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More Short Story Ideas and Inspirations (2)
So a Short Story is..?
I won't go over what I mean by short story, since I've already covered this in my Hub How to Write a Short Story - Ideas and Inspirations. So this article is a continuation of some of those ideas - ideas I hope will inspire and encourage you to head off on your own adventures.
Boundaries and Borders
One of the main restrictions of short stories is the very fact of their being short. If you're aiming your work at a specific publication, you've probably already got a word-count in mind. Working to a specific word-count is significant because:
- It stops you exploring ideas that might be more suited to a novel (ie longer, more in-depth)
- It allows you to explore different styles/genres without committing to a lengthy piece of work
- It forces you to be strict about what to leave in (and what to leave out)
- It demands that you get straight into the action
Using Word-Count as Inspiration
We've all read the Hemmingway-attributed six-word story:
For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
Whether old Ernie did in fact pen the famously brief tale is unimportant. However, it does prove that even with an extremely limited number of words, it's possible to create something that has far deeper meaning.
Nowadays, we call this type of short-short story Flash Fiction and its length can vary enormously (though won't usually run to more than 1,500 words). The form gives the writer an opportunity to create a complete tale in a very short space. It's also pretty useful as a writing exercise.
Now, I should say here that I don't really do writing exercises (which is a bit rich, since I happily demanded dozens of them from my students during creative writing courses at Hull and Newcastle Universities!) No, I much prefer to think of everything as a possible story and therefore, a possible publication. I think looking at it this way is infinitely more productive, since it places no barriers on what our creations might become.
Tweet Those Tales
On Twitter, I created my own version of flash fiction and, as all those Tweeters out there will know, the site already has its own set of limitations. And just to make it more difficult, I added another one - so the limit of 140 characters in this case also includes the hashtag: #QuickFixShun, taking away another 13 characters. Thus hindered, I set out with a variety of styles (poetry, puns, alliteration and nursery rhymes) to explore. Here's a few of them:
Persevering with Mistress Mantel's epic novel, he, Cromwell, wonders how it's going to end. Badly, he thinks. #QuickFixShun
He pondered on the possibility that his latest sponge cake might be a comment on his life: half-baked but surprisingly tasty. #QuickFixShun
Romantic poetry and dying young had turned out not to be his forte, he mused, churning out another unpublished novel at 53...#QuickFixShun
My wheelie bin has a large crack in it. Two cracks, in fact. Soon one side will be hanging off. It really is a rubbish bin. #QuickFixShun
Feeling good, he baked cakes, took them to work. No-one ate them. So he photocopied his butt. Made them into Kissmyass cards. #QuickFixShun
In the light of a new day, waiting for the sun, he began to feel optimistic. Then Lorraine came down. #QuickFixShun
It occurred to him, watching the car roll down the hill, that he'd forgotten the insurance renewal as well as the handbrake. #QuickFixShun
I knew a man who'd sit and pose, pulling hairs out of his nose. Now you might think this rather grim, but it never worried him #QuickFixShun
Arriving late, I zip up tight against the piercing winds, fighting past crowds and listening streets, to Suzy's and good beer. #QuickFixShun
Gloucester wasn't even on his list that day, but Doctor Foster didn't mind - it gave him a chance to try out that new puddle. #QuickFixShun
Okay, so most of those were just a bit of fun, but there are several online magazines that impose similar restrictions and these too can pose a useful challenge:
Paragraph Planet publishes stories that are exactly 75 words long. Writers who've had three or more stories on the site get to have their own Author's page.
Postcard Shorts was inspired by Sci-fi editor George Hay, who challenged the likes of Arthur C. Clarke to write a story that would fit on a postcard. Clarke's story "Quarantine", is also on the site, along with hundreds of other examples.
Monkey Bicycle accepts one-sentence stories, as well as publishing longer works, interviews, reviews and podcasts.
If you prefer your parameters to be less stringent, try these: Vestal Review, The Pygmy Giant and 1,000 Words all have words counts of up to 500, 800 and 1,000 respectively.
Of course - you're probably still waiting for those great ideas I was talking about, so...
Using Stories to Create Story Ideas
As I've said elsewhere, like most writers I keep pretty much everything I write (unless it's really crap), so naturally, I go back to these scribblings from time to time and quite often, a story that didn't really work, can inspire something new.
