Most writers have too many short story ideas, not too few. However, therein lies the problem, because the more ideas you have, the harder it can be to choose the best one.
Here’s my advice: If you’re in the mood to begin a new short story, stop trying to find the best short story idea. In an interview with Rolling Stone, George R.R. Martin said, “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”
The best short story idea in the world won’t help you if you don’t write it, and a mediocre idea can be made into an award winning story if it’s written well. Stop worrying about finding the best idea and choose one that’s good enough (or even an idea you’ve already started). Your goal isn’t to have the best ideas, it’s to have the best short stories.
That’s why this list is so short. Some websites give 44 story ideas, 100 ideas, or even 1,000, and while that can be fun, it kind of defeats the purpose. More ideas won’t help you if you don’t write them, and they might just distract you from your true purpose.
Short Story Ideas
With that in mind, why not use these ten short story ideas to write your first ten stories, one per week, over the next ten weeks? I promise you, your life will look totally different if you do it.
Here are the short story ideas:
1. Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one.
To be a writer, said Stephen King, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
Good writers don’t cover up their wounds, they glorify them. Think for a few moments about a moment in your life when you were wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Then, write a story, true or fictional, involving that wound.
2. Your character discovers a dead body OR witnesses a death.
In 2011, 20 short stories were published in Best American Short Stories. Half of them involved a character dying. That same year, all 13 of the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize involved the theme of death.
Think about your favorite films or novels. How many of them either show a character die or have the character’s dealing with the death of another.
Good writers don’t turn away from death, which is, after all, the universal human experience. Instead, they look it directly into it’s dark face and describe what they see on the page.
3. Your character is orphaned.
Pop quiz: What do Harry Potter, Superman, Cosette from Les Miserables, Bambi, David Copperfield, Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, Santiago from The Alchemist, Arya Stark, and Ram Mohammed Thomas from Slumdog Millionaire have in common? Beside the fact that they are characters in some of the bestselling stories of all time?
They’re all orphans.
Writers love orphans, and statistically they appear in stories far more often than in the world. Orphans are uniquely vulnerable, and as such, they have the most potential for growth. It’s time for you to write a story about one.
Read more about why you should be writing stories about orphans here.
4. Your character discovers a ghost.
One more pop quiz: What do Edgar Allen Poe, Ron Weasley, King Saul from the Bible, Odysseus, and Ebeneezer Scrooge have in common?
Each of these characters* from literary classics saw ghosts!
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, they make great stories. Have your character find one.
Need more reasons to write about ghosts? Check out our article, 3 reasons to write about ghosts.
*Edgar Allen Poe was not exactly a character, but he was the narrator of “The Raven.”
5. Your character’s relationship ends.
Whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship or even the relationship between a parent and his or her child, write about the end of a character’s relationship.
As you write, be sure to keep this in mind:
“Every story has an end, but in life every ending is just a new beginning,” says Dakota Fanning’s character in Uptown Girls.
While it might feel like you’re writing an ending, remember that this end is the opportunity for a new beginning, both for your character and your story.
More Short Story Ideas
Ready to get writing? Get our workbook 15 Days to Write and Submit a Short Story for a step-by-step guide through the process.
6. Your character’s deepest fear is holding his or her relationship OR career back.
“Why bats, Master Wayne?” asks Alfred in Batman Begins.
“Bats frighten me,” Bruce answers. “It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”
We all have pieces of ourselves we’re trying to hide. You do, and so do the characters in your short stories. However, your characters’ secret fears and insecurities are actually the source of their power. Dive into them and you’ll unlock a captivating story.
For more, read our article When You Don’t Know What to Write, Write About Your Insecurities.
7. A character living in poverty comes into an unexpected fortune.
This storyline is one of the seven basic plots, and it describes the plot of some of our favorites stories, including Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations, several of the parables of Jesus, and even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
However, not all fortunes are good. As Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need?and John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl illustrate, sometimes discovering a fortune will destroy your life.
