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In 1948, Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery appeared in print for the first time in an issue of The New Yorker. If you haven’t read The Lottery yet, there will be no spoilers here. But suffice it to say, its surreal tale of small-town scapegoating struck a chord. It was one of those unique and shocking short story ideas that the New Yorker faced an onslaught of complaints and cancellations in its wake.
It’s since become one of the most famous short stories of all time. And it may just be the prototype for how engaging and thought-provoking ideas for short stories can stir up all sorts of emotions in the reader. Chances are, deep down you sense the same about your own writing. If you just had one good idea, you could break that writer’s block.
What is your version of a thought-provoking short story idea? What are some good short story ideas you can use to offer the world your own spin, without copying original work like The Lottery? Let’s look at a few suggestions that can help you get going.
“The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature… the short story apologises for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar.”
–Steven Millhauser, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer
What is considered a short story? A better question might be: How long is a short story?
A short story is a work of fiction that most people can read in one sitting. That’s typically fewer than 5,500 words. Short stories that are especially short—1,000 words or fewer—often become “flash fiction.”
To put it in perspective, many short stories last about as long as a chapter might last in a novel. And given this constraint, it’s important for you to come up with engaging short fiction story ideas that draw readers in right away.
You don’t have much time for anything else.
There’s nothing wrong with using a prompt to get you started. After all, how many of us can’t start the day without a cup of coffee? Or can’t start a morning jog without first tying our shoes? Short story ideas are like that: just a little kick to get you going. Here are a few ideas and writing prompts for short stories for getting your writing into gear:
1. Use a Generator
No one is saying that using a Short Story Ideas Generator is going to give you something as fresh and original as The Lottery.
But what it can do is set the wheels in motion. Short story creative writing prompts like these can have an electrifying effect on your brainstorming session.
The key is not to rely on short story generators, but to use them when you’re stuck. Is there one particular piece of the short story generator that strikes you as interesting? If so, think of the generator as an ember; your job is to cultivate the kindling, wood, and air flow that makes this seedling of an idea burst into a torrent of creativity.
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2. Spin a News Story With a Twist
Stories are all around us. Visit The New York Times or open your local newspaper and you’ll find all sorts of them.
But if you want to get good short story ideas from the news, you’ll have to take it a step further. Start looking for intriguing premises, then add your own unique twist. Use the question “What if?” to change your perspective on the story.
Some stories may have feel-good features, for example. You can use the “what if?” exercise to ask questions like: “What if this went wrong? What if things got out of hand?” Sit down with a fresh piece of paper and jot down what comes to mind as you attempt to answer those questions.
3. Find Ideas in Fiction for Kids
If you’re writing for kids, consider adopting a previously-adult tale (like Moby Dick) and fashioning it for something kids could relate to. If you’re writing for adults, try the opposite: Are there classic fairy tales that could use a modern spin?
There’s a big difference between Stephen King’s Cujo and Clifford, the Big Red Dog. One is a horror story; the other’s appropriate for children. But it’s not hard to draw a line from the concept of a unique dog and begin to reimagine the tale if it were a suspense story written for adults.
The same is true in reverse. Think about classic concepts and offer your own unique spin by adapting that concept for a totally unique audience.
4. Build Your Own Twists on Classic Fiction
Speaking of Moby Dick: You might not be able to turn an epic allegory of revenge into a short story. And Moby Dick was an original idea that’s already been done. But there’s no rule against taking concepts from classic fiction and presenting them in your own take in the version of a short story. Many creative writing short story ideas come from existing concepts that you build upon until it’s a unique tale.
There are always ways to freshen up classic stories. You could argue that Andy Weir’s novel The Martian is a unique take: Robinson Crusoe in space.
As long as your writing is original and you bring a fresh perspective on a classic concept, it’s possible to look at classic literature as a sort of short story ideas generator. They won’t write your stories for you, but they will open your mind up to new possibilities.
One way to create a unique spin on something is to turn it into satire. When Stanley Kubrick first envisioned his classic satire Dr. Strangelove, it was a high-stakes nuclear war thriller.
It was only in the writing that Kubrick realized the situations were so absurd that the movie could only work as a satire. That additional layer of thematic interpretation changed it into a wholly original classic.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, a serious subject—care for the mentally ill—took on new meaning as Poe infused it with satirical political commentary.
Here are some nuggets of inspiration to generate your own funny short story concepts:
5. Use a Personal Anecdote
You can’t go through life without having one or two embarrassing—but possibly funny—things happening to you. Chances are, your experiences are more universal than you realize. What is an embarrassing thing that happened to you, and how can you make it funny? What stakes can you add to the situation to give the anecdote a more universal appeal?
