How to Get Short Story Ideas

If you want to generate some short story ideas, you could follow a tip from a famous and successful writer. The English writer Graham Green attributed a lot of his success to the simple habit of writing at least 500 words daily whether he felt like it or not. Although inspiration can happen at any time, it’s most likely to happen when you are actually writing.

A great book for learning more about the art of writing and how to generate ideas is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. About this book, Publisher’s Weekly said:

Lamott’s miscellany of guidance and reflection should appeal to writers struggling with demons large and slight. Among the pearls she offers is to start small, as their father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was agonizing over a book report on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Lamott’s suggestion on the craft of fiction is down-to-earth: worry about the characters, not the plot. But she’s even better on psychological questions. She has learned that writing is more rewarding than publication, but that even writing’s rewards may not lead to contentment. As a former “Leona Helmsley of jealousy,” she’s come to will herself past pettiness and to fight writer’s block by living “as if I am dying.” She counsels writers to form support groups and wisely observes that, even if your audience is small, “to have written your version is an honorable thing.”

I found Bird by Bird and inspiring read and helpful to my writing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


Short Story Ideas

Now and again, I get short story ideas that I can’t use for one reason or another. I’ll share them here with you, and you are welcome to use them in whole or part. Maybe they’ll provide you with the inspiration to figure out what you’d like to write about.

Idea #1:

Two woman are at tea at an historical mansion in Washington, DC. Mary’s husband is a spy who works for the CIA. Her friend, Joanne, works with Mary’s husband. Obviously, Joanne can’t say anything to let Mary know that fact. This creates tension. Eventually, Mary begins to suspect that her husband is cheating on her with Joanne.

Idea #2:

A middle-aged couple are home alone (without kids) for the first time in 10 years. They hardly know what to do with themselves, so they take a motorcycle ride. The man, Frank, collects BMW motorcycles. His wife used to ride with him a long time ago and then stopped when they started their family. Frank has to persuade his wife it’ll be fun to ride the bike in the mountains. While they are riding, they witness a car accident. They stop and see the passengers in the wreckage…Now write about how this event affects them and their relationship.

More short story ideas coming soon!

How to Write a Short Story: Get Short Story Ideas

Writers often want to know how to write a short story when they have trouble getting short story ideas.

The secret to finding ideas is this: they are everywhere. You just have to know how to tease them out of your memory, and I’ll tell you how to do that below.

How to write a short story bookI’ll share 3 story-generating ideas with you that I first learned about in Behind the Story by Ryan G. Van Cleave and Todd James Pierce.

  1. Character Details: Think of an intriguing person you met recently or even a long time ago. Write down 25 details about them. Describe how they look, what they wear, gestures, and their general attitude. How many of your descriptions offer concrete details about the person’s character as opposed to fuzzy impressions. Doing this exercise can give you a start on creating a character in your short story.

2. Freewriting: Use a pen and paper or your computer for this exercise. Write “I remember” at the start of the page and then write with no preconceived notion of what you’ll write about. Continue writing even if you have to write “blah blah blah” for a bit. The goal is to keep going and to get those subconscious ideas out and on paper. Do this for 10 minutes. It may sound difficult, yet it’ll produce some ideas and some results – and it sure beats staring at a blank sheet of paper and getting discouraged!

3. Describe a Scene: This next idea comes from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction. “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing.”

How to Write a Short Story

If you want to learn how to write a short story, then you’ll need to read — a lot. Hopefully, you like reading, because doing so teaches you to write short stories. Just like a student cook studies under an accomplished chef, you’ll need to study under the masters.

Many of these masters are busy people. Some of them have passed on decades ago. What is the best way to learn from these other writers?

They can come to you through Amazon or your local library. You do not need to spend a lot of money on books. You only need to make time, to have patience and to read in order to accomplish this task.

I’ve borrowed a list of short story collections that, if read carefully, will help you learn storytelling from the “master chefs” of writing. Stay tuned. Soon, I will share with you an amazing book about reading.

