Every story starts with an idea. Some writers are lucky enough to have the skill of dropping story ideas like it’s nothing. Some of us have to work a little harder for it.
Do you struggle to come up with solid, workable ideas for your short stories? This is for you!
How to come up with short story ideas
Short story ideas can come from literally anywhere. Your life, your dreams, other people’s lives, other books and media you might be consuming.
The trick is learning how to notice when you’re getting an idea.
6 Tips For Coming Up With Short Story Ideas
The best short story ideas will always come from you yourself. Those are the ideas that you’ll care the most about and be able to bring to life the easiest.
That said, I have a ton of advice for coming up with short story ideas yourself that will lead to the best and highest-quality stories from your own original mind.
1. Go outside! And write it down.
Listen and watch. Observe the world. Write down things you see, hear, and like. I keep three different note documents on my phone to keep track of ideas as I get them:
- Imagery – anytime I sense something I find interesting, I jot it down. A few examples from my current imagery document are:
- playing Cat’s Cradle with rosary beads
- rain pelting on a flat bayou and a crane flying parallel with it
- a creepy shed lit up in the middle of the night with a radio playing
- Lines – these are either things I hear other people say or just dialogue that occurs to me randomly. Some examples:
- “There’s something to be said for a bad thing done well.”
- “Lonely till the walls talk back.”
- “She survives the day to see the stars.”
- Story and character ideas – these are generally notes I keep as I think of new elements for my works in progress, but sometimes they’re not related to anything and I just use them for writing prompts. Some examples:
- Character A gets Character B drunk and into a bar fight
- Kitchen dogs that are functionally used as garbage disposals
- A spell that lets people cross into the water world (which is any water–if you stare into a puddle you can see glimpses of somewhere else)
I’ve got hundreds of lines worth of notes and observations of things I’ve seen/heard or have thought of because of something outside. Everyone’s different, but I just don’t get ideas when I’m sitting in my house!
2. Use your life
Think of impactful moments or important people in your life, and write about one of them.
The story doesn’t have to be nonfiction, or at all accurate to what happened. But just like the most convincing lies have a kernel of truth, I think the same is true for fiction. If you can plant a seed of realism in your story, it usually reads more genuine!
You can write about a childhood memory, an argument that didn’t go the way you’d planned, or you can ask a family member or friend about one of their core memories and write that as a story.
What you end up with can be as similar to or as different from the actual event as you’d like, but starting from a place of reality is a good way to generate ideas AND write a more convincing story.
3. Read other short stories and take note of what you like about them
You might like the way another writer opened their story, or the lines, characters, descriptions, and imagery they used–figuring out what you enjoy in writing can help you create stories you love too.
You might also take something and use it as inspiration or a writing prompt–for example, you might read my story Wolverine Frogs and like the image I used of the boy’s dried brown blood on Maya’s fingers mixing with her own fresh red blood and take that as a prompt to end up with a werewolf novel. Inspiration can come from anywhere, so you might as well double-dip while you’re already reading other authors to hone your craft.
4. Use prompt lists
5. Write fanfiction of your own writing
This is one of my favorite tips for generating story ideas. Take your own existing stories, then make an in-world spinoff, an alternate universe telling, or whatever variation you’d like!
For example, I could take the abusive mother from my story Margrove and write the same universe and characters from her perspective. I could even set it in a different timeline, like right after her second daughter is born, so we could see her dealing with her husband’s death and raising two kids on her own, then watch her start drinking and spiral.
I could also set in a different era or genre. Maybe I’d put her in a modern universe instead of the 1800s. All of these little tweaks can give you a completely different story experience.
Recycling characters and concepts you’ve already developed to make a new story is like a shortcut, because you’ve already created depth with those characters and universes. So not only is it a fun idea generator, but it’s a time save because you’re recycling things you’ve already created!
6. Consume media in your genre
If you’re writing a horror story (or a collection of them), it might be a good idea to listen to true crime podcasts, read dark authors, watch horror films, and consume other media that you enjoy in that genre.
If you’re working on your holiday romance series, maybe you marathon some Hallmark movies.
Try to consume whatever media you enjoy in the genre you’re writing, because that can give you a lot of ideas, as well as helping you familiarize yourself with the tropes and expectations of that genre.
How do you know if a story idea is good?
Any idea can make an amazing story if it’s in the hands of the right author with enough time. So how do you know if your idea is good? The only tip I have for this is to ask yourself: Am I excited to write this?
I’ve had concepts that I thought were really solid and interesting, but I just wasn’t excited to write them–so I set them aside until I was. Other times I’ve tried to force through and execute the idea, and it’s just never worked if my heart wasn’t in it.
So I say if it excites you to write, it’s probably a good idea!
Do you have any indicators for if a story or book idea is good or not? Leave them in the comments!
What if the idea is unoriginal?
This is a very real concern many writers have, but I have great news! No idea is original.
There are so many people who have been creating art for so long that you’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a completely original idea. What makes a story special is that you are writing it. You, your perspective, and your experiences give you a unique way to frame your story. No one else could write it exactly how you would, and that’s what makes it original.
So don’t stress yourself out about coming up with something “new”–just find something you’re excited about, and write it in a way only you can. Once we free ourselves of the need to be unique, we can write what we love to write.
Now we have some ideas of how to find and develop story ideas, how to know if they’re good, and how to deal with them being unoriginal. Here are a few prompts to get you started!
10 Short Story Prompts
1. Write about a character moving into a place where they will live alone for the first time. What happens that first night?
2. Write about someone finding an unidentifiable egg on the beach. Do they take it home? What hatches?
3. What happens to the scientist who defies the government’s orders to tell the public about an upcoming cataclysmic event?
4. A character returns to their hometown for their sibling’s funeral and is confident that their murderer is also attending.
5. Write about your favorite holiday. The day is ruined by the weather, but it’s not what you’d expect.
6. Write a story about a family who adopt a baby and realize he’s not what he seems.
7. Think of your favorite childhood memory and write it from the perspective of someone else who was present for it.
8. Go to a restaurant or a coffee shop by yourself and listen for a while. Write down a few things you hear people around you say–are any of them good story openers?
9. Take the opening line of your favorite book and begin a different story with it. You can delete the line later–it’s just a prompt!
10. Write about a nature conservationist who finds a den of babies of an animal long-thought to be extinct…but the animal has adapted in an unexpected way.
Want More Short Story Idea Generators?
Writing prompts are a great way to shake the ideas loose and get the fingers flowing again! Try these!