Tuesday, February 16, 2021

How to Fan Your Short Story Idea Sparks into a Bright Fire

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: When you've trained yourself to think "big" when creating story ideas, it can be hard to think "short." Rayne Hall shares tips and questions on how to turns your idea sparks into stories.

How often have you thought, "I want to write a story about this”—and then waited for the muse to come? You may have visited an intriguing place, listened to a friend's marital vows, chuckled about a social media post, or heard about an astonishing true-life event. These ideas are like sparks, hot, bright and fascinating—but how do you get from idea to story, from a mere spark to a bright flame?

Staring at the spark, waiting for the muse to come and fan it into a fire, rarely works. The sparks die, and all that's left is a cold crumb of ember. To build a fire, you need tinder (crumpled newspaper, birch bark, cotton wool balls) which ignites when touched by a spark. Without tinder, you won't get a flame, and without a flame, you can't light the kindling which sets the logs on fire.

I'm going to give you the tinder that will grow your idea into a brightly burning flame.

Here are five kinds of ideas. To which group does yours belong? Play with the questions, try out different answers, and before long, you'll have the basics of a short story plot.

1. The 'Place' Idea

You're visiting an interesting location—a historical building, a tourist attraction, a friend's home, a wild landscape, a quaint village, a danger site, a spectacular view—and your heart hammers with excitement because you know this could be the setting for a great story.

This is how most of my Gothic stories start: I explore remote, creepy, spooky places—ancient ruins, derelict factories, abandoned homes—and then put characters into them.

Questions to ask:
  • What kind of person might come to this kind of place? Why?
  • What do they want here?
  • Are they here voluntarily or against their will?
  • Is someone with them, and if yes, who?
  • Are they here to meet someone, and if yes, whom and what for?
  • Are they trying to avoid someone, and if yes, whom and why?
  • What if they don't realize that someone is already in this place? Who and why?
  • What if someone arrives unexpectedly? Who and why?
  • In what way does the new arrival cause a problem?
  • How does the weather affect what they feel, what they need, what they do?
  • How might the weather get worse, and what will they do about it?
  • What can they do here that they cannot do in another place?
  • What dangers might a character face in this place?
  • What can they do to keep safe against those dangers?
  • What do they not know about this place and find out later?

2. The 'Character' Idea

You observe someone's behavior, hear their life story, listen to a friend telling you about someone they met, or get exasperated by a person's attitude. Or perhaps a minor character in a novel intrigues you, and you think, "I want to write a story about someone like her."

Questions to ask:
  • What intrigues you personally about this character?
  • Why is this aspect so interesting to you?
  • What is this main personality trait—can you define it in a single word?
  • What shaped this person to become like this—perhaps their upbringing, their religion, a traumatic event?
  • What kind of situations trigger the character to show this sort of behavior?
  • What are the two sides of the coin of the main character trait? Most traits have a positive and a negative side, for example, 'thrifty' and 'devout' are positive while 'stingy' and 'bigot' are negative, and this works really well in short stories.
  • What benefits does the person get from their trait?
  • What problems does it cause for them?
  • What other people could benefit from the character's trait/weakness/flaw? In what way?
  • Do they deliberately goad the character into this behavior to take advantage?
  • Who suffers as a result of the person's trait/behavior/attitude?
  • Are they trying to change the person? If yes, how, and with what results?
  • What would have to happen for the character to change, learn or grow?
  • What are the character's deeply held values?
  • How do those values connect to the important trait or flaw?
  • What's this character's self-image (how they see themselves)?
  • Do other people see them the same way, or differently? How?
  • What does this character want most? Why?
  • What does this character need?
  • Do they know they need it?

(Here’s more on Create a Powerful Story Cast: A Master List of Character-Building Resources)

3. The 'Situation' Idea

Sulu does a little dark reading
While reading a book or watching a film, or perhaps hearing people talk about their life experiences, a certain situation captivates you. Examples: A woman suspects that her husband is a bigamist. A mature woman goes on a blind date arranged by her daughter. Five people jointly inherit a house and can't agree what to do with it. A man buys a retirement home and settles in, and then someone else claims to be the legal owner and proves it. Siblings meet again for the first time in fifty years. You know this situation deserves a story of its own, and your heart beats fast with excitement at the prospect of writing it.

