GETTING STARTED WITH YOUR SHORT STORY: 5 TOP TIPSDec 16, 2021
So, you want to try your hand at writing a short story, maybe even enter it into this year’s Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing? How do you get started? Below, award-winning writer Mariah Whelan shares her top 5 tips for how to transform your ideas into a fully-fledged piece of short fiction.
1. GET INSPIRED
The most common question I am asked by writing students is where do I find my inspiration? It is a tricky thing, this notion of ‘inspiration’. It conjures up images of the muse descending from on high to bless us with an idea. Personally, I think this is the wrong way to look at the writing process. Yes, inspiration is that lightbulb moment where an idea pops into our head, but we do not have to sit around waiting for it. We can take practical steps to invite inspiration into our lives.
The first thing we can do to create inspiration is to carve out dedicated writing time. Where can you fit in 30 minutes to sit down at a quiet table and just write? Set a timer on your phone and go. Do not worry about what you are writing, just do it. Start off with ‘I don’t know what to write about’ if necessary but keep writing and eventually ideas will start to come.
Another good idea is to read the newspaper. Pick an interesting headline (tabloids are great for this!) and start writing about how and why this event happened. One more strategy is to pick up an object in your home and use that as inspiration. Write about the object’s imaginary owner. Who are they? How did they come to own this object? Let yourself be free to imagine and voila, you will be more than halfway to a new character and situation.
2. DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS
Speaking of characters, there are a number of exercises you can do to shape your characters into living, breathing human beings on the page. One great strategy used by lots of writers is to imagine your character is carrying a bag full of objects. What kind of bag is it? A scruffy backpack or a brand-new Birkin bag? What does this say about your character? Go into detailed description and think about how your language choices communicate this character’s personality.
Then, describe the objects inside the bag. What do these possessions say about your character as a person? Is there anything particularly interesting in this bag that could be the start of a story, like a letter or someone else’s pen that needs to be returned? What is your character going to do with this object? Let your mind wander and write down as many details as you can until you know your characters inside and out.
3. HAVE A THINK ABOUT YOUR THEME
If you are thinking about submitting your short story to the Mogford Prize, do not forget that you will have to place food and drink at the heart of the tale. So, why not explore food and drink related situations to help develop your initial ideas? If you already have your character, imagine they are about to have dinner. Where are they? Are they nervously waiting in an expensive restaurant? In a long line at Tesco clutching a ready-meal-for-one? Are they preparing food for other people? Imagine your character in a given situation and observe how they move, how they are feeling and what they do next. Rather than thinking about making your character ‘do’ something, try to discover what is going on in their lives and how this allows their story to take shape.
4. CONFLICT DRIVES PLOT
In any story, something needs to happen. I used to get really anxious about ‘plot’, trying to make things ‘happen’ in a way that was both believable but also engaging. However, rather than trying to work in this way, thinking about the ‘big picture’ first, it is much easier to start with the idea of conflict. In particular, I like to start with the internal conflicts that motivate each character. I take a fresh sheet of paper and write at the top: ‘What does this character want?’ Then, I set my timer for 15 minutes and write down what they want. What are their conscious desires for themselves, their relationships and their lives? What are their goals?
After I have explored what a character wants, I take another piece of paper and repeat the process, this time answering the question ‘What does this character really need?’. This is a subtly different question. You might have a character who wants to go on a date with a gorgeous man in her office. It is all she wants in life… but what does she really need? Maybe she needs to stop ignoring her poor performance at work. Perhaps she needs to address her unresolved issues about romance in general. How these two elements play out – what the character wants versus what the character needs – are fuel that can allow your story to suddenly jump into life. Following the resolution of these two elements (or a lack thereof!) will generate your ‘plot’, the ‘stuff’ that happens in your story.
5. WRITING IS NOT EDITING
Finally, when getting started with a new short story, it is really important to remember that anything goes. All too often writers end up silencing themselves when they read their work and find it lacking. You can (and should!) come back to your story later to edit it. That might mean small edits to do with clarity of expression and tone, or much bigger structural edits or even rewriting whole characters. You can worry about all that later. When getting started it is important to ask that inner editor to take a back seat while you focus on getting your ideas down onto the page, regardless of how rough they are. In fact, I would go so far as to say rough is good! Give yourself permission to experiment and be messy. You will come back and spend a lot of time editing and polishing so give yourself some freedom and focus on letting your imagination take control.
If you’re still looking for inspiration why not read some of the short stories by previous winners of the Mogford Prize? All the previous winning stories are available to read on our website.
Written by: Dr Mariah Whelan, Writer, Editor and Teacher