How to Write a Short Story: A Quick 3-Step Guide to Finding Ideas and Getting Started
Updated: May 9, 2022
The biggest stumbling block new writers face when it comes to writing an original work of short fiction is finding ideas and getting started. In this quick, 3-step guide, I will show you the secret of discovering story ideas and how to begin to write a short story.
So, if you’ve never written a short story before, or have limited experience, or simply struggle to get the first sentence down on paper or onto a blank screen, then keep reading. This article is for you.
Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought when it comes to writing a new and original short story.
The Plan-Everything-Before-You-Start Method,
2. The Let-Yourself-Be-Taken-On-A-Journey-Of-Discovery Method (Or, as I like to call it, The Chain-Link Method).
While both methods are equally valid, for the purposes of this quick 3-Step guide, I’m going to concentrate on method #2: The Chain-Link Method.
And I'll tell you why.
With the Chain-Link Method, you will learn how to create something from nothing.
You will create your very own story universe.
You WILL write a short story.
Step #1: Finding Ideas
Where to Start.
With a single link. Or rather, a single sentence.
That’s right. A single link/starter sentence is all you need. Trust me. I’m not talking about story ideas, per se. Or plots. Or characters. No. Those you will find as you go. Your characters will appear, come into existence, be born and become fully rounded individuals with their own ticks and twitches and odd little habits right before your eyes.
You’ll see. I promise you.
So where do you find that first chain link, that first single starter sentence that will provide you with your short story idea?
Well, single starter sentences are everywhere. They’re all around you. You just have to open your eyes and look. But not just look, you have to see. Really see.
So step outside. Take a walk. Look around you. Look up. Look in windows. Observe everything.
Those sentences – they’re out there. Floating around freely. Waiting to be grasped in the hand.
There’s one up ahead now:
That old fella hobbling down the street holding a bunch of daffs.
And there’s another:
The young woman on the bench weeping tears onto her takeaway sandwich.
And look over there:
That couple having a row in the supermarket car park with the small child watching them through a car’s rear window.
See? Do you see them? There. You have three starter sentences right there.
People are stories and stories are people. Don’t dismiss the seemingly mundane and ordinary. The mundane and ordinary can yield an unexpectedly interesting catch.
Now write down what you see. In any form you wish. Because if you don’t, they’ll get away. You’ll forget. You think you won’t, but you will. These scenes have value. They are collectables.
So keep a notebook handy.
Just as a photographer is never without a camera, a writer should never be without a notebook.
Me - I have 7. Plus an 8th on my smartphone.
But there are other places where you can stick your nose in. Other places you can turn your ears to.
Eavesdrop on conversations. Listen in on colleagues in the staffroom at work. To other passengers on the bus. Commuters on the Metro. Listen to the anecdotes being shared on the next table in the café. At the end of the bar in Murphy's.
People tell stories all the time. We’ve always done it. The oral form of story-telling was the first, coming way before the printed. It’s one of the things unique to humans.
So, don’t be afraid to borrow them. To appropriate them. To purloin them. Be a sneaky story thief and furtively write them down.
And feel no shame about it.
This is not rudeness. This, as a writer, is your job.
But wait. What if you can’t get outside? What if there's a zombie apocalypse or a world pandemic and you’re in lockdown?
Then go online. Root around news' websites. Read Huffpost. Go to Buzzfeed. Browse Quora and Reddit. See what people are talking about on social media. All these are mines twinkling with golden-links.
Or again, if you’re feeling too lethargic to get out your armchair, then open a newspaper or scan a magazine. Jot down interesting headlines and subheadings. You don’t need to read the article. In fact, it’s probably better you don’t. There’s more fun to be had in not knowing the truth, or the half-truths, depending on your newspaper of choice. Stay curious, and don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story, as someone once said. After all, curiosity has compelled many men and women to take the first step into incredible journeys of exploration and discovery.
Finally, if you don’t have time for the groundwork, simply type “Story Prompts” into your Google or Yahoo or Bing search bar. There are plenty sites that will help get you started with, if not a starter link/sentence precisely, then an idea of sorts.
Though why use somebody else’s when you can use your own?
Now that you have a few starter sentences, let’s go exploring.
Let’s go discover your story.
Step #2: Getting Started
Pick a Sentence.
Go on. Pick a sentence from any page of any notebook.
Chose it randomly, with closed eyes and a pin, if you must.
Chose it because it interests you or catches your eye.
Choose it because you know it is The One.
Whatever. Just write it down or type it out.
Now let’s say it reads something like this, taken from Faux News:
Yesterday, a 36-year-old man drove his car into a lamppost.
Now, then. What you do next has little to do with thinking and everything to do with letting go and just writing. What happens next is about putting your trust in your imagination, about giving yourself over to the wealth of learning and information and experiences your memory has collected over your lifetime. This is about allowing the symbiotic relationship between mind and body work together in perfect harmony. About letting your head, spinal-cord, nerve-endings, arm, hand, fingers, pen and ink or keyboard and cursor work reciprocally on your behalf.
So, let that first link/starter sentence provide the clues to what you write next. Find the keywords or phrases in the sentence and let them inform where you go.
Take the first word: “Yesterday.”
Now ask questions about that word.
When yesterday? What time? Morning? Afternoon? Night? Was it light or dark? Wintry cold or summer balmy?