8. A character unexpectedly bumps into his or her soulmate, literally.
In film, it’s called the meet cute, when the hero bumps into the heroine in the hallway, knocking her books to the floor, and forcing them into conversation. In another story, they meet on a bus and her broach gets stuck on his coat. In another, they both reach for the last pair of gloves at the department store.
What happens next is an awkward, endearing conversation between the future lovers.
First, setup the collision. Then, let us see how they handle it.
9. Your character is on a journey. However, they are interrupted by a natural disaster OR an accident.
This is the plot of Gravity, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Rings. It’s fun because who hasn’t been longing to get to a destination only to be delayed by something unexpected.
10. Your character runs into the path of a monster.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family is on a road trip to Florida when they get into an accident beside the hideout of a murderer who had just escaped from prison. What happens next is one of the most famous encounters with a monstrous criminal in short fiction.
Monsters, whether people who do monstrous things or scaly beasts or a monster of a natural disaster, reveal what’s really inside a person. Let your character fall into the path of a monster and see how they handle themselves.
Want more story ideas? Want to learn how to execute those ideas better, and get your short stories published? Check out this book Let’s Write a Short Story, a guide that will get you started writing and publishing short stories. Get it here.
Testing Your Short Story Ideas
Spend a few minutes today thinking about these 10 story ideas and coming up with a few of your own.
But before you start writing, try testing out your idea by sharing it with a friend, your writer’s group, or even our online community Becoming Writer.
If the people you share it with aren’t very excited about your idea, consider reworking it or even starting over. If they start getting visibly excited about the story, on the other hand, then you know you’re onto something.
I recently combined idea #7, the unexpected fortune, along with idea #5, end of a relationship, to create this idea:
A writer who is inexperienced with women suddenly gets the courage to date not one but two women—the old friend who had twice rejected him and a barista he’s long been attracted to—but after several months of balancing them, both relationships end leaving him alone.
I then posted the idea for feedback in Becoming Writer. And the feedback I got not only helped me see I had a promising idea, I got more ideas from members of the community about how to make the story even better.
As I wrote the story, I was more confident because of the feedback I had gotten, and when I finished, the story turned great.
Once you have your idea, join Becoming Writer to test them out. Oh, and if you join, here’s the link to mine if you want to share your feedback! I’ll be there ready to check it out.
How about you? Do you have any short story ideas? Share them with us in the comments section!
About Joe Bunting
Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
The genres of short prose writing can be very confusing. For example, some writers will call their personal essay a story, and others will call their essay a memoir. To make matters even more complicated, a number of literary magazines are beginning to accept what is commonly called mixed genre writing. It’s important to understand the difference between the types of short prose, whether you’re writing an essay, short story, memoir, commentary, or mixed genre piece.
What is a short story?
A short story is a work of fictional prose. Its characters may be loosely based on real-life people, and its plot may be inspired by a real-life event; but overall more of the story is “made-up” than real. Sometimes, the story can be completely made-up. Short stories may be literary, or they may conform to genre standards (i.e., a romance short story, a science-fiction short story, a horror story, etc.). A short story is a work that the writer holds to be fiction (i.e., historical fiction based on real events, or a story that is entirely fiction).
Short Story Example: A writer is inspired by a car explosion in his town. He writes a story based on the real explosion and set in a similar town, but showing the made-up experiences of his characters (who may be partly based on real-life).
Short Story Example two: A writer writes a story based on a made-up explosion, set in a made-up town, and showing the made-up experiences of his characters.
What is a personal or narrative essay? What is an academic essay? What’s the difference?
Though factual, the personal essay, sometimes called a narrative essay, can feel like a short story, with “characters” and a plot arc. A personal essay is a short work of nonfiction that is not academic (that is, not a dissertation or scholarly exploration of criticism, etc.).
In a personal essay, the writer recounts his or her personal experiences or opinions. In an academic essay, the writer’s personal journey does not typically play a large part in the narrative (or plot line).
Sometimes the purpose of a personal essay is simply to entertain. Some personal essays may have a meditative or even dogmatic feel; a personal essay may illustrate a writer’s experiences in order to make an argument for the writer’s opinion. Some personal essays may cite other texts (like books, stories, or poems), but the focus of the citation is not to make an academic point. Rather, emphasis is on the writer’s emotional journey and insight.
