How to Write a Short Story - Ideas and Inspirations (1)
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.
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.
So Where Do I Start?
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.
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?
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.
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:
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) featuring my short story 'The Cleaner'
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.
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.
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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
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.
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:
- Read a lot
- 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...