How to Write A Short Story, Part 3 – Not all ideas are created equal

[Sorry this is so late. I promise to do the other installments more quickly. There has been “health fun” at this side of the screen. – SAH]

[Also, part 2 is now up. I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens. — Ed]

You know the recipe for shepherd’s pie that begins with “first catch a shepherd”?

Writing a short story is similar, in the sense that first you have to have an idea.

Now there’s much dispute about how hard those items are to come by. Mostly people who haven’t written – or haven’t written much – for a living think that ideas are the hard part. The rest of us think ideas are the easy part and we’ll die with files and files of unwritten ideas.

The other day I realized I have an idea for an entire saga which has now been dormant for 27 years. I probably should write it one of these days. I mean, I’ve faced death with “unwritten stories” in my head yet, and, having gotten a reprieve, I probably should get all those I can out. In my defense, though, even though the idea was good (and as close to traditional fantasy as I’ll ever get… which isn’t very) my skills for it were lacking when I first had it.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand: first, before you write a story you have to have an idea.

Since I firmly believe that ideas are a matter of habit and almost a language to think in, I think before you have an idea for any story of any length, you have to learn what makes a story. And if you want to write a short story, you need to learn to recognize ideas for those, and know when they’re appropriate, and not something that, say, needs a whole novel to tackle.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: ideas aren’t copyrightable. Under copyright law what is copyrightable is the execution of an idea.

So, say, if you like an idea that is part of someone else’s world, you can write the idea, so long as you don’t put it in the world, with his character names. And whatever you do, don’t steal his words.

Say for instance that you really like the idea that men go to the stars and only leave uplifted dogs behind.

Totally doable, so long as the dogs aren’t friends with robots, who are trying to figure out what to do about ants. And please, don’t copy Clifford Simak’s words down. Because then you’ll be in trouble.

Got that? Good.

All writing, but particularly science fiction tends to be a long conversation, some of it with people long dead. One of my books was basically The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but make it on Earth and subtract a super computer. This is basically telling Heinlein “Oh, great master, I am but an egg, but let’s play the game with these parameters, instead.”

I’m fairly sure somewhere a romance writer is saying “Yeah, that was hot. But now let’s make the Duke not handsome and—”

(However, be aware that if you are in a writers’ group other people will get testy if you continuously steal ideas from them.)

So, how do you have an idea?

There are tons of ways. One of them is to look up three words in the dictionary, then think how they could all fit into a future (or Fantasy) world, so as to work on the title. (By long tradition, you can discard one.)
Another way is to go through the daily news and extrapolate whatever catches your eye into the future or a fantasy world, or whatever. Once you’re done crying, you should be able to write that story.

Or of course, you could have a character and something happens to him/her.

If you’ve tried all those methods and still not come up with an idea, it might be because you don’t know what an idea is.

No. I’m serious. And I’m not being cutting.

The most common problem when people bring me their ideas is that they’re not in fact ideas: not for shorts, not for novels, not for anything really.

I use this one example fairly often because it’s one someone brought me once and couldn’t get it wasn’t an idea: “What if suddenly we had flying cars and they became really popular?”

That’s not an idea. That’s at best an extrapolation, or a setting (i.e. the future world that comes from that.) So, my answer is “And?”

“Oh, and then people wouldn’t want to buy ground cars.”


“There would be midair crashes.”


“And roads would stop being maintained.”

Okay, now we’re starting to approach real ideas, though we haven’t yet touched second-order effects: flying cars would make it easier to live in the middle of nowhere because you wouldn’t have to worry if there was a road to where you wanted to live; if they were on average faster than cars, it would also mean that people could commute greater distances.

Now, if you take all those effects, and want to explore them all, you have to pick someone who is living “the new way” and some problem and/or solution brought about by the totality of that world. A master might be able to do it as a short story, but for me that smells of novel.

Mind you, it’s still not an idea for a novel. A series of articles, maybe, but not a novel. For it to be an idea for a novel, you’d have to have characters and a story arc that show all those changes and the plus/minus of them.

For a short story? Take ONE of the effects. Find someone affected by it. Have him/her deal with it. Say you have a guy whose job was road maintenance. He’s laid off and he sees nothing good whatsoever about the flying cars. He finds all sorts of reasons to loathe them, and he’s planted a bomb to go off when the guiding tower/flying car plant is empty.

Meanwhile his wife is pregnant and there’s complications. There’s an ice storm that makes it impossible for an ambulance to get to her. A flying ambulance does. He calls in a warning/goes to the plant and undoes the bomb/whatever, depending on how darkly you want to end it.

A short story idea is something that affects someone and how they deal with it. And the something needs to be “small” enough he can deal with it in around 6000 words maximum (you can go up to 10,000 but people get iffy after that.)

So, for instance, a family going through a rough patch gets a dog and it helps the kids. It would be a novel (Middle grade, I’d think.) A kid who just moved or had some other upheaval finds a puppy and it helps him deal with the issues? Short story.

In romance, this is even more obvious, which is why there aren’t many romance short stories. Take for instance the classic boy meets girl, boy and girl break up over something stupid, boy and girl work through their differences, happily ever after. Very hard to do in under twenty thousand or so words (and even then it will be rushed.) But you can do a segment of the romance (all except happily ever after, which has no story.) So, boy meets girl and has a “feeling” or “boy loses girl and tries to make it up and might succeed” are acceptable short stories.

Science fiction too. See above. To work out through all the changes of a situation you need a novel. To investigate an aspect of it, you can have a short story.

This is not to say that when you have a lot of practice you can’t write a short to “kill” a world or massive idea that won’t leave you alone. You can. But let’s get you some practice first, okay? Because you need to learn just what part of the idea to present that will imply the whole world, and you only get that with practice.

Next week we’ll start on the types of stories. Now with more “how to write” cheat sheets.