6. Put a Twist on a Scary Concept
It’s always a good idea if you can invigorate your short story ideas with a twist. What is a dead-serious situation that takes on humor if you tweak just one element? In Dr. Strangelove, it proved that even the prospect of nuclear war had plenty of absurdity to mine.
7. Put a Classic Funny Situation in a New Setting
We’re all familiar with “fish out of water” stories. They give instant appeal and sympathy to the protagonist. In the film Splash, the movie played on the concept by making it literal with a mermaid. What classic comedic situations can you introduce in a new light?
Fantasy worlds create unique opportunities to take classic concepts and offer them new twists. Consider Joyce Carol Oates’ fantasy short story, You, Little Match Girl, the title of which is a nod to The Little Match Girl from Hans Christian Andersen.
8. Spice Up the Folk Tale
What are classic folk tales from our own world that take on new meanings if presented in a fantasy element?
9. Exaggerate the World
What is a trait of our modern world you can exaggerate for your plot? In The Lottery, Shirley Jackson essentially imagines a fantasy village where public stonings are still possible. Yet it has a ring of truth because it offers a take of scapegoating in modern society.
Sci Fi Short Story Ideas
Like fantasy, science fiction is a wonderful place to take old concepts and bring them to life in new worlds.
Consider every episode of Star Trek. Before TV focused more on serial stories, every episode was essentially a self-contained short story. In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode The Inner Light, Captain Picard lives a lifetime of memories on a distant planet. But his physical body only experiences about twenty minutes in real time. It’s a traumatic experience with a gut-wrenching twist.
Only in science fiction could you expose characters to uniquely unsettling situations like this. And that’s where your science fiction short story ideas can come from.
10. Try a Relatable Concept in an Unrelatable Setting
Can you put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation? Consider one of George R.R. Martin’s early works, The Second Kind of Loneliness. It takes a universal human concept, loneliness, and puts it in the setting of Pluto’s isolation.
11. Make Characters Literal
Imagine character concepts and find ways to make them literal. In Gulliver’s Travels, for example, we don’t just see Gulliver feeling small in a foreign land. He literally meets giants who are about 70 feet tall.
Telling a frightening short story is all about identifying universal themes—themes anyone can relate to—and creating a story that confirms our worst fears about them. Here are some examples of short story ideas that have frightened people over the years:
12. Try a Macabre Twist
W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw takes a traditional concept—having wishes, like a genie in a lamp—and turns that dream into a nightmare. In the story, the White family gets everything they wished for—but only through the unfolding of horrible circumstances.
13. Create an Evil Protagonist
It might be tiring to be in an evil protagonist’s mind for the length of a novel. But for a short story? It can work. Take Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, told from the extreme perspective of a guilty murderer.
14. Drop an Ordinary Person in Extraordinary Circumstances
Let’s go back to The Lottery for a second. Part of what made this satire so frightening is that we don’t know it’s a scary story at first. It seems like a slice of life from small-town America, with just a slight mystery. But by slowly unveiling the horrible circumstances that define The Lottery, Shirley Jackson saves the most frightening moments for the end.
Want ideas for short stories for kids? This is where you can start mining them. Good fiction is rife with tension, drama, and unique challenges. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t end on an uplifting note or create an optimistic central theme.
15. Consider the Overcoming of an Obstacle
The Little Engine That Could is a short children’s story with an easy message to grasp: Believe in yourself, and you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish. It succeeds with a simple story premise that anyone can replicate: Give your central character a mission (in this case, a train climbing a hill), and tell the story of your protagonist overcoming the odds.
16. … Or the Defeat of a Villain
Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a short story from The Jungle Book that tells the story of a mongoose that protects a family from cobras. Though Kipling takes us through all the emotions of wondering if Rikki-Tikki-Tavi survived his final confrontation, the story is ultimately an uplifting narrative about facing your fears.
17. Put an Uplifting Twist on Classic Themes
Just like any other story, you can always come up with something original by adding your own unique twist on common thematic ideas. To kick-start your imagination, start taking familiar stories and turning them completely around. What if Jack London’s human vs. nature tale To Build A Fire ended on a more uplifting note? What would it look like set in modern times, with different conflicts to overcome?
Sometimes, these can sound like they’re exclusively short story ideas for children. But you can use these prompts to try and identify some unique twists you can use with adult themes as well.
Some people say that all of the stories have been told—that they’re all just different versions of each other. And while it might seem like there’s absolutely no more material to find, remember that as long as you have unique elements in yours, there’s always the opportunity to tell a new story.
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