For instance, many years ago while doing freelance drama work, I did the occasional session as a storyteller and used to create my own versions of traditional tales to use with school and community groups. Unlike most storytellers who tend to stick to the oral tradition (ie, not writing them down), I scripted everything and spent a lot of time working out how to tell stories in the most effective way.
Looking at some of those tales recently, I started wondering about writing a new fairy/folk tale. I considered the dilemmas that challenge the characters in traditional tales: the repetition of an action or event, the often magical or supernatural elements, and the inevitable figure who sends the prince (or whoever) on some quest for the unattainable treasure.
What I came up with started out as a princess-and-the-pea story, but ended up being rather different. Here's how it starts:
The First One arrives like a summer breeze - wafting into the kitchen as if she were already married to him, laying the table without being asked, gently taking grandmother's arm when the old girl needs a hand.
What's wrong with her? Wonders Father during a quiet moment, fat fingers stroking his beard as if it were a happy cat, nestling under his chin.
The young man shrugs. Why should there be anything wrong? (He says this in his usual happy voice, knowing it won't wash for a second).
She's beautiful sure, says the beard-stroker. But will she be a mother to your children? Does she have real beauty? Can she solve the unsolvable?
Points to ponder
So you'll notice a few things about this story:
- Characters don't have names (only labels)
- it is written in present tense
- there aren't any speech marks
All of these are experiments, which are a lot easier to try with short stories than with a novel. As a rule, I tend to use proper names and speech marks in my stories, although writing in the present tense has become a habit I rather like.
One of the reasons I omitted speech marks was to see how it might work, and yes - I'm aware that some folk hate it, and I know it won't always be effective, but in this instance I think it works. The style of the story was also a kind of harking back to the way I remember reading folk tales as a kid, where spoken words where delivered as reported speech by the all-seeing narrator. (I might be completely wrong in recalling it this way, but that's fine, since it allowed me to go down a creative path I might not otherwise have taken).
The origin of this story, as I said, was the Princess and the Pea, and when I started it, the idea was to have a succession of suitable women traipsing through the house/palace/mansion and failing to react appropriately to the pea (or whatever object/situation I replaced it with). But then something else happened and I realised that the story wasn't about how suitable any woman was going to be, but how much the young man was prepared to put up with to keep his father happy.
The point is, I started with one idea and ended up with another.
But then the Editor pointed out...
However, my opinion isn't the only one that counts. It's fair to say that writing is a lonely business, but there comes a time when the writer is forced to consider someone else's opinion - when the story gets published.
In this case, the above tale eventually appeared on Word Bohemia's website, but that was after the editor had persuaded me to make a few changes:
The First One arrives like a summer breeze–wafting into the kitchen as if she were already married to the young man; laying the table without being asked and taking grandmother’s arm when the old girl needed a hand.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ Father wondered during a quiet moment, fat fingers stroking his beard as if it were a happy cat nestling under his chin.
The young man shrugs. ‘Why should there be anything wrong?’ He says in his usual happy voice, knowing it won’t wash for a second.
‘She’s attractive sure’, says the beard-stroker, ‘but will she be a mother to your children? Does she have real beauty? Can she solve the unsolvable?’
So what's different? You'll notice the clarification of 'young man' in the second line, replacing the slightly vague 'him' in the first version, but the main difference is the inclusion of speech marks. Naturally I didn't want them, but there comes a time when you just have to bite the bullet. It may be that my assumption that it was perfectly clear who was talking was too optimistic. More likely though, is that the editor knew her audience better than I did and decided the piece couldn't afford to be too vague.
Working with editors is part of the process of writing and while we might not always agree with them, it's silly to ignore their advice - what we take for granted may not be obvious to everyone else and in many cases, the changes improve the story, which has to be a good thing.
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Another trick I've tried when I'm stuck for inspiration, is using book titles as a starting point. On the bookshelf behind me, for instance, we have:
- Alan Bennett's Forty Years On
- Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale
- Nick Hornby's About a Boy
So these could give us:
Forty years ago, it wouldn't have mattered, but these days you couldn't just smack a kid round the head for swearing. Sheila bit her lip. She knew she'd have to do some quick thinking to get out of it this time...
Before that last winter, it had been different. In the past he'd always told it the same way - how he'd saved four men by running pell-mell through enemy lines under heavy fire. Now, though, with Jack Butcher turning up, he'd have to revise it. Unless something happened to Jack...
The boy looked about ten and he had been sitting on the wall outside Nick's house all morning. Though it wasn't the fact of him sitting there that troubled Nick, but the fact of who his father was...