How to find ideas and develop your short stories


09 November 2012
The idea for a short story is just the beginning. How do you develop the idea into a fully rounded story? ...

The idea for your short story is just the beginning


I couldn’t count the times people have asked me where I get my ideas from. Assuming that the people asking the question are non-writers, they don’t want a complicated answer. They want a simple reply, as if the idea is the be-all and end-all to writing the story, instead of merely the beginning.


As a writer, do you ever stop and ask yourself the same question? Probably not. Eventually, it becomes second nature to find ideas, even when you’re not looking for them, They somehow arrive in your subconscious, and this is where you and I are different from the non-writers who ask the question. We know that the idea is no more than the trigger, the ephemeral thought that has to be developed into a feasible story for a reader to enjoy.

Content continues after advertisements

How to find ideas for short stories

Ideas can be found by deliberately looking for them, of course. They can come from the agony pages of magazines, which are always a rich source of ideas. They can come from song titles or poems, or headlines in a newspaper, or the blurbs beneath published short stories, or studying an illustration and seeing what you can make of the characters in it. They can come from something in your own past, from memories and old photographs, from good days and bad days.


For a determined writer, it’s not the ideas that are in short supply. It’s what to do with them when you have found them. It’s not a lot of good thinking of a marvellous idea about a small boy who didn’t want to be a pageboy at his sister’s wedding, without knowing what’s going to happen about it. I have quoted that idea, since it eventually developed into my first published short story.


On the surface, it’s no more than a single sentence, and is far from enough to consider it in terms of being a complete story. So this is where the ‘What if?’ question comes in. In other words, once you have found the idea, the imagination takes over. These two words, the idea and the imagination, can be said to be the basis of every good short story. You need both to make a story believable and appealing to readers.


Dream up short story ideas

Fiction writers are essentially storytellers, but you and I know the hard work that goes on behind those apparently effortless tales. Find your idea first, and then let your imagination get to work. And if you think you don’t have much imagination, ask yourself what you would do if you won the lottery. In fact, forget all about writing for a minute, and ask yourself right now... Go on, dream a bit...

Right. Now you know all about the luxury of packing in your boring job; buying that new dream house; or that yacht; or going on a world cruise; or even just settling those massive debts that have somehow piled up. So don’t say that you don’t have an imagination! We all love to daydream sometimes, and don’t forget that as you ignore the washing up or the dusting, or taking out the rubbish, and the kids are screaming for their dinner — while you are gazing into space in a kind of trance as the imagination takes over — you can always tell them grandly that you’re working. Because you are.


Of course, you can’t ignore them for ever. Spouses, partners, kids, dogs, cats and goldfish etc have to be fed. So did you have your notebook handy while all this was going on? It only takes a moment to jot down a couple of words that are going to trigger that other trigger that is your idea. And if you have already let your imagination take you a bit farther down the path of your story, you will probably have jotted down a few more significant words to remind you.

Break your story into small chunks

Every good story consists of a sequence of events. A beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s usually the middle part that causes most problems. Try thinking of the events in your story as small scenes that are going to carry the story forward to its eventual conclusion.

Consider my small boy who didn’t want to be a pageboy at his sister’s wedding. So where did I go from here in my imagination? I put myself into his devious little mind and wondered what he would do, and I decided that he planned to stay in his den on the day of the wedding. This could have caused ructions for the bride and obviously couldn’t happen. So he wrote himself a list of things he would need. Food, lemonade, comics etc. When he was told his friend was going to be a pageboy at another wedding, and would want to borrow his outfit, it pandered to his pride, and the day turned out happily — with a twist at the end with the bride’s mother remarking that it was good thing she found that list when she was tidying his bedroom!


This was no more than a family story developed from a very simple idea, but the situation was believable, the characters were warm and appealing and identifiable, and it was published. What more do you want?

Content continues after advertisements