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More Short Story Ideas and Inspirations (2)

Updated on August 20, 2016
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Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

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.

Source

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

Ernest Hemmingway
Ernest Hemmingway

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.

My Twitter Banner
My Twitter Banner | Source

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

But Seriously...

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...


Poster designed by Colin Garrow for storyteller Jessica Hernandez
Poster designed by Colin Garrow for storyteller Jessica Hernandez | Source

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.

My story The Candidate on Word Bohemia
My story The Candidate on Word Bohemia | Source

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.

Anyway...

Books, books, books
Books, books, books | Source

And Finally...

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:

  1. Alan Bennett's Forty Years On
  2. Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale
  3. 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...

Print Vs Online

Which do you prefer - traditionally prointed magazines, or online magazines?

See results

Kurt Vonnegut on the Short Story

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    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Lee, and yes, you're right - us writers have to keep pushing the old envelope to see what works and what doesn't, otherwise everything just turns out the same way. I've certainly written plenty of crap in my time (and been told it's crap, too) but you just have to keep going until you break through the doubters. Cheers for reading.

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 2 years ago

      Your a gentleman, an article packed full of sound advice, great tips, a really important hub here, thanks for putting your knowledge out there, this hub I will reference regularly, i wrote an experimental piece called "The Criminals I Keep" and got me arse handed to me by a few Hubbers in the last day or two, although it was well received by others, after reading this hub i am convinced experimenting from time to time is a must, thanks, voted up, Lee

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 2 years ago

      you are more than welcome.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Torri - glad you agreed with me. I think we have to be interested in what we're doing, otherwise it isn't an fun. Thanks for reading.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Mel - I'm a bit long-winded myself but that's part of creating a short story and working through the re-writing process to get rid of anything that detracts from what you're tring to say.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 2 years ago

      I honestly don't ever think i've been a fan of writing exercises, either. I find them to be time consuming and tiring. thanks for the alternative methods of coming up with short stories. best of wishes.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I love Vonnegut. I have never quite mastered the art of the short tale myself, I tend to run long winded and I agree with Holden Caulfield that the dreaded digression is sometimes the most interesting part of the tale. The funnest part of reading is coming across different styles that are all delightful in their own way. Great hub!

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Hi Sally,

      Thanks for reading and for your comments. I happen to agree with Bill about perfect English, but I don't let that get in the way of what I'm writing. I think it's imperative that writers experiment, otherwise we can get stuck churning out the same sort of thing all the time. I often try different styles, which sometimes include not using speech marks, but I find it tends to happen quite naturally, rather than me making a conscious decision about it.

      I often find that a story will dictate what it needs - in terms of style, tense etc - without me having to choose which way to go. (It just comes out that way). Although, sometimes I deliberately change things just to see if it makes a difference.

      Recently, I read one of Mark Billingham's novels (Sleepyhead) and I noticed that he rarely uses the phrase 'he said/she said' and instead simply writes the dialogue in a way that makes it obvious who's speaking. But the thing is, it also makes the dialogue more immediate and meaningful. Guess that's why he's a published novelist and I'm not!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 2 years ago from Norfolk

      FatBoyThin

      The point which really jelled with me when I read this was the one which you made under points to consider - the one about there not being any speech marks.

      I responded to Billy's latest challenge and found myself with just a small amount of dialogue to contend with. I chose to go that route, no speech marks.

      Now as we all know, Billy is a real a stickler for perfect English but I really wonder sometimes whether it is better to forget about those speech marks if you can't get them placed in the right position!

      I intend to write more fiction now, especially as I seem to have found a taste for it. I found this particularly interesting

      I also liked the section about tweeting. Making those few characters count is so important when it comes down to getting decent views.

      Thank you.

      Sally.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Yeah, sometimes you just a gentle kick in the ass to get things moving. I try to kick myself several times a day...

    • Joel Diffendarfer profile image

      Joel Diffendarfer 2 years ago from Ft Collins, Colorado

      Today, I needed to read this...I've been putting "off" the shorts I love to write. As I was reading your article, my heart was re-kindled and one after another, my characters woke up from their coma. Yes, I shall produce one today! Thanks!

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I know - it's strange that sometimes I've got so many ideas I don't know where to begin, and at other times I have nothing in my head but fresh air. I just have to knuckle down and start writing to get something happening. The one I've just started came from nothing:

      "There's no way he can know who'll answer the door, but since here he is with a gun in his hand doing a pretty good impression of a guy planning to do harm, it's a fair bet if anyone other than Harmsworth appears, he'll have to shoot them too. "

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      The creative process is fascinating to me. Where do ideas come from? For me it a case of association. I will hear a word, or her a song, and a short story comes to me. The last one I wrote came from a line in a commercial. I heard that line and my muse was off and running. :)

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks MJ, glad you like what I'm doing. I look forward to seeing your creations.

    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 2 years ago from Washington State

      I like print and online magazines and books. I am motivated now to do some short stories thanks to this great read. Your tweet tales are great. Limericks are popping up in all sorts of places. I have always enjoyed those. Funny stuff, making stories out of book titles.