By Ekta R. Garg
If novels give us a doorway into the lives of characters, then short stories are the window into what our characters are going through. The view is a little smaller, but it’s no less powerful. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock and the characters in his famous film, Rear Window.
Whether you write for yourself as a hobby or you want to be published and read widely, writing short stories is a great way to improve your craft. A dedicated practice of drafting short stories helps you polish so many of the essentials writing and publishing teachers keep emphasizing: show, don’t tell; make every word count; go straight to the heart of the action; keep readers engaged from start to finish.
Short stories are also perfect for people who want the satisfaction of a good read without spending hours with a book. That’s where writing compelling short stories comes in. It’s a win-win for the writer and the reader.
But what if you’re having trouble getting started? What if you don’t know where to find ideas for short stories? What if you’ve found a great idea but don’t know how to proceed?
It’s actually easier than you think to tackle all of these things. The most important thing to remember is that writing is as much about interpretation as anything else. So don’t hesitate to take an idea and start playing what should be every writer’s favorite game: What if.
As you’re looking for ideas, remember to keep your writer’s eye and ear tuned to the world around you. Writers leave their curiosity on high alert, always. Keep a notebook handy for story ideas. Grab a scrap of paper or open your favorite writing app, and write a sentence or two to remind yourself of what you heard or saw.
Writers, by nature, should be and are observers and deep thinkers of the world around them. Train yourself to take notice of things, and before you know you’ll be inundated with more ideas than you know what to do with.
Story ideas: Where do we find them?
If there isn’t a scene or character already bugging you for a closer look, an easy place to start for ideas is writing prompts. Thanks to the internet, there are hundreds of places you can find them. There are also dozens of ways the prompts are positioned, which is actually a gift because you can tailor the prompts to who you are. Do you prefer to write in a specific genre? Then do an online search for “science fiction writing prompts” or “historical fiction writing prompts.”
You can find writing prompts that give you a suggestion or ask a question. You can find prompts that are lines of dialogue. There are genre-specific prompts as well as websites that are random generators and will give you a different prompt every time you click the button. Some writing prompts give you lists of objects or a character and a setting. There are even places to get writing prompts where you’re given the first line of a story or the last line of a story, and you have to create a piece in relation to those exact lines.
Many times online prompts come from organizations or with writing contests centered on the prompts or the genres themselves. Even if you’re not ready to enter a contest, you can still see what prompts the organization has to offer and use them.
If you’re a visual person, you can get ideas from pictures or paintings online or in books. Start with a famous painting, and do a little brainstorming about what’s going on in the picture. Tracy Chevalier did this with her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring based on the famous painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. Chevalier saw the painting of the young girl whose gaze looks straight at you and devised a whole story around the girl and the painter.
You can also look at pictures from famous botanical gardens and let your imagination roam free on what might happen in one of those places. See if the location of the garden, within a city or a particular state or part of the country or world, can help shape the story. Ask what kind of people would go to this garden and start your story on the day everything changes for them.
Due to the pandemic, museums and botanical gardens across the world are allowing people to take virtual tours for free. Tour a museum or garden online, and keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas. Maybe a famous painting or garden will pique your interest enough to play the “What if” game.
If you’re touring museums, don’t stop at the paintings. Look at the other works, like sculptures and exhibits. Historical author Susan Vreeland wrote a wonderful novel called Clara and Mr. Tiffany based on the Tiffany lamps that were so famous in the early 1900s for their multi-colored glass shades. Vreeland wanted to write about women who fought the establishment, and Clara Driscoll, the person largely credited with creating the distinct lamp shades for Tiffany, fit that bill.
News items or human interest stories can spark a story idea. You could take a person’s story and play the What if game with it. What if they made a different choice at a crucial juncture in their lives? What if, instead of going on a crime spree, they’d turned their talents to curing cancer? Or vice versa?
Go to the newspaper for a town you don’t live in. You can go to the library to see newspapers for different places or read many of them online. Local newspapers are wonderful sources of human interest stories. Pick a newspaper for a town that’s a hundred, two hundred, a thousand miles away. Find an English-language newspaper from another country and scan the headlines of the feature stories.
Or take a current headline, and look at it through a prism of imagination. This is how Suzanne Collins got the initial idea for The Hunger Games. She was watching footage of the war in Iraq and flipping between it and a reality TV show. Her writer’s brain took the two concepts and melded them. She started playing What if, and now we have her incredible series.
Social media outlets are often breeding grounds for urban legends, like the story that circulated on Facebook several years ago of a man who worked at the Bristol Zoo outside of London. For 25 years, this man collected parking fees for cars and buses. One day, when he didn’t show up for work, the zoo’s management tried to find his contact information but discovered they didn’t have it. A call to the city revealed that they’d never heard of the man and didn’t have the jurisdiction to hire zoo employees. The zoo realized this was a private citizen charging people money, and they estimated he walked away with $7 million.
This story ran in a newspaper in the real-life town of Bristol as an April Fool’s day prank, but it backfired. Both the Bristol police and the newspaper said for years afterward they kept getting calls about the parking attendant, wanting to know if the story was true.
