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How to Write a Short Story - Ideas and Inspirations (1)

Updated on August 21, 2016
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Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

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So You Want to Write a Story?

Writing and publishing short stories is a great way to hone your creative skills: it forces you to focus on the narrative, without getting lost in sub-plots and additional storylines that can distract the reader. The short story is an art form in itself and the ability to write them will help build a portfolio of work that'll get you noticed. At the moment, there's a pretty healthy market for stories, but more of that later...

But What Exactly is a Short Story?

We've all written stories at school: what we did in the holidays etc, and usually they'd be short - a few pages at most. But the short story as a literary form has been around for quite a while and its length can range from a few dozen words up to about 15,000 or so (though some folk might class this as a novelette).

Most stories are between 1,000 and 5,000, though if you're hoping to be published, the actual number of words will likely be decided by the publisher, and be dependent on space and time (though not in a Dr Who sort of way!)

Stories also have to be complete in themselves: they're not intended to be continued, or part of something longer. This means you need to be economical with words and descriptions. Whereas in a novel you might have pages and pages of explanation, there simply isn't time with the short story. This can be a helpful requirement, since it forces you, the writer to concentrate on what is essential to the story and not go off at a tangent every five minutes.

It's also worth pointing out that stories tend to be set within a fairly limited timeframe - the course of a few hours or several days, but probably not much longer. If your tale has to be told over several years or even decades, it's probably not really a short story.

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott | Source

Classic Examples

With so many to choose from, a newcomer to short stories might wonder where to start: The Classic Reader website has a great selection of authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Elizabeth Gaskell, H. P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Louisa May Alcott, Jack London and Charles Dickens. Though of course, there are thousands of contemporary writers championing the short story form too, as well as many of the world's best known authors.

A few of my own favourites can be found in MT Fain's Four Modern Storytellers, with tales by William Sansom, Doris Lessing, F Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham. Another favourite is Susan Hill's A Bit of Singing and Dancing. Both these books create wonderful characters in a wide variety of settings.

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So Where Do I Start?

Notepad/exercise book/jotter...

It's true that lots of writers use notebooks - sometimes several, in pockets, dotted around the house, everywhere the writer is likely to be during a typical day, so wherever you are, there'll always be a pad handy when that spark of inspiration comes out of the blue. Makes sense, eh?

Well, no, actually.

Now, I'm sure loads of writers will disagree with me here, but I've never found this method to work for me. The few times when I have kept a notebook, the stuff I've written in it has been worse than useless - drivel, rubbish, utter nonsense.

Sticky Notes
Sticky Notes | Source

Having said that, I do have one of those cute little 'sticky note' gadgets on my desktop (my computer desktop, that is, not the actual table) and I occasionally write stuff on it. However, most of those notes are the titles of books I should read, authors I've never heard of, or historical events I might want to research. So not story ideas as such.

Of course, if keeping a notebook works for you, that's great. And you know, the thing about getting ideas - whichever method works for you, stick to it like glue, but don't forget, it's always good to try something different...

History, Backstory, Character Sketches

So let's start by thinking about a character, sketching out what he looks like, the clothes he wears, all the things that have happened to him in the past 25 years, how he reacts to other people, which football team he supports, and whether or not he's in touch with his feminine side. Right?

Again, no.

By all means do this if it helps you (especially if you're embarking on a novel), but in terms of short stories, how much time are you going to spend on it? When I get an idea, I start writing. If I need to think about that character, the scene etc I will, but usually this isn't necessary.

To Plan or Not to Plan

But I still need to plan out the story so I'll know where it's going and how it'll end, yeah?

Sorry, no. Obviously, if this method works for you, go for it, but for me, the most exciting thing (I'll say that again cos I really mean it), the most exciting thing about writing is that I never know what's going to happen. I mean, if I know what' s going to happen, what's the point of writing the story in the first place? It'd be like watching a movie I've seen before - it might still be great, but it won't have the impact it did the first time round.

I've spent a lot of time in the Land of Not-Planning - a place where writery explorers can go without the aid of a map. And yes, I know it can be scary, but as many have said before me - you're only limitied by your own imagination.

