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Short Story Ideas: Tips, techniques, and exercises for creating them

Updated on December 13, 2015
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Jody has been working as a freelance writer since 2011. Her favorite genres are children's literature, fantasy, and alternative medicine.

Many people want to write short stories, but aren’t sure what to write about. Here are some tips, techniques, and exercises to help you create ideas for a story.

Looking through a window.
Looking through a window. | Source

What to write a short story about

You can write short stories about anything and everything. You can use your favorite hobby as a base for a story. A memory from your childhood is another possibility. What are things you are interested in? There are bound to be others that are interested in the same things. Use your imagination. Ask what if. The possibilities are endless.

A picture is worth 1,000 words, it can also create them

This is one exercise that works very well to generate ideas; I actually remember doing it in middle school English. Take a picture and write down story ideas that it gives you. You can also use the picture as part of the story itself. It could be the beginning of the story, or the middle, or the end. It could also be an event that creates the situation your characters find themselves in. Look at pictures of nature. What would it be like to live in the area of the picture, or deal with that type of weather? Look through magazines and at the news. Write down any ideas that come to you, even if they are just partial ones.

Example of a cluster
Example of a cluster | Source

Create a cluster

What is a cluster you ask? It is a group of words that connect to each other in some way. Write down a list of random words. Then take each of those words in turn and branch words off of the central word. If a secondary word sparks another word, write it down too. The key with this exercise is to just let the words flow without thinking about them. Just write down whatever pops into your mind. After a few minutes stop and look at your cluster. Does it suggest any ideas? Where does your imagination take you? If you do this with each word on your list, you are bound to wind up with some ideas; perhaps for both fiction and nonfiction. Write them all down. Even if you don’t use them right now, you probably will later. And if you write them down you won’t forget them.


There are two sides to every story

Have you ever read a story and wondered what it would be like told from a different character’s perspective? Take Cinderella for example, what would it be like told by one of the ugly step sisters? Or maybe from the Fairy God Mother’s point of view? What about the Prince? How about Jack London’s book White Fang? What would it be like told through the eyes of White Fang? Or maybe you like plays like Romeo and Juliet, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What would they be like when told by a different person? What would Jack and the Bean Stalk be like when told by the Giant, or the Goose? Everyone loves to hate the villain, but what would the villain’s side of the story be like? What would it be like if the villain really did win? These kinds of questions can create great stories as well.

The story of my life

What in your life could be part of a story? If you keep a diary, look through it. Is there anything there that gives you an idea? Have you ever talked to someone older than you about their youth? What stories did they tell you? What would it be like to live in that past time? Have you ever used an outhouse, or know someone who has? Things like that can make great fodder for stories. What are some funny, or sad, or shocking moments that have happened in your life? Looking at our own lives can be a wealth of ideas. You can also go to the mall, or park, and people watch. Try imagining what their stories could be and write them down. This is also a great way to come up with characters as well.

When Inspiration Strikes

One trick most writers use is to have a notebook with them at all times. Have you ever had a really good idea but didn’t have anything to write it down with, and ended up forgetting it? I know I have. If you always carry a small notebook with you, you won’t have to worry about forgetting your ideas. Just don’t forget the pen or pencil. Also, don’t forget to put them in your ideas file with your writing stuff. Having ideas scattered all over, makes losing some of them highly likely. What if someone decided to “help” and ended up throwing your precious ideas away?

Character is key

Your characters themselves can create your story. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How would they react to different situations? Does your hulking warrior faint at the sight of his own blood? How could that affliction be overcome? What happens if someone makes the healer really mad? How does the person everyone looks down on become a hero? What if your main character isn’t human? How would that affect the story? Your character can create a whole story just based on how they would respond to different trials or events. A strongly defined character can drive your story. Take a sheet of paper and start writing down information on your characters; list their strengths and weaknesses. Describe them, what they wear and why as well as what they look like. What are their habits and quirks? Give them a biography. When that is done, interview them. It may sound strange to interview a fictional character, but you may be surprised at what comes up. It can create amazing story ideas.

Home Sweet Home

Another way to come up with ideas is just by looking around your home, or even nature itself. What would a stranger think of the things they see, especially if they were from a different time or world? Do you have something that might have been used in the past? How would it have been used? Look at the possible symbolism of the different objects in various rooms. How might someone else see them? Do you have something that has a history, like a family heirloom? How might you be able use that as a story element? When you look out your window, what do you see? What does it look like from the other side? Walk around your home and write down what you see, feel, smell, hear, and any story ideas it gives you? Try it a various locations in your local area. You can also do this on any trips you take. Have you ever stopped at a scenic overlook and wondered if it always looked that way? Or maybe what the people who found it were like? What kinds of story ideas pop into your mind?


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