Next: “36-year-old man.”
What is the man’s name? Nationality? Is he short? Fat? Thin? Hairy? What's he wearing? A suit? Fancy dress? Shoes? Is he bald? Naked?
And then: “drove . . . car into lamppost.”
What? Why? How did this happen? Accident? Faulty brakes? Was he suicidal? Was he alone? Did he swerve to miss a child? Did he hit the child? Where was he going? Was he driving fast? Who was he driving away from?
Getting the picture?
The questions, the possibilities, the directions your narrative might take are infinite.
But remember. All this should happen on a subconscious level - in the time that it takes for a memory or two to be retrieved from wherever that mysterious place is they're stored.
In other words: don’t think, just write.
Yesterday, a 36 year old man drove his car into a lamppost. His name was Frank and he’d just left a party and was still wearing the nurse’s uniform he’d picked up from Fancy Pants Emporium that morning.
Now you have your first chain-link. Two connected sentences. And with that, more clues. More keywords and phrases. For every sentence you write will tell you something. Just as every sentence in a finished piece of fiction should tell your reader something.
Who's Frank? (And want to know why he's called "Frank"?) How late was it when he left the party? Was he drunk? In a good or bad mood? Was he singing or seething? Why did he choose the nurse’s uniform? Is Fancy Pants Emporium a fancy dress hire store or something more unseemly?
And so on and so forth:
Yesterday, a 36-year-old man drove his car into a lamppost. His name was Frank and he’d just left a party and was still wearing the nurse’s uniform he’d picked up from Fancy Pants Emporium that morning. His wife, Maureen, who had had rather too much to drink, told all the other party guests how the uniform was supposed to be for her, but that her husband had tried it on when she was out, and then he decided it fit him better and that she should wear the Woody from Toy Story Stetson and spurs. Frank felt so humiliated, he fled the party, leaped in his Sports Coupe and seething through his teeth and thumping the steering wheel, clipped the pavement and lost control and ran headlong into the lamppost, and put out every light on the street.
And there you are. Now you have something - when 2 minutes ago you had nothing.
You have a second character, Maureen, and without really meaning to, you've introduced the core element of every story: conflict. Why did Maureen humiliate her husband? Was it deserved? Why did Frank react the way he did?
Now you're beginning to create a chain-link. You're beginning to discover your story. Sentence by sentence, link by link, you're slowly revealing ideas you didn’t know you knew you had; you're slowly finding your plot, your conflict, your characters, exploring your setting. And all the while being guided by what has been written before.
And trusting your imagination.
Step #3: The Dos and Don'ts of a Short Story First Draft
I'll say it again: Keep going.
Just. Keep. Going.
Write until you have filled a page. And then another. Write a thousand words. Two thousand words. Twenty thousand words.
What's the rush? Be patient. The grand majesty of Rome wasn't . . . well, you know . . .
I've heard Man Booker Prize winner and acclaimed short story writer and all-round super-lovely human being George Saunders say he will sometimes write this way until he has a million words down.
Okay. So Step #3 is all about progressing and keeping going forward. But more than that, Step #3 is about what NOT to do.
So here are 10 Don’ts:
Don’t read back further than a sentence or two – if at all - trust your memory to guide you.
Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or spelling.
Don’t worry about writing overly long sentences or too short.
Don’t worry about verb choice.
Don’t worry about writing in the passive voice.
Don’t worry if you change POV or tense midway.
Don’t worry about making sense.
Don’t worry about going off at ridiculous or unexpected tangents – in fact, hope that you do: if you’re surprised by where your story takes you, your reader will be too.
Don’t think about revising or editing.
But most of all, don’t worry about writing badly: a first draft is permission to write badly. A first draft is all about finding and exploring ideas, leading yourself down dead ends and finding a way back again, then finding a new path, a new direction, about discovering your story and what it is about, who it is about.
This last, though, may not be obvious until you are some way through or perhaps even close to the end. It may well be that where you start is a thousand miles from where you fetch up. It may well be you will discard your first sentence. Even your first half-dozen pages. Delete more than you keep.
Because that first sentence isn’t necessarily where your story begins or what your story is about. It is just the first link in a very long chain and a long chain will certainly not be needed. And when you remove that first link, and then perhaps the second and the third, you see where the true strength of your story is. You see that by making the story-chain shorter, more concise, you're not weakening you're story, you're actually making your story stronger.
So, Frank running into a lamppost may not figure in the final story at all, and by taking it out, it will bear no consequences. The story may well preceed the crash or succeed it. In fact, you may not recognise Frank's story or even if it is his story until you've written a million words, formed ten-thousand chain-links.
But you will find the story. It will be somewhere along the chain.
And the more you use this Chain-Link Method, and the more you learn to trust in your creative imagination, the more skilled you will become at knowing what and who your story is about and indeed when to stop.
And now you have something to work with. Something to work into shape. Now it’s time to run your eye along the story-chain, or narrative, that you’ve created, and identify who and what you think your story might be about.
Now the real work of “writing” begins.
If you'd like to know what to do next with the first draft of your short story, you can click on the link How To Write A Short Story: Rewritng The First Draft. And if you're not already one of the beautiful people subscribing, remember to join The Writing-Class Blog mailing list. Furthermore, if you like what we're doing here, please, tell your writer friends - actually, tell everyone - about us.
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