Questions to ask:
  • What exactly is it that fascinates you about this situation?
  • Why does it resonate so strongly with you?
  • Does it bring up old memories, cherished daydreams, long-held romantic fantasies?
  • To what kind of person could this happen, i.e. who might find themselves in such a situation?
  • How did they get into this situation?
  • How do they feel about it?
  • What could they do about it?
  • What will they do? (Tip: if you were inspired by someone else's story, make the main character, the preceding events and the resulting actions different. Don't clone the existing tale: create your own original story.)
  • What dilemma does this situation pose (inner conflict)?
  • Whom else does this situation affect?

(Here’s more on Dilemma: The Source of Our Story)

4. The 'Inner Conflict' Idea

Someone tells you about a dilemma they face, or you hear about someone who was forced to make a horrible choice, or perhaps you yourself have to make a tough decision. A character forced to choose between her lover and her child, between love and loyalty, between their faith and their family can kindle stories with great emotional power.

Questions to ask:
  • What kind of person (other than the one to whom it happened in reality) might face this kind of choice?
  • How might they have gotten into this situation?
  • What options do they have?
  • In what way is each of these choices wrong?
  • What are the disastrous consequences of each choice?
  • Can you raise the stakes and make the consequences even more dire?
  • Which of their personal values or beliefs are affected by this?
  • With each option, what sacrifices would the character have to bring?
  • What other people might be affected by the character's choice?
  • What do they have to gain or lose?
  • Will they try to apply pressure on the character?

(Here’s more on The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

5. The 'Activity' Idea

While working in your day-job or enjoying your hobby, you think, "I'd like to write a story about this." Or perhaps it's your friend's or brother's career that inspires you, or you watch someone carry out an activity or remember a task you used to do. Activities make great short story backgrounds, especially if you can write about them with authenticity of personal experience.

Questions to ask:
  • What kind of person might practice this activity? (Tip: make your story interesting by avoiding stereotypes. How about a female boxer, a highly educated bodybuilder and a mature pop singer?)
  • What are the routine tasks involved in this activity?
  • What could go wrong while doing this?
  • What are the risks and dangerous involved? (With knitting, the risks may be moderate—stitches may drop, or the cardigan may not be the right size for the child. With mountaineering, an incorrectly tied knot can be lethal.)
  • Who or what can cause problems? For example, an inexperienced new team member may make a mistake, a business rival may sabotage the equipment, a careless colleague may skip safety measures.
  • What might happen to disrupt a normal daily activity?
  • What does a practitioner of this hobby/sport/profession dream of achieving? Could this be the goal they pursue during the story?
  • Why is this so difficult to attain?

(Here’s more on An Easy Tip for Developing Story Ideas)

Lighting the Fire

I find that the best method for this is to write my answers by hand into a notebook, and to continue freewriting the thoughts that come into my head. Soon, the idea will ignite into a strong flame. You might even get several ideas. In this case, chose the one that excites you most. You can always return to the other ideas later and create more stories.

When you build a fire, you touch the spark (from the match, firelighter, flint etc.) to the tinder (bark, paper, cardboard, cotton wool etc.) to create a flame.

Your idea is the spark, my questions are the tinder, and your answers are the kindling. Together, they make the beginnings of a bright fire.

Now it's time to add the fuel (logs, charcoal, eco-briquettes etc.) to create beautiful, long-lasting heat. You can either develop a structured plot outline or write a first draft from the seat of your pants.

Do you have any ideas you want to develop into stories? To which group do most of your story ideas belong? We'd love to hear about this in the Comments.

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

Website | Twitter | Facebook  | Goodreads

Learn to haunt your readers with powerful, chilling tales. Make their spines tingle with anticipation and their skins crawl with delicious fear. Disturb their world-view and invite them to look into the dark corners of their own souls.

This book gives you a wealth of tools and techniques for writing great short stories. It is part of the acclaimed Writer's Craft series.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo 


  1. Thank you for this. Most of my short stories are triggered by ideas involving Place or Inner Conflict. To "see" places, I typically turn to places I've been, pictures/videos, and maps. Most of my short stories take place in the fictional world of Ontyre, but I've dabbled in sci-fi and contemporary paranormal. Then again, some of those short stories from Ontyre have a contemporary feel to them or are rather gothic. I've actually stared at a map of Pannulus until a location catches my attention and a story blossoms. Other times, though, I'll write based on a turning point in a character's life (inner conflict). I so appreciate these long lists that will only enhance my ability to generate ideas. Thank you.

    1. That's interesting, Christina Anne. I think that we can add a sense of realism and authenticity to our fictional words by drawing on real-world experiences, including real places we've visited. --- I'm intrigued that you find inspiration from maps. I've never tried that. How do you do that?