This kind of urban legend is just begging a savvy writer to make it into a clever story. Maybe it turns into an Ocean’s 11 kind of heist, or maybe it’s about a man wanting to get revenge on the owner of the zoo for some reason. No matter what a writer might do with it, stories like this on social media are excellent writing prompts.
All social media outlets also have search engines, so just plug in the term “writing prompts” and you’ll see whole accounts dedicated to them. Browse some and start following the ones that look promising. A bonus of social media is that you’ll also start noticing other writing-related news and events, which can help you find workshops and classes you could take in the future.
Your personal life
Once you start paying close attention to the things you see and hear in your regular routine, you’ll see story potential in them. Don’t think that just because you’re a parent or an employee in a “regular” office situation that you’ve got a boring life. The heart of any story is a strong character and the unusual circumstances they encounter. Take the time to pay attention, and you’ll get all sorts of ideas.
Once you’ve found a story idea that piques your interest and mulled it over a little bit, it’s time to start working on the story itself. Every writer has a different process. Some might like to plot stories before working on them. Some might want to just sit down at the keyboard or with a notebook and let the ideas flow.
You don’t have to “plot” everything down to the tiniest detail. Even writing something like “John and Susan fight here” to stand in for a particular scene is enough. Giving your brain that much of a heads up will automatically redirect your energy, your focus, and your imagination toward making that fight happen.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, give yourself the grace of jotting down a couple of notes on your story. Pantsers, if that feels like too much structure, think of it this way: when a contractor is building a house, they know the plumbing and electrical work can only go in certain directions, but they have all sorts of leeway on where to put bedrooms and walls. They can let their imaginations run free on paint colors and crown molding. Making those few notes ahead of time gives your story the stability it needs to stand strong so your piece can hold up to any whimsical idea you add to it later.
In an issue of Writer’s Digest from 1959, novelist and crime fiction writer Donald Westlake offered writers some basic advice for constructing a story that still holds true today. He called it “The 5C Plot Plan”: character; conflict; complication; climax; and conclusion. This is how he defined each C:
Character—anyone at all or basically your protagonist
Conflict—something for the character, and by proxy the reader, to get upset about; the conflict is usually connected to the antagonist in some way and it’s always connected to something the protagonist wants but can’t get
Complication—where life goes sideways
Climax—the opposing forces in conflict are brought together
Conclusion—the result is known, the conflict is over, the character has won/lost; resolution
Remember, the most memorable characters are active characters. When life brings them a conflict, which is usually connected to the person or force pushing back the hardest against them, they don’t sit around and wait for something to resolve those issues. They make decisions. Those decisions will usually drive the conflict and (if you’re a smart writer) make things worse. Then, because things have gotten worse, they create a complication for the protagonist, which in turn leads to more decisions.
The protagonist might make bad decisions. They might decide on a course of action that will turn out to be a colossal mistake. But they always have agency, which is the publishing industry’s way of saying characters are active participants in their lives.
That complication, usually unexpected, will lead to the climax where the protagonist and the antagonist square off. This should be the dramatic height of your story, because it will lead to your conclusion where readers find out the resolution.
At every major point in the story, the character isn’t sitting back and waiting for his/her life to change on its own. S/he’s making decisions and taking action. Then s/he experiences the reaction to his/her actions and makes another decision to act. This back and forth should continue until you’ve reached the end of the story.
By taking active steps to search for writing prompts and giving yourself a little bit of structure before you begin writing, you’ll help yourself produce some amazing stories in your writing career.
Here are three of the places I visit for writing prompts:
Writer’s Digest is an established organization in the industry. In 2020 they’re celebrating 100 years in existence. They hold a national conference every year and also offer a magazine for writers. WD conducts several writing contests throughout the year, and the organization also posts articles on the craft and publishing.
Promptuarium offers a variety of prompts, everything from lines of dialogue to types of characters to incorporate into your stories and also pictures from time to time. Many of the prompts lean toward science fiction and fantasy, but there are also prompts from other genres and there’s a deep bank of inspiration here so spend a little bit of time scrolling through them. You’ll definitely find one that catches your imagination.
The Writer magazine is an excellent resource for everything, especially their articles on the craft and the publishing industry. They always do interesting features on people and organizations, and every single issue has a directory in the back centered around different themes: sometimes it’s new literary agents or magazines that are accepting new work. The Writer magazine is one of the oldest in existence—it’s been around since 1887—but it’s definitely not stuffy or pretentious.
Upgraded Points has collected virtual tour information from 75 museums all around the world—as close as the Art Institute of Chicago and as far away as the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Also, there are hundreds of great journals out there that publish short stories. Here are two that came to my attention in the last year.
The First Line offers writers the opening line to a story. You have to use the line exactly as is to write a piece and then submit it for consideration. They don’t charge submission fees, and they’re committed to not doing so. They also pay if they publish your work.
One Story started almost 20 years ago and only publishes one story per issue. They come in little chapbooks and are easy enough to read in a single setting. Although the journal itself is small, One Story has built quite a reputation of publishing writers who have gone on to win national awards. They also offer workshops and even have a teen version of the journal for writers who are young adults. Each story is carefully curated, so they’re almost always really fascinating reads.