1. Forage the world for story starters
One of the attractive things about writing short stories, as opposed to longer stuff, is that you don’t need to work out a fully-fleshed outline, snowflake-style or otherwise, in order to get started. Nor do you need oodles of background words about characters, stakes, setting, timeframe and so on. You just need an idea.
And that idea doesn’t even need to be an idea in the grand sense either; it can just be a prompt. It might just be a chance remark you overheard on a bus, a funny ornament in a front garden you pass every day, an odd-looking chap you spot on a holiday beach, a sudden childhood memory. It might be a smell or a view or a colour; it might be a thought triggered by a film or a radio programme or a children’s book. Of course, it might also be a break-up you’ve never got over, a terrible act of cruelty you once witnessed, or a historical event that has always had a special resonance for you.
When you start, you won’t necessarily know what’s a story-worthy idea and what isn’t. So the first thing to do is to cultivate the habit of looking and listening, both to the outside world and to the things that bubble up in your mind. Now this might sound easy, but often it defeats people because they can’t believe it will ever get them to a finished story. We sometimes envision creativity as this wonderfully crazed, instinctive outpouring, whereas this note-taking business feels like something rather dull and premeditated.
But your notebook, whatever form it takes, is where all the raw data of your stories will start to emerge. No data: no stories. So you have to get into the habit of jotting things down, and trusting that this is a worthwhile thing to do, and just repeatedly doing it even if you don’t really believe that yet, even when your first efforts are just dreadful callow things like So here I am writing in this book or Milk, wipes, olive oil. Post office! As with a half-used tube of toothpaste, you sometimes have to squeeze the crud out to get to the good stuff.
For inspiration, try Morning Pages – as popularised by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and others. Basically, you sit down at the start of your writing session – it doesn’t even have to be morning! – and you just write down whatever comes into your head for 10 minutes. Don’t censor what pops up – just record your thoughts.
You might be amazed what occurs – shopping lists, dreams, the fag-end of a row with your partner, a glimpse of a first crush, childhood memories, strange bits of wordplay, spiritual reflections, a person in your life you haven’t thought about for ages… It’s all good, and it could all get used somewhere in your fiction. Just as the stand-up sees the world as a bunch of set-ups waiting for a punchline, so the short-fiction writer sees the world as a bunch of prompts waiting for a good story.
2. Go with the idea that tingles
My Dad always said that he could tell a really good piece of cheese because it gave him a funny tingly feeling behind the ears. I spent much of my childhood trying (and failing) to experience this elusive dairy-led sensation. But I do at least get the tingle when it comes to stories.
Over time, you’ll start to look at the bits of mental flotsam in your notebook, and you may find there’s a phrase or an anecdote or an image that you keep coming back to. When that happens, you may well have the first tinglings of a story on your hands.
From time to time I go back through my notebooks and highlight bits of scribble that I think I might be able to use. Sometimes it’s a setting. My story ‘The Beach Shop’ in Hotel du Jack, for example, about a heartbroken man stalking his ex-wife on her holiday, was inspired by my early-morning stops at a cafe on a French campsite. I loved the locale, and just started writing about it till a story came.
Sometimes – often in my case – it’s a bit of anecdotal autobiography. My story ‘Plane-spotting‘ was inspired by reading a story to my young son about an airport where all the planes are animals. I thought it would be funny if the Dad was a real aviation nerd, increasingly infuriated by the inaccuracy of the drawings, and it just went from there. With the flash ‘Eau de l’avenir,’ the inspiration was a smell – or rather, a scent.
To give one more example of how ideas turn into stories, George Saunders says his flash fiction ‘Sticks’ came from something he saw from his car every day. ‘For two years I’d been driving past a house like the one in the story, imagining the owner as a man more joyful and self-possessed and less self-conscious than myself. Then one day I got sick of him and invented his opposite, and there was the story.’
When you note down stuff, you don’t know if you’ll ever use it, or if you’ll end up using it several times. You may use it in a way that’s a complete betrayal of the original memory. You may dredge it up again, years later, and forget you ever jotted it down in the first place. It doesn’t matter: you’ve got it down now, and it’s adding to your imaginative store. It’s all good.
3. Try a thought experiment
Another way to approach a story is to ask yourself: What if…? What if supermarket shelf-fillers and nurses were the most celebrated and best-paid members of society, and celebrities and lawyers were considered the lowest of the low? What if an epidemic of kindness broke out in the world – Agapia-117, let’s call it – and threatened the stranglehold of capitalism, with its built-in systemic reliance on rabid self-interest? (Just riffing here, obvs.)
These kinds of story offer you a rich counterfactual challenge. Depending on the challenge, you might offer the reader the pleasure of watching an unexpected idea play out, or you might challenge yourself to pull off a narrative feat that the reader doesn’t know about until the end: What if (to cite a notorious example) you could tell me a whole story that turns out in the end to have been narrated by a cat? What if you wrote an alien contact story, only for us to realise at the end that the narrator lives on another planet, and the ‘aliens’ are actually humans from earth?
The idea for my story, ‘Nothing So Blue,’ came to me when I asked my son for ideas of what I could write about. ‘Write about becoming invisible,’ he said. Now sci-fi isn’t really my thing, but then I thought: ‘What if you were granted a superpower, and it turned out to be a bit rubbish?’ Now that, I thought, was very much more my thing.