    2. I gaze at one of my maps and the geography appears to me. It helps that I made the maps and have a mind for patterns. What is revealed is based on real places I've been, images I've seen, or imaginary images blended with a real world location. It's like Jurassic Park when they build a dinosaur by filling in with frog DNA. After all that, there's either a spark or there isn't. Sometimes I see a particular street or building. From that flows a character or situation. I've written a handful of short stories this way.

      Most of the time, though, the spark comes from elsewhere. For instance, "Taking Flight," which is on my WP site, takes place on an airship I designed. That made it easy to see. The spark, though, was my own fear of flying and the character encountering someone from her distant past.

    3. Interesting. So it's the combination of something personal (a memory, an emotion...) with a something you've designed yourself (an airship, a map). For me, it's also two two things clicking together like jigsaw pieces - often a location plus one other thing.

    4. I believe you've uncovered the critical element, which is the initiation of process, "two things clicking together." Creativity, after all, isn't static. That moment when I consider an element and then another combines with it is the moment I sit up and take notice and the process begins!

  2. Thanks for featuring my article. :-)

  3. Thank you for your article, Rayne. Following these steps will help a great deal with my own short story writing.

    1. Have any ideas started to bubble up yet?

  4. I love these ideas, thank you, Rayne. Have you got any suggestions for this situation: every month a Writing Association I'm involved with calls for short stories but you only have two days to write it, and must include certain words and a beginning scene. It's really hard to come up with good ideas!! Usually 300 words.

    1. 300 words is tough! But coming up with ideas fast and writing fast gets easier with practice. I used to enter monthly 24-hour story writing contests. What worked best for me was to have a list of story ideas at hand, and then when the topic was announced, I simply chose the idea that was the best match and started writing. To create a very short story, let the whole story unfold in under an hour in a single location.

  5. Diana Atanasova2/17/2021 6:16 AM

    Thank you, Rayne, for these great ideas. I am not a writer myself but I am very interested in literature and writing, so I always follow you guidelines for writers. Very benficial advise, as always...

    1. Thanks, Diana. In future, when you read a short story, you may think, 'Ah, the author used such-and-such method here...' :-D

  6. Thank you Rayne! I love how you take a mundane situation or place and help the (fledgling) author expand those ideas into a complete story. I'm new to short story writing and know I will find useful tips and ideas here.

    1. As a fledgling author, it's worth experimenting with different approaches to see which method suits you best.

  7. Rayne I believe you may have given me the solution on how to keep my short stories from blossoming into multi-page novels. I am going to try your method. I like the Character and Situation ideas and they look like they would fit very nicely into my Fantasy writing. Your questions have already got me thinking about new characters, old characters and how to write short stories to introduce then to my readers. Thanks for putting this up. It is going to be an excellent tool.

    1. I hope I haven't given you more ideas than you can cope with. That's my problem - I always have more ideas than I have time to write. :-D

  8. You have shared some really amazing ideas on how to light the spark of creativity. I find it very hard for me to push myself to write especially in those pandemic times, but hey I could definitely use some of your suggestions.

    1. If you find it difficult to write in those pandemic times, here are two suggestions. The approaches are very different, try them both and see which of them works best for you. 1. Treat writing as 'escapism'. Get away from the pandemic and all that's getting you down, and escape into a story world. 2. Stay in your reality, and observe your emotions - the loneliness, anger, frustration, anxiety, helplessness or whatever you're feeling. Observe where in your body you feel the emotion, and how it feels. Write down those observations. E.g. 'My anger feels like a hard, rotating knot in my stomach' or 'loneliness pulls me down like a heavy weight in my chest.' Create a file where you save these emotion descriptions. In future, when you work on a story and your point-of-view character feels anger, loneliness or whatever, you can look up the description for that emotion and use it. e.g. 'Anger balled like a hard rotating knot in her stomach.' This will be original, vivid and authentic writing. :-)

  9. What a helpful post, Rayne. I've a list at 'sparks' that have been going nowhere. Perhaps they'll now catch fire.

    1. I always have lots of ideas swirling around in my head, all demanding to be written... but they rarely blossom into stories all by themselves.
      I find it helps to view all those sparks as jigsaw pieces. When two or better three click together, a picture begins to emerge. :-) So I try which of my many ideas could click together, and then I'm off.

  10. What a great article! I'm going to try to put a few together based on the sparks!

  11. Most of my story ideas have their roots in a particular situation that I envision. Moving from that one episode to a fully developed story or novel is always my challenge. I appreciate the questions that you've asked about a 'situational' writer. They'll help clarify why I find that situation interesting and how to get from one episode into a fully fleshed out piece of writing.