Okay, so I know what you're thinking, how can I write about something if I don't know what I'm writing about? Hmm. Right, well I don't actually have an answer for that, because I don't really understand how it works. All I can say is that when I'm writing, the story sort of carries me along and it sort of works itself out. Obviously, there must be some unconscious thing going on that is thinking about the plot and the characters and what's happening to them, but very often the end of the story is as much a surprise to me as anyone else.

Cleaning tools
Cleaning tools | Source

So Where Do I Get My Ideas?

The best way to explain this is to give you some examples, so here's the first one:

The Cleaner

This was a story I wrote a while ago and which subsequently appeared in Inkapture - a literary e-magazine run by a group of like-minded folk in Durham, UK.

So the idea came from a sci-fi story I read somewhere (afraid I don't recall where) about a guy whose wife leaves him. He then discovers that the universe is expanding and begins to wonder if this is related to his marital situation. However, what interested me was not the expanding universe, but the fact of his wife leaving - suppose he too had decided to leave at the same time? Therefore, the basis for the story is that two people decide (quite separately) to leave each other, but because they're not speaking, neither of them realises their partner is also moving out.

Thinking about what might happen, I came up with the cleaner (of the title) and had her turn up at the house as usual. After a while she begins to understand what has happened and her suspicions are confirmed when she discovers notes and letters from the departed couple. While I was writing, I didn't know how the story would end, but after I'd worked out that the cleaner was going to move into the empty house, it all made sense. Click on the link above if you'd like to find out what happens.

So the story was inspired by another story, though the plot is completely different. I simply took an event - the man whose wife has left him - and expanded upon it. This is a common way of working out ideas by using the old 'what would happen if...' scenario, and applying it to something I'd read.

How the World Turns (and Other Stories)
How the World Turns (and Other Stories)

How the World Turns (and Other Stories) featuring my short story 'The Cleaner'

 

More?

Here's another example:

At My Table appeared on 1,000 Words, an online magazine run by Natalie Bowers and Heather Stanley. Their guidelines require writers to use an image as inspiration for stories. I opted for a photo featuring what I interpreted as the window of a house/flat in the process of redecoration. The image reminded me of a friend who (having just moved house) asked me to help her build a table, so I put the two ideas together.

Thinking about who might build the table, I wondered about the ownership of the finished item and how the individuals involved might react to other people using it. This led me to introducing two characters - one, the narrator, who lives in the upstairs flat and two, a woman who is moving into the flat below. This new tenant proceeds to do all those things people do when they move into a new place: put furniture together, paint walls, get friends round to help and so on.

Then I introduced another character who also took a place at the table and this had the desired effect of putting the narrator's metaphorical nose out of joint. Since all of this had to take place in under 1,000 words, I had enough to get me to the finish line and the final piece came in at about 460 words.

Other Ideas

Most of us at some point, draw on our own experiences as a way of generating story ideas. Here's a few of mine I've been working on lately:

At a bed and breakfast place one winter, the landlord offered us black pudding for breakfast (to go with the sausage, egg, bacon etc). When we declined, he said:

"Blood's good for you."

My memory has imbued those words with more than a degree of vampiric bloodlust, though I'm sure it wasn't like that at all. In any case, I wrote a story about a couple who think their landlord has murdered his wife and is on the lookout for his next victim. I called the story Bed, Death and Breakfast.

The Recipe was a story inspired by two elderly spinsters I remember from my childhood. As kids we had very little contact with them, but what I always remember is the cookies they gave us whenever my father did any repairs around their house. Of course, they never gave us the recipe, and it made me wonder why it was such a big deal. Maybe there was some secret (or perhaps illegal) ingredient?

My first published story was called The Shed and was partly inspired by a rickety structure one of my pals had in his garden. His father had built it from bits of wood gathered here and there, including old railway sleepers. The collection of all this old wood made me think something bad must have happened in the shed.

And Finally (Almost)...

I imagine most writers have a lot of unfinished work - it's a sort of by-product of what we do. In the past, I used to keep countless notebooks full of half stories and poems, along with scraps of paper, lists of titles and such like in case any of them came in handy at some point in the future.

