How to Think of Topics for a Short Story

Three Methods:Seeking Inspiration Around YouUsing Writing PromptsBrainstorming Basic Elements

The short story is one of the cornerstones of fiction writing. Composing short stories can be a lot of fun, whether you are completing an assignment for school, entering a contest, or simply writing for your own pleasure. The first step in composing a short story is coming up with an idea. Fortunately, this is not hard to do. By seeking inspiration all around you, brainstorming basic elements, and experimenting with writing prompts, you’ll come up with an excellent concept in no time.

Method 1
Seeking Inspiration Around You

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    Make a list of five things you’re afraid of. A central component to any story is a character’s emotional drive. Few emotions are more compelling than fear. Sit down and create a list of five things that you fear. (Don’t think too hard about it. Just take out a pen and write.) See if you can imagine a character sharing this emotional experience, and think about how it could shape their story.[1]
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    Use a story from your life. Another tried-and-true approach to crafting a story idea is to take something from your own life. Think about moments in your life which contained a high-level of emotional intensity: When have you had the most fun, been the most heartbroken, or experienced the most anger? When you have you learned an important lesson? When has an experience changed you? You can always dramatize and/or spice up your story, but looking back over your life can give you a nice jumping off point.[2]
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    Look for inspiration in the news. A classic source of story inspiration is the news. Open up a newspaper, turn on the TV, or go online to your favorite news source. Some papers may even have a section for humorous or outlandish news stories, and these may be an excellent place to start.
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    Eavesdrop. One of the best sources of inspiration is the people around you! Go to a crowded place (a park, a restaurant, a bar) and just listen in to people talking. (It may help to pretend to be reading a book, or put ear buds in without music). Regular people often say the most funny and interesting things. Allow something you hear to spark an idea for your story.[3]
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    Read some “missed connections.” Another great place to find story ideas is the “missed connections” tab on Craigslist. This is a section where people try to connect with random people they have met in the world. In some cases, these stories are ripe with story potential. Take some time to read these over and see if anything sparks.[4]

Method 2
Using Writing Prompts

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    Write about something ugly. When you hear the word “ugly” what comes into your mind? Is it a person’s face? Is it a despicable deed? Is it a poorly decorated room? Use your concept of ugliness to generate a story.[5]
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    Imagine an asteroid is headed straight for Earth. An asteroid headed straight for Earth generates a few questions: How can it be stopped? What happens if it crashes? Is there a post-apocalyptic landscape? Who might be responsible for this asteroid? Could it be extra-terrestrials?[6]
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    Write about one or both of your parents. Your folks might be wonderful people, or they might be jerks. Either one could be a good jumping off point for a story. You may tell the truth about your parents, or you may speculate about things that could happen (or could have happened already).[7]
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    Envision a closed door. Why is the door closed? What is behind it? Is the door inside a building or outside? Is it a freestanding door in the middle of the dessert? Could this door lead to another dimension, or open into an important business meeting?[8]
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    Picture a Chinese restaurant. A woman opens a fortune cookie that reads, “You are in grave danger. Do not tell this to anyone.” What does the woman do? Does she believe that this fortune is telling the truth? Who could be trying to warn her? Who could be trying to harm her, and why?[9]
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    Search for unique prompts. If using writing prompts is a fruitful exercise for you, begin to seek out your own. Check out books filled with writing prompts (e.g., 397 Journal Writing Prompts and Ideas, 300 Writing Prompts, and 642 Things to Write About) from your local library, or do some basic internet searches. You may also seek out a writing partnership where you develop prompts for one another.

Method 3
Brainstorming Basic Elements

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    Imagine a character. The basic building blocks of any story are character, plot (what the character wants and what stands in their way), setting, and theme. You can start with any of these, but a common place to begin is character. Look around you. Do you see anyone interesting? Can you picture an interesting person in your mind? Let that be your main character.[10]
    • You may try to think of anyone you know with extraordinary features.
    • Do you know anyone who is extraordinarily beautiful? Extraordinarily brave? Extraordinarily strange?
    • Allow these people to inspire your character.
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    Figure out what your character wants. At the center of every story is desire. In order for you to start formulating your plot, you have to figure out what your character wants. You may begin by asking yourself what you want. Can you make a list of five things you wish for? Do you think any of these resonate with your main character?[11]
    • Another question to ask yourself is why does your character need this thing right now? A sense of urgency makes for a strong story.
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    Create an obstacle. If the center of every story is a character who wants something, the driving force of the story is what stands in the character’s way. What is preventing your character from getting what they want? What is stopping them from achieving their goal? Make this something concrete and immediate (unless it is not meant to be realistic).[12]
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    Place them in a setting. The setting of a story includes the place and time that your story takes place in, as well as any details that occur in that place. To get at your setting, ask yourself the following questions: What city are they in? What year? What does it look like there? How is the weather? How are the people dressed?[13]
    • It may help to think about places you have been, or places you wish you could go.
    • You may even think about places that have appeared in your dreams.
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    Come up with a theme. Behind a character’s goal and their quest to overcome a series of obstacles, is an overall message or theme. You may begin you hunt for the theme of your story by asking yourself to list four things that are important to you. Next, list four things that you believe. These things may be big or small. Then, look over your lists. Chances are, embedded in there will be a theme you can latch on to. [14]
    • For example, your list of things that are important to you might include your family, recycling, eating a healthy diet, and watching good films.
    • Some themes embedded in this list are: family is the center of a happy life, saving the earth is essential to human survival, you are what you eat, and watching the stories of others helps us understand our own lives.


  • Don't cross out your ideas, every topic has the potential to be amazing!
  • Do not be afraid to combine two or even three ideas together.
  • You do not always have to start with the theme. You can start with an image, a description, a character, or a setting.

Article Info

Categories: Ideas and Inspiration