Introduce unexpected twists. Maybe the old cat lady's cats aren't really cats at all — perhaps they're aliens from outer space. Maybe those new 5G cell towers aren't actually cell towers — perhaps they're government spy devices. You get the idea.
7. Write down your dreams.
Dreams have been a famous source of story ideas since stories began. Which, I might argue, was when humanity began. At any rate, you may find some interesting idea fodder in your dreams — but only if you remember them. It's a well-known scientific fact that we remember dreams better when we write them down, so get into the practice. You can record your dreams in your writing journal along with your other ideas, and little by little, you may see patterns — particular themes favored by your subconscious — or intriguing figures. You may even have a dream that comes complete and ready to be written.
8. Bounce ideas off a fellow writer — or join a writing group.
If you've followed all the other tips and feel ready to go on your way, here's a more involved option. Find a writer friend or a group of writer friends, and brainstorm with them. The clash of creative minds will be sure to bring about some great ideas. And since each writer will ultimately put his or her unique spin on any idea, you don't have to worry about copying your friends' work. It'll prove useful to have a couple of trusted fellow writers who will be able to read your short stories once they're written and offer you some constructive criticism. That's a lesson for another day, but hopefully, these writing tips have given you some valuable ideas that will help you approach writing your first — or hundredth — short story.
Now It’s Your Turn
Grab your writing journal (see our journals at The Amazing Office) and start generating story ideas!
By the Way ...
Did you see my recent post Top 10 Writers Productivity Tips For Any Writer?
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