Now, of course, I keep all my creative ramblings on my computer and one of the things I've found most useful is to have a folder full of my unfinished stories. Now when I say unfinished, I mean anything I've started that hasn't yet made it into a complete story. Some of these are quite long and run to a few thousand words but many of them are only a few sentences, and are essentially, a brief exploration of my ideas.

One, for instance, began as only a title: The Very Grave Digger. I had an idea of what it would be about, but it took me a while to get going with it. Here's an excerpt:

Bobby sniffs the air. Exhaling slowly, he considers the aromas: dead leaves, clay, grass, smoke, chicken biryani. The smells of his day mingle with those of the night. He gazes across the road, undecided. In the house with the brown door, a light comes on somewhere in the back. Kitchen maybe. So she's home. Hitching his bag higher, he brushes a hand down his shirt, specks of flaky pastry scatter in all directions. Like skin peeling away (he thinks), becoming dust.

Then there's a list of titles that may or may not make it into stories - admittedly most of these are basically playing around with the words Blood and Dead:

The Disappearing Dead

The Girl Who Came Out of the Sea

DeadBoyDead

Blood of the Past

The Ghost of Septimus Darke

The Dead of Bloodletter's Lane

When Darkness Comes

Playing around with titles like this can be a great way of coming up with a story. I rarely begin writing anything if I don't already have the title. Occasionally the title may change if I come up with a better one, but I usually find that the one I start with makes it to the final draft.

Stephen King
Stephen King | Source

Two Things You Have to Do

As Stephen King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to spend a lot of time doing two things:

  1. Read a lot
  2. Write a lot

Now I know that some folk think that reading other people's work stunts your creativity, but let's be honest - that's a load of squit. I'm sure you'll agree that we are all influenced by everything around us, so that clearly includes what we read as well as what we see, hear and so on. And since we can't really avoid the rest of the world, it makes sense to take what we can from it and use it in a creative way.

While we're on the subject, don't give me that old line about not reading so-and-so's books because you'll never be able to write as well as they do. The reason many of us like different styles and genres, is precisely because we are different. The best thing you can do is just to be yourself and write what you want to write.

So Where Do I Send It?

As I said earlier, there's a great market out there for stories, with thousands of print and online magazines just waiting for your creations. However, that's the subject for another Hub...

Who's the Daddy?

Who is your favourite short story writer?

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Stephen King on Short Stories

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    • FatBoyThin profile image
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      Colin Garrow 9 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      That's always the best way, and if you can surprise yourself, even better! Thanks for reading.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 9 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

      I try to write more than I read. What I read depends on the moment-- what I want to learn or what voice I want to hear. What I write depends on my experience and what I know. I agree with you, I don't outline a story. I discover one.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
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      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I think you said it better than I did, Justin, and more eloquently. We learn from other writers the same way we learn everything else, though sometimes the lesson isn't obvious - I just finished reading a book that was beautifully written, with wonderful descriptive passages, but it was as boring as hell! When I've worked out why it was boring, I'm sure it'll benefit my own writing. Like Stevie says - 'read a lot, write a lot'. Thanks for dropping by.

    • profile image

      Justin 2 years ago

      "Now I know that some folk think that reading other people's work stunts your creativity, but let's be honest - that's a load of squit."

      Couldn't have said it better myself. A writer should study from the masters in the same way a novice architect studies their master and learns how best all the pieces fit together. To learn how to create a structure that will stand the test of time.

      In an interview, architect Bjarke Ingels said of other architects, “Their style is the sum of their inhibitions.” I can relate this to writing: Hemingway, afraid to look closely at thoughts and feelings, instead describes the wetness of a man’s shirt and the texture and weight of the mud on his shoes. Borges, afraid of taking himself too seriously, skims over his stories, skimping more on detail the more serious the story is.

      Reading from the best, the worst, and all those between the two doesn't stunt your creativity, it reveals it in how you assemble your style when you learn how others have done it in the past. When you cherry pick the pieces of and tricks of those that came before and put them together into what defines you and your style.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Thanks for some great tips about where to get our story ideas. I do have to write my ideas down pretty quickly after I get them, otherwise it's like the sun hitting morning mist.....It just dissipates in no time from my head. Reading works, being out living life fully, every day works. Stories are real life ratcheted up a notch, so the more real life I live, the more ideas I have. I rarely plan out my stories. I love it when I come to the ending and surprise myself. I don't understand that process, but it's the best. Good hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • Julie K Henderson profile image

      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      You are most welcome.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
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      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      When I used to run writing workshops, I'd occasionally come across people who never read anything and they couldn't understand why never got anywhere with their own writing. Thanks for comments Julie, much appreciated.

