I love writing short stories–I also love reading them.
The other day I was scrolling through different blogs and tripped upon a flash fiction by Lady Jabberwocky, called Hamburgers and Horoscopes. It’s only 100 words yet the author managed to portray a character that I knew immediately. It was a fun, quick read, and it got me thinking about story inspiration.
I wrote a short story a while back that actually came in 8th place with Writer’s Digest.
The question, or main focus, of the story hit me on September 11th while thinking back on the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. I asked myself what it would be like to have a birthday on September 11th. Then I took it one step further, and made the focus of my story a boy who was born at 9:03 (the exact time of impact on south tower) as his father died in the towers at that same moment.
He’s born. His father dies. So, is September 11 a day of celebration or a day of mourning. A dichotomy to be sure. It was a interesting story to explore. I may rewrite it and add to the character–we’ll see. That’s the nice thing about a short story, is that it can always be beefed up or pared down.
Take the story about Hamburgers. It’s just an ordinary thing that people recognize and can relate to.
When you’re looking for inspiration don’t drive yourself crazy. Stay simple and add on the questions, the incidents, and the uniqueness.
Let’s look at each category for exploration.
adjective common; ordinary; banal; unimaginative.
of or relating to this world or earth as contrasted with heaven; worldly; earthly: mundane affairs.
of or relating to the world, universe, or earth.Dictionary.com
So, if you think of ordinary things what comes to mind?
Me, I immediately think of brushing my teeth, sleeping, driving to work, grocery shopping…All pretty boring and mundane settings. What can you do with them. Let’s take one and start adding and building. Remember, for a short story you need some sort POW moment in the story…
Grocery shopping: character/setting/situation/question:
- stay at home mom. bored. goes grocery shopping. kid in cart. pushing cart through the store.
- an unknown woman winks at her over the pomegranates and then begins to follow her.
- every time she looks up, the strange woman–is it a woman?–is staring at her.
- the store lights flicker. announcements continue on loud speaker as the staff buzz around unaware of customers distress
- what does your stay at home mom do? is it real? imagined? maybe she winked first?
- who is the woman? what happens next?
The ordinariness of the situation can turn sinister, dramatic, or comedic depending on how you chose to create the rest of the story.
Remember when you’re writing you want to continue to put obstacles in front of the character to deal with.
It can be as simple as having a wobbly wheel on the grocery cart. Doesn’t that drive you nuts… it’s distracting and perhaps a clue to your whereabouts.
What is going on in that grocery store? Hmm…is it actually a grocery store? So many different ways to go even though you began with a very mundane theme.
Let the imagination soar.
adjective: horrible or frightful to the senses; repulsive; very ugly: a hideous monster.
shocking or revolting to the moral sense: a hideous crime.
distressing; appalling: the hideous expense of moving one’s home to another city.Dictionary.com
When I think of hideous, the TV news comes to mind. We’re surrounded by hideous behavior, actions, and stories at every turn.Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Game trilogy says she was watching TV and flipping channels one night when she happened upon coverage of the Iraq war and was inspired for The Hunger Game series… You can read more here.
There are many stories that could begin in the hideousness of the world and end up taking another direction. What story will you tell. Let’s take a look.
Hideous event: A young person shoves an old lady, kicks her, and steals her purse.
- Caucasian male 17 years old, known to use meth and heroine
- Has been a victim of the ‘system’ since age 4
- The woman said something to him before he pushed her
- He hides close by to make sure she’s okay
- Q: who is the woman? does he know her?
- Q: what did she say?
- Q: is he stoned?
- Q: how does this story resolve itself?
Don’t be afraid to go for the controversial, the demented, or the bizarre. The thing is, how you treat the situation and what redeeming qualities you find within your characters or story line, is what make it unique.
Make your short list of character/setting/situations/questions… This will guide you as you can then break each of these down into separate segments to add details.
adjective: inconceivable; unimaginable: the unthinkable size of the universe.
not to be considered; out of the question: Such a suggestion is unthinkable.
noun: something that cannot be conceived or imagined, as something too unusual, vague, or disagreeable:
Today’s unthinkables are tomorrow’s realities.Dictionary.com
This particular type of story is one that, for me, either borders on the science-fiction/fantasy realm of life or the “what-if” part of my mind and the horrid imaginings that can haunt us forever. Things like missing children, horror, and really twisted crap can not only be disturbing, but unreadable for some. It depends on how you handle it.
Again, the news has a lot of unthinkable things.
Recently the Taliban took over the rule of Afghanistan. I’m terrified for every woman and girl in that country. To me that is an unthinkable.
Another possibility comes through the constant upgrading of technology, robotics, and communications. Sometimes they’re just downright frightening.
The Black Mirror series on Netflix is a perfect example. If you haven’t had a chance to watch then you’re missing out. I will warn you though, some of the episodes are pretty disturbing.
Besides the science type stuff there’s always the what-if? This is where you take a piece of information that sparks some sort of unthinkable as you ask what-if this happened…then this…then this…?
You answer the questions all the way to the end to come up with some sort of conclusion.
Let’s look at some sort of unthinkable story idea.
Unthinkable Event: A disease of unknown origin kills every bovine on earth. It’s a virus of monumental speed and power.
- ten top scientists from around the world
- millions of cows, oxen, and buffalo lay dead in the fields and streets around the world.
- the smell–describe it–is choking the air as flies buzz everywhere.
- variant disease begin to spread to the scavengers–vultures, crows, coyotes, wolfs…
- panic in the streets
- industry in distress
- farmers all over the world demanding answers
- Q: when does it spread to humans?
- Q: is anyone immune?
- Q: will the hero/heroine figure it out in time?
- Q: did any livestock survive.
Let your imagination go. Take it to the limits.
When you take inspiration from real life and use it in a story, you’re the creative genius who can ask the tough questions, make the situations uncomfortable, and really push the envelope. Don’t forget the requirements and limitations of a short story. Keep the writing tight and focus.
What are you waiting for? Go write a short story!
Here are some other posts I wrote about short stories. You should check them out.
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