A great example of the thought-experiment approach is ‘The Rememberer’, by Aimee Bender:
‘My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month, and now he’s a sea turtle.’
4. Borrow a form from everyday life
Structure doesn’t come naturally to us all (guilty), but an easy way to get round that is to give yourself a nice constrained timeframe, such as the hours of a day or the seven days of a week. I use this structure in a few of my stories, notably the title track of Hotel du Jack, because it offers a natural scale of narrative progression. On Monday, we meet the cast of the story and get a sense of what’s at stake. On Tuesday the first signs of conflict emerge. Wednesday sees problems escalate, Thursday brings a false dawn, and on Friday things really kick off. Saturday is the day the crisis resolves and the loose ends are tied up, and Sunday has that nice sort of epilogue feel to it. It is the day, as Craig David tells it, on which one chills; the day one rests after creating a world.
You might choose a lunch-hour, or a night, as Helen Simpson does with her insomniac narrator in ‘Erewhon’ (collected in Constitutional), a man in a roles-reversed world who stays up worrying about kids and money and sexism while his high-powered wife lies snoring indifferently next to him. It could be a date or a work meeting or a conversation between dads at the side of a junior football match, where the competitive nature of the chat echoes the changing fortunes of their kids’ respective teams and the climax of the story coincides with the final whistle.
Taking this idea a step further, hermit-crab fictions – also known as borrowed forms – are stories that are made out of everyday verbal templates. The more banal the form, the better – think product reviews, missing-person reports, recipes, maths problems, listicles, top tips, user instructions…
The trick is to try to stick quite closely to the structure you’re stealing, so that the story you tell will seem even wilder or more heartbreaking by contrast with its dull container. As you go through your day, you’ll come across thousands of these dead bits of copy – from insurance letters to FAQs to parish newsletters. Choose one, and make it your own.
I’ve written hermit-crab stories in the form of a shopping list, board game rules, FAQs and even a penalty charge notice. In Hotel du Jack, you’ll also find a ghost story told as a neighbourhood forum thread, a reflection on #metoo in the form of board meeting minutes, a meditation on grief in the form of a dishwasher glossary, and a product recall notification. Another story, ‘Active and passive voice’, dissects a flawed relationship through the structure of a grammar lesson. Meanwhile ‘My Mummy is…‘ was written – out of a sense of profound inadequacy – just after I’d read a book with my 5-year-old son at school entitled My Daddy is a Firefighter.
One of my favourites pieces of flash fiction, LIFECOLOR INDOOR LATEX PAINTS® – WHITES AND REDS by Kristen Ploetz, manages to condense an entire life into a trio of paint palettes. George Saunders has a lot of fun with this response to a customer complaint. Here’s a story of long-term love that’s also a 5-star blender review. And this story is just receipts.
If you’d like to read more hermit-crab narratives, here’s a couple of great anthologies to inspire you: Fakes by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, and The Shell Game, edited by Kim Adrian.
5. Start writing
If you’ve got a prompt that feels rich and interesting – whether it’s a vague memory or a thought experiment or a borrowed form – the next thing is just to get something down.
My process at this point is crude: just bang a first draft out. If you have an idea that feels like a start, get it down and start playing around with what happens next. If you have an idea that feels like an ending, get it down and think about how your story might get you there. But do the thinking by actual writing. This is not a drill! And this is not a novel. Just write.
As you go along, the idea will start to build and coalesce, especially as, remember, you chose something that’s already glowing and tingling for you. As the juices start flowing, you will start to see possibilities open out for you – structural bridges, snippets of dialogue, observations that you sense suddenly belong somewhere within the fabric of your story’s world. You can start to put in little headers too, little pegs to mark out future sections. Jot all these extra thoughts at the bottom of your doc, keep typing, and fold them in as you go.
Sometimes, as the story starts to flow, you may get stuck on one bit but can start to see how a later section would work. Go with the flow, and start filling in that later section instead – just leave yourself some meta-notes for the bits you need to come back to later e.g. insert scene where elephant appears for first time or add in funeral-home bit here to explain why Moira’s always hated lilies.
The same process also works at a micro-level, too. Often your ideas for the story run ahead of how quickly you can phrase things. Thinking about the broad contours of your story and fine-tuning phraseology are different creative tasks, and it’s not always easy or efficient to flit between the two. Don’t waste time waiting for the mot juste to arrive – just put in a bit placeholder copy or add some “xxxxxxxxxxxs,” and move on. Just get the broad brushstrokes down, and then you can go back and finesse the detail later.
I guess the approach I’m advocating here is a bit like ‘writing by the lights,’ a phrase that inevitably takes us back to a line from EL Doctorow: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Sometimes the idea you have is a perfect little synopsis, and all (!) you have to do now to flesh it out in a way that does justice to the conception. Sometimes you just have an opening scene, or an image, or a character to work with, and you have to build the rest of the world around them. But the remedy is the same in every case: get that first draft down.
The more stories you write, the more you get a sense of the optimum length for a particular piece. Some short stories are almost like extended gags; they go out and back in a simple anecdotal arc that culminates in a snappy zinger. Others require patience and stamina to deliver their potential. Their form might be much more complex: a spiral, a mosaic, a musical symphony of contrasting and resolving themes. But the best way to build up to writing complex stories is to start by completing simpler ones. And the best way to complete a story is get a first draft down fast. Then the real work can begin.