    • Julie K Henderson profile image

      Julie K Henderson 2 years ago

      This is an excellent hub. I believe reading a lot is essential to being a skilled writer, and I am pleased you have mentioned this detail. Voted up.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
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      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Chris, yes, it's good to get ouside your comfort zone with writing, as it give you the oppportunity to explore ideas you might not tackle otherwise. These days, unconventional stories are very common and are also more interesting to write than traditional storytelling. Thanks for reading!

    • Chriswillman90 profile image

      Krzysztof Willman 2 years ago from Parlin, New Jersey

      Some great methods here and very interesting article. I love writing short stories as a hobby but I never explored them further. The unconventional story and format is often the most intriguing to me and I enjoy stepping out of the box as well.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
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      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Quite right - you have to do what works for you and I think if you know what the ending is going to be it's just like watching a movie you've already seen. Thanks for your feedback.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 2 years ago from California

      Good stuff; short story ideas are everywhere. If you just go sit in a public place you'll hear volumes of material spew out of people's mouths.

      I like what you said: "the most exciting thing about writing is that I never know what's going to happen." I completely agree. I had read a couple of How to articles and books where the writing instructor demands a strict outline. It works for some people, but not others. I'm a bit of a rebel and enjoy writing by the seat of my pants.

      I have a fairly unique method of writing. I watch the story like a film, then I write what I see. It's like a Polaroid that reveals itself as I write.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Joyette, thanks for your comments - glad someone else likes to do things differently: too many people seem to think writing is about working to a plan or template.

      My recently published stories are online - you can find them on 1,000 Words (At My Table), Postcard Shorts (The Hermit) and Inkapture (The Cleaner). I'll look out for your writing Hubs.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image

      Joyette Fabien 3 years ago from Dominica

      Interesting! Your approach is unconventional; same as mine. The Short Story is my favorite genre. I write basically from observation and experience so my stories resemble real life incidents and the characters could be people you know. I am actually in the process of writing a hub on writing the Short Story. It is totally different from yours. Please check out my other writing hubs. Are your stories available online?

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks for reading and cheers for the survey tip, Marie, I'll be sure to include it next time.

    • profile image

      Chetan 3 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I could connect with your article and it has been very useful for me. I would also like to know how to meet and be in touch with other writers. Please do write something about it.

      Cheers!

    • Marie Gail profile image

      Marie Gail Stratford 3 years ago from Olathe, KS

      Just a little tip for future hubs: I've found that I get more interaction on surveys if I have an "other" option. :-) This is still good food for thought.

      Cheers!

      MG

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks for that, Mel - glad it's not just me and Mr King who think this way. I've always thougth that writers who plan everything out are only locking up their imaginations. Cheers!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      I am like you. I don't outline anything, I just go into the story with a vague idea in my head and then see how the story unfolds, just like the reader would. As John Steinbeck said in Cannery Row, and I'm paraphrasing, "...open the book and let the stories crawl in." Great hub!

    • mdscoggins profile image

      Michelle Scoggins 3 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Hi Colin, great perspective and information. I have wondered if I could curtail my wordiness into a short short but it will be something I hopefully try in my lifetime. Voted up and shared.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Eddy, thanks very much - always good to know I'm hitting the proverbial mark.

      Colin

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Interesting and useful.Voted up,shared and looking forward to many more.

      Eddy.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Lex, thanks for your feedback - much appreciated.

    • lex123 profile image

      lex123 3 years ago

      Interesting and well written hub about writing short stories.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Marie, sorry - I haven't come across those two, but I'll certainly add them to my reading list. Thanks for your comments.

    • Marie Gail profile image

      Marie Gail Stratford 3 years ago from Olathe, KS

      Aww . . . you didn't include my favorite short story writer--Orson Scott Card--or my second favorite, Flannery O'Connor. I haven't read much Graham Greene at all, but I think he might be a good author to put on my "to read" list.