I know that for some it starts with a character. Stephen King, when writing novels, puts characters in situations and sees how they evolve. I don’t know if he does short stories that way, but I imagine some people do. For me, it usually starts with an idea or a question, or a destination (ending).
Questions like “What would a disaster on a spaceship going to Mars really look like?”, “What will come after virtual reality?”, ideas like “death rituals or wedding vows” and I would look at how these had evolved differently in cultures here, and then try to think about how they might evolve differently on another planet, in a different culture, or in the distant future.
Inspiration can come from any number of things. A TV show, a newspaper article, reading a science journal, going to an art museum, hiking, attending a wedding. Sometimes it’s even reading someone else’s short story title and I think it’s about one thing, and it turns out to be completely different, or you read something and think “I would have taken that in a completely different direction.”. Of course, you should never be copying their world, their words or their overall idea, but you can be inspired by things.
The problem is not usually, however, generating ideas. I am awash in those. It’s making a good idea. If you want to write a story that not everyone is going to find immediately predictable I think there is a lot to be said for throwing out your first three ideas. If they were easy for you to come up with, they were probably also what everyone else thought of. So, for example, in my Mars mission disaster, my main plot is probably not going to just be an explosion on board or an air leak. Those might be subplots, but I wouldn’t take either as the main idea. Both have been done many times, and I don’t think I can write it better. So I would throw that first idea out.
Another way to go to make an idea a little more interesting or expand the idea is to try and combine ideas. So taking the first paragraph ideas maybe our odd death or marriage rituals stem directly from the “Mars mission disaster”.
For me I then need to have a clear idea of what the conflict is. If there is no conflict, a story about future Mars death ceremonies is just an encyclopedia entry, it’s not a story.
And finally, I need to know whether this is an idea worth running with. With hundreds of ideas there is not time to write all of them. Usually, I like to road-test them. First, I set them aside for a week and see if I am still excited by them after that time. Sometimes the excitement wanes, sometimes my brain has time to point out the plot holes, sometimes I just forget the idea. If any of those are true, it isn’t worth my time investment. If an idea survives that, I sometimes run the idea as a one-liner past a critique partner. If they are also excited by the idea, then that can also be a signal you have something worth exploring.
How do you go about generating short-story ideas? And how do you choose the ones to work on and the ones to discard? Comment below!