Write A Short Story This Week

Getting Started With An Idea

A woman begins to write a story on an open, blank pink notebook with a keyboard, mouse, and iPad next to her.
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You may have dreamed about writing a novel and becoming a best-selling author, millions of fans begging for your autograph, movies constantly asking for permission to take your book to the big screens, hundreds of thousands of dollars rolling in as you relax on your vacation house, writing lazily on your computer…

Most writers want that. I want that.

And while it can be beneficial to start and jump straight into writing a novel, without ever having written anything before, try honing your writing skills by writing short stories first.

If you’ve never written anything before, even before writing short stories, you might want to try writing fan-fiction. Fan-fiction is writing in a world that already exists. For example, you could write a short story set in the world of Harry Potter(By J.K Rowling), and have Hermione Granger go insane and take over Hogwarts, or write a whole entire series about Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase(From Books by Rick Riordan) trying to fight sea monsters. Fan-fiction is really helpful to new writers because it allows you to start writing in a world where everything is already set-up for you to mess around with.

Okay. So maybe you’ve tried to write some fan-fiction, and you have a very small base of writing(or maybe you have a huge and expansive one; if so, you are a writing prodigy).

Now, let’s get to the reason you clicked on this article. You want to write a short story. So what makes this elusive short story any different than all the stories of fan-fiction you just wrote?

Fan-Fiction vs. Original Short Story

Fan-fiction, as discussed earlier, is writing in a world that has already been developed by another author. Characters, world-building, relationships, possible conflicts — they’re all already made. Sure, you can create your own characters or settings, but most of it will be set in this world that somebody else created.

A short story is different. Take this short story I wrote. That wasn’t fan-fiction. It wasn’t based in the Wings of Fire(By Tui T. Sutherland) world or using the characters of Shades of Magic(By V.E Schwab). It was made entirely from my own imagination.

That’s the difference between fan-fic and short stories. While piggy-backing on fan-fiction can be really fun and easy to start with, and some people only write fan-fiction, you really start to write and explore that creative part of your mind when you start writing short stories that come straight from you.

A man sits facing away from the camera, staring a wall covered with white papers.
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Coming Up With Ideas

While you can totally jump straight into writing a short story with just a pencil and some paper, having an idea, no matter how small, can help direct all those words and prose in your head to create something that actually makes sense.

Here’s a few ways that you can use to come up with an idea:

  1. Develop a Character

That word. ‘Develop.’ It might make you think of spending hours, painstakingly crafting a character, making them so real and life-like they could be your best friend(or worst enemy) in real life. Don’t worry. Yes, in some scenarios, especially for bigger projects like novels, developing characters you know inside-and-out can be a big help when writing, but for coming up with a short story idea, you just need a basic character sketch.

Come up with three personality traits. Then two physical traits. Add in an interesting thing. Give them a name. Boom, you have a compelling character you can use.

If you want to see this method in action: Lewis Probe(name) is a quiet, solemn, and resigned(personality) man. He is tall, with a long and gaunt face(physical), and he’s never fallen in love, despite the fact he’s 73(interesting fact). Now, using that character with a potential conflict — the interesting fact — , I can start…

2. Come Up with A Plot

That might be an even more daunting task than the first option, but again, it doesn’t have to be too bad. The great thing about writing is that you can start with the smallest idea and expand and explore it to your liking.

There are a large and ever-expanding amount of plot types, just like there’s a large and ever-expanding number of stories, but when just starting out this whole ‘writing’ thing, it’s best to use a more simple and traditional plot.

A plot, this amazing and monstrous concept that you might have been tactically trying to avoid while writing, is, at it’s core, a conflict solved(or not solved, if that’s more your story).

So, either using the character you built in the first method, or just using this option, try this:

Decide on a genre. Contemporary, Fantasy, Mystery, Sci-Fi, whatever floats your boat. Now, pick an object. It can be any object in the world, but if you want to limit your imagination, maybe just an object in the room or building you’re in.

So you have a genre and an object. Write them down on a piece of paper, and start brainstorming how this object would interact with a story in this genre.

Here’s an example: I chose the genre Mystery. I chose the object of a poster. I started thinking along the lines of a poster that started to peel away, only to reveal a bomb. BOOM(pun intended), you have a conflict! Suddenly, I have a spark of inspiration that I can keep using to write my short story.

If these two options sound a little too structured for you, try this one:

A person sits at their desk, thinking about what to write in their journal.
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3. Create A First Line

This, along with a vague idea of what I wanted the story to be about, was the method I used to write the short story linked above, Smoke.

When using this method, and it goes without saying, the first line needs to be exciting. However, it doesn’t need to be exciting for everyone. The purpose of this first line is to make you excited about the story, give you a sense of what it’s going to be about, and how the tone will be throughout the story. Keep in mind you can always change it later(however, if it’s good enough you likely won’t have to), but it’s just a kickstarter for the rest of the story.