Personal Essay Example: A writer pens the story of his experience at the scene of a car explosion in his town. The work is short enough for publication in a literary journal and focuses on the author’s perspective and insight.
What is a commentary?
The personal essay form and commentary may sometimes overlap, but it may be helpful to make some distinctions. A commentary is often very short (a few hundred words) and more journalistic in tone than a personal essay. It fits nicely as a column in a newspaper or on a personal blog. The writing can be more newsy than literary.
Some very short nonfiction pieces may be better suited to newspapers than to literary journals; however, literary magazines have been known to publish commentary-esque pieces that have a literary bent.
Commentary Example: A writer tells the story of a car explosion in his town to illustrate the point that the police are not vigilant enough about people throwing flaming marshmallows out their windows.
What is a memoir?
Memoir generally refers to longer works of nonfiction, written from the perspective of the author. Memoir does not generally refer to short personal essays. If you’re writing a short piece based on your real-life experiences, editors of literary journals will identify this as a personal essay. If you’re writing a book about an experience, it’s a memoir. A collection of interrelated personal essays may constitute a memoir.
Memoir Example: A writer composes a full-length book about his experiences after a car explosion in his town.
Learn more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble
What is a nonfiction short story?
There’s no such thing as a nonfiction short story. Short stories are inherently fiction (with or without real-life inspiration). Personal essays are not fictional.
So what is mixed genre writing?
Mixed genre writing is creative work that does not sit comfortably in any of the above genres. Mixed genre writing blends some elements of fiction with elements of nonfiction in a very deliberate way. Some examples:
Mixed Genre Example One: A professional accountant named John Jones is writing a story about a man named John Jones, who is John Jones and lives John Jones’ life—except that the fictional John Jones one day decides to leave his real-life accounting job, and live his dream of being a rock star (since the real-life John Jones is thinking of doing the same thing).
Is this a short story? An essay? If ninety percent of the story is true and ten percent is fiction, then what should the writer call this?
Mixed Genre Example Two: A writer decides to compose a family history, using pictures and documents from her family albums. But sometimes her story veers into fiction. She finds herself embellishing elements or omitting characters; and, the result is a story that’s better than the one she might tell if she were to stick to the facts.
Again, is this an essay? A short story? If half of the story is made-up, but half is very obviously true, it might be best called mixed genre.
NOTE: Sometimes the term mixed genre is defined in terms of the novel or book. A mixed genre novel might be a novel that mixes science fiction elements with characteristics of a legal thriller. Or a mixed genre novel might also be a work that plays fast and loose with fact and fiction. If you’re going to refer to your book as mixed genre, be clear about what you mean.
Learn more: Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication
Tips on Writing Mixed Genre
If you’re going to write mixed genre prose, do so with care. Mixed genre writing often has a kind of self-aware, almost tongue-in-cheek, element to it—a wink to the reader who is not fooled by the mixing of fiction and nonfiction, even if the lines are blurry. Mixed genre can be considered experimental, and as such, it’s important that the writing be exceptionally smart in order to live up to the demands of the (mixed) genre.
Why is mixed genre writing so often self-referential? Writing mixed genre and passing it off as an essay or a short story could make editors think that you are trying to dupe them, so it helps to include something in the work that makes reference to itself as being a mixture of fact and fiction. These “meta” elements can help put the reader at ease.
Who is publishing mixed genre short prose?
The primary markets for short prose are literary magazines and journals. Writer’s Relief frequently helps writers target their work to literary journals. For more information on how to find markets for your short prose, please read Researching Literary Markets for Your Work if you plan to research on your own. Or learn about Writer’s Relief submission services if you’d like help targeting your submissions.
Photo by greeblie via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greeblie/
QUESTION: Have you ever tackled a mixed genre piece?
Ronnie L. Smith, President of Writer’s Relief, Inc., an author’s submission service that helps creative writers get published by targeting their poems, essays, short stories, and books to the best-suited literary agents or editors of literary journals. www.WritersRelief.com
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