Part 4 in How to Write a Short Story: Coming up With Story Ideas and Actually Start Writing
“Like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and trash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes his eyes on eternity, and dies.” - Ray Bradbury
’How did you come up with that idea?’, this is the question people ask me the most when I publish my short stories.
I’ve written about it at length before, how to come up with ideas:
However, I did want to write another article about it in light of short story writing. Plus, in this article I want take it to the next step: actually writing your short story when you have an idea. How can you structure your story so that writing comes easy?
First, let’s dive into idea generation.
Step 1. Idea Mining
Earlier, I wrote about how you never have to run out of ideas for your writing. With idea mining, I’d like to expand on that.
When you have a notebook or a note app full of ideas, fragments, character sketches, quotes, anything, you have to use that for your short story.
“Make notes (on your phone) of pieces of conversation you heard, descriptions of nature, things, events, or just something you would like to write down the memory of.” - Anne Lamott
I have more than fifty ideas for short stories on my phone, so how to pick one to write about? Usually, I start with the idea that’s either the freshest or the one I’m most excited about. (The combination of those two is a bonus!)
If I just have to pick one of the 50 and I’m still a bit indifferent as to which to choose, I pick three and then scribble down 10 story ideas for all three of them. Then, I pick the one that speaks to me most.
In the next step, I copy the ideas, pieces of dialogue, settings or phrases I jotted down into a word file. I skim through my idea list for other useful stuff — copy that too if necessary — and then I start.
Let’s try one, shall we?
I’ve got a new story coming up in two weeks. So I’ll introduce the idea. The story is set in a dystopian future where people live through their smart lenses. People’s whole lives play out digitally. Everything is tracked by the government. The world is trapped in another cold war. This time by digital weaponry. The protagonist used to work for the national security agency.
Step 2: Finetune Your Story Setting
So, we’ve picked an idea. It’s important to think of a believable setting and background for our story.
What does the world look like? What’s our characters’ motivation? What conflict is there in the story?
This is where I use stuff from external resources. I steal a bit from sci-fi shows, books or movies perhaps.
Our protagonist in the story we use, gets fined for crossing the street illegally and is taken to jail. (I got this from a documentary about China, where people’s faces are scanned on the streets. When you don’t follow the rules, it gets harder to get a job or a house. I’m not making this up).
Observe your surroundings. Listen in to conversations. Read a book or watch a movie. Take on anything related to your story.
Our character is at a low point because he’s recently been fired by from his job at the national security agency.
When he’s arrested, his country has been attacked by an electric force which results in all the power to go out. (Here’s our conflict).
His former boss offers to get him out of jail if he helps solve what’s going on. Helping them will involve him seeing his ex-girlfriend again. (This is one of his motivations).
If you’re stuck and want to find more inspiration, check out this article.
Step 3: Research What You Don’t Know
The first steps are taken; we have a subject to write a story about and we’ve created a setting for the story. But what if it’s a subject you’re unfamiliar with?
For about half of the stories I’ve written, I had to dig in. I’ve investigated the concept of basic income for The System Shutdown. I needed to know more about our solar system and planet composition for The Planet’s Party. Plus, I researched the Greek gods whose names were similar to that of our planets. My idea was to give the planets specific character traits based on the Greek myths.
It can also happen the other way around. I stumbled upon this great article “Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future” by Tim Urban from Wait But Why, which inspired me to write a story about a future in which our brains are all connected to electronic AI devices. This resulted in The Sapien Zoo.
Jot down your ideas and things you’ve found in the Word file of your story.
You can also get out of your comfort zone and interview someone who does know more about the subject you want to write about. It’s what Anne Lamott suggests in ‘Bird by Bird’. “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. They love it when you do, just as you love it when people ask if they can pick your brain about something you happen to know a great deal about-or, as in my case, have a number of passionate opinions on.”
The Next Steps: Actually Writing the Short Story
Step 4: List Your Ideas at the End of Your Document and Start Writing
Transfer your best ideas, plot points, pieces of dialogue or other phrases to the bottom of your document.
Now it’s time to write. At this point, you probably have an image in your mind as to how you want to start off your story. Go from there. Write at least 500 words. Don’t hold back. Anything is possible. And if you end up hating what you’ve written, you can always delete it.
Use the ideas at the bottom of your document as your guide in writing your story. Constantly refer back to them. Copy/paste and write!
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou
With my upcoming story, I started out listing all the ideas I had for the story in one document. From the general story idea to setting, characters, conflict(s), motivations, hidden messages, scenes, etc.
Step 5: Bulletpoint Paragraphs
So you’ve started writing the story. Maybe it flows right out of you till the end. Maybe not.
Usually, after I’ve written about 1,000 words, I start to go back to my idea list at the bottom again and start mapping out the rest of the scenes of the story.
When I’ve followed the above steps, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to write about. Then I write down ideas for scenes and bits of my story.
Do this for all remaining scenes. Well done, the foundation is set! I always refer to this part as my story skeleton.
Step 6: Write 500 Words Every Day
Now you can (easily) finish your story. If you would write down 500 words a day, you have a 5,000-word story ready in ten days. And remember, it’s your first draft! It doesn’t need to be perfect. Sculpting comes later!
Have trouble setting yourself up for writing 500 words every day? Start your morning with writing.
Step 7: Edit.
You’ve made it! Nice. Now you have a rough first version.
Read it yourself (out loud). Then edit.
Carefully improve your prose, take out inconsistencies, solve problems and make sure you’re properly showing the reader what’s happening.
Then, let other’s read it and give you their feedback. I have one friend who is an editor and multiple other friends who are avid readers and/or native speakers. Their feedback is invaluable.
Read it again (out loud). Edit.
More on finishing a first draft and editing in later posts.
That’s it! Follow these steps and a short story should flow right out of you. It works for me :-)
Curious about how my upcoming story pans out? It’s scheduled for release at the end of the month.
What are you waiting for? Start writing your own. Let me know how it goes!
In the next post about short story writing I’ll go into plotting.