There are dozens of types of first lines, but here are some three you should try out if you’re just starting:

Descriptive: This type of first line is great for setting the tone and the setting itself. It also works to develop the voice of the story, so this is great if you enjoy writing detailed prose. For example, “The blur of white, red, and yellow lights covered the buildings like neon snow on jagged black mountains, the steady rumble of cars and clipped clomps of footsteps accompanied by the smell of smoke, heavy and thick, a layer of fog over the city.” Usually, descriptive first lines are a few dozen words, and contain a healthy use of figurative language to make it as vivid as possible.

Surprising: This is the most common, and arguably the most powerful, way to start a story, whether it be a short story, or a 3,000 paged novel. As the name describes, the first line jumps out at the reader, sinking its claws into their minds, compelling them to keep reading. Good surprising first lines make the reader ask questions, make them want to find out what happens next. For example, the first line of my story, Smoke, is, “The child wakes up without fingers.” Notice that this first line is considerably shorter than the descriptive one above, and this works to really pack a punch in the first few words. If it makes you think, “How am I going to write this story?”, it will likely make your readers want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Dialogue: When writing dialogue as your first line, here’s something to keep in mind — it still needs to be captivating. It doesn’t need to be as startling as a ‘surprising’ first line, but it can’t just be a boring piece of dialogue. Or, it can, so boring and expected that it’s actually unexpected, and your reader wonders why you would choose that to start your story — but that’s a more advanced writing tactic. Here’s an instance of a decent dialogue first line: “You could stay. If you wanted to,” the girl said, knives twirling between her fingers.

Notice that this first line creates lots of questions, a sort of opening into this large, complex world, like a funnel. When writing first lines as dialogue, while having just the words being spoken (“You could stay. If you wanted to.”) can create a more powerful and impactful beginning, using some descriptive language and telling who’s talking and what they’re doing creates more elements in that first sentence to hook the reader.

Two woman in a bedroom comment and proofread a short story on a laptop.
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Developing Your Idea

So you’ve done it. You’ve used the above methods — or maybe your own — to get a spark, a beginning for an amazing short story, and you’re ready to write. Depending on how comfortable you feel with writing, you can absolutely start writing the short story right this moment with just your little premise in mind.

However, if you want to fill out your idea a little more so you have a stronger structure to write your story, here’s some ways to build on your premise.

  1. Ask Questions, Answer Questions

Ask yourself these questions about your short story and write/type the answers to them down. This will help you get a broader sense for the plot and characters of your story.

What does your character want, and why? What is your character’s greatest fear and how does that impact his/hers want? How does your story end(happy ending, sad ending, cliffhanger)? Who is your target audience and why would they want to read your short story? Describe your story in one sentence. Tell your story through the three main points — beginning, middle, and end.

2. Get To Know Your Character

Characters are the beating heart of your story. Sure, without a good plot and setting, your story can feel wasted and monotonous, but a strong and vivid character really makes-or-breaks your short story.

Abbie Emmons, a great writer and planner, has a large plethora of writing videos about crafting great characters on her YouTube channel. This article from Reedsy is a great and detailed resource if you want to dig deep into your character and who they truly are, on both the inside and outside. It can also help to pull pieces from people you know to make your character more relatable and realistic.

3. Build A Plot Mountain

You might remember the concept of a ‘plot mountain’ from school, and maybe you’ve even used it in the past. A plot mountain’s function is to sketch out your plot and identify your exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. However, there are many other plot maps that might suit you better than a plot mountain.

If you want to flesh out your plot a bit more, this great article from Reedsy helps to develop the events in your story and how they work.

4. Pitch Your Idea

While I know the concept of putting you and your writing out there can seem really, really frightening, I’m not saying you have to send your idea to a magazine or blog. All this means is to just go to some friends and family you a) feel comfortable around, b) don’t mind if you tell them the whole story with plot twists and endings, and c) aren’t afraid to give you raw and honest truth, instead of the sugar-coated ‘Yeah, that’s super awesome, don’t change a thing!’ stuff you might get from say, your parents.

Get feedback from these trusted advisors and take note on what they like and what they don’t like, how excited they seem to want to read the finished story, and how they react as you tell them the plot.

See if the surprising things are actually surprising, the sad things actually sad, and the cool things actually cool. Of course, because you haven’t written the story yet, they won’t be as invested, but using their feedback you can adjust and tweak your idea to it’s best possible form.

Finishing Up

You’ve turned a premise into a fully-fleshed idea, and now it’s time to tie up some loose ends. You might have scribbled down some notes and ideas on random pieces of paper floating around, and maybe you typed your friend’s feedback on a Google Doc.

Now, you want to pull all your ideas into one online file that’s clear and easy-to-read for when you decide to write your story.

Make sure you have a premise, characters, plot, and all your notes you took while fleshing out your story. Once you have that, give your file a name, and take a nice, long deserved break.

And then, when you’re ready, write your story.

You got this.

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Writing. Technology. Entertainment. And that feeling of jumping from hobby to hobby aimlessly.

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The Electronic Pen

The Electronic Pen

Writing. Technology. Entertainment. And that feeling of jumping from hobby to hobby aimlessly.

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