1. Best American Short Stories, ed. Shannon Ravenal, etc. (1980 – present)

2. O. Henry Prize Stories, ed. William Abrams, etc. (1980 – present)

3. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

4. Lunar Landscapes, John Hawkes

5. Shiloh, Bobbie Ann Mason

6. Obscure Destinies, Willa Cather

7. Through the Safety Net, Charles Baxter

8. In the Land of Men, Antonya Nelson

9. Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, Lewis Nordan

10. Crash Diet, Jill McCorkle

11. All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell

12. Collected Stories 1939-1976, Paul Bowles

13. Break It Down, Lydia Davis

14. The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek

15. Read This and Tell Me What It Says, A. Manette Ansay

Finding Time to Write Your Short Story

One of the major challenges when setting out to write a short story or another piece of writing is finding the time to write. So many people say that they do not have the time.

I have a big secret for you.

You have to make time!

I used to agonize for days – days! – about writing and the fact that I was not writing. I’d give guilty looks at my writing desk and then I’d clean up dust bunnies, organize papers, scrub the tub, and make a 7-course Japanese meal for six people.

I had a really clean bathroom and nothing to show in the way of writing.

Different people work different ways when it comes to writing. Maybe you work better with a set schedule of writing each day at the same time. For others, a schedule would send them over the edge. I know I can’t have a schedule or I go nuts. I would much prefer having my neighbor’s car alarm go off at 2 a.m. for several days in a row. However, a schedule works well for a lot of writers I know.

I like to aim for a word count. One year I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) and wrote 50,000 words during the month of November. That was about 1666.66 words per day. I wrote that much each day. (Okay,  I sometimes left off the .66.)

Some days I’d work in the morning. Other times, I’d work at night. As long as I met my word count, I was happy. It was a fantastic way to work for me, and it helped to have a group out there to whom I’d report my progress.

Select a writing schedule or a word count goal and discover which works best for you. See if choosing one of those ways helps you prioritize writing over organizing your bills and cleaning your bathroom.

How to Ease Through Writer’s Block

Just about every writer has had to deal with writer’s block when learning how to write a short story. Writer’s block can be caused by worry, perfectionism or the perception that we do not have the required time to write.

When I experienced a difficult time with writing, I turned to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

The book encouraged me to write three pages every day first thing in the morning. The idea behind writing three pages every day is to get the “gunk” out of our systems. As we write about our worries, about not being able to write and other such topics, we begin to free ourselves to create.

I discovered success with writing once I got rid of the “worry and negative gunk” in my head.

It’s not easy to write three pages every morning. Everything will try to conspire against you and prevent you from this goal. Assume that and plan for the worst. Your baby might cry you might catch a cold; you might have numerous life events taking place that make you think you don’t have a second to spare on writing.

When you sit to write your three pages per day, you call the writing muses to yourself. You inspired yourself. When you write three pages per day, you begin to feel a bit of pride. Maybe you do not like the work. Maybe it will be kept in a file somewhere, yet you are writing.

Writing is vital. You must be writing on a regular basis in order to learn how to write a short story.

One more tidbit from The Artist’s Way is not to read the pages and to put the three pages away. Do not look at them. Do not even sneak a little, itsy bitsy, tiny peek at the pages. They are not for you to judge. You can look at them in a month if you must. You do not want to look at them too soon and get too judgmental about your writing at this point.

Good luck with writing your three pages per day. Make this exercise work for you. If three pages sounds like too much, then start with one page and work your way up to three.

How to Get Ideas for a Story

When it comes to thinking about how to write a short story, beginning writers usually have trouble getting ideas to write about. One of the most popular questions audience members ask at fiction readings is: “where do you get your ideas?”

The good news is that ideas are everywhere.

When you next visit your local grocery store, take a look at the people around you. Look at their faces and make up a story about the person based on their facial expression. Are they scowling? Do they have wrinkles? Are they incredibly happy? In your mind, take a moment to answer the question of why. Why do they have wrinkles? Why are they happy? Why are they scowling?

Once you begin to make up answers, you are starting to create! After that, it’s all up to your imagination to finish the story you’ve started.

There’s no shortage of ideas to write about, and you can even get ideas from writing software if you’re really stuck.