The Four Questions You Need to Ask Before Starting Your Short Story

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write a short story every month during 2016. I just finished my short story for May, so now I’m brainstorming the one for June!

For my last two short stories, I had very clear images in my head of what I wanted to write about. This month, I’m completely at a loss. I literally have no idea what to write. Nothing is exciting me right now.

When this happens, I feel like I have a couple options:

  1. Wait until I come up with an idea (this is dangerous, because there’s no guarantee I’ll actually come up with one).
  2. Just free write until a story unfolds (this sometimes works… but often I feel like I just ramble and talk about my character’s life without any plot).
  3. Find or make a prompt and just brainstorm until I have a somewhat developed idea (this is time consuming and I may not fall in love with it, but it’s usually the safest).

 

Right now, because I’m overwhelmed with life and jobs, I’m feeling like going with #3. Here are some initial questions I’m asking myself as I start to brainstorm what June’s short story will unfold.

4 Questions to Answer Before Starting a New Story

1. What does the character want?

This is ultimately the most important thing. My character doesn’t even need to have a name or any type of development. They just need to want something, and they need to want it bad. Without a want, the character has no motivation. There’s nothing driving the character or the plot forward.

For example, I have a nameless, ageless, genderless, ordinary character. All I am thinking about is what this character wants. And my character really wants to ask out someone to the prom.

Done. Onto the next step.

2. What does the character need?

Ok, so I know I just said the character’s want is the most important thing, but the character’s need could possibly out do that. The want enables the character to move the story forward, but the need is what is going to enable the character to develop and grow into a three-dimensional form. Often the character knows what they want, but not what they need. It’s up to us, the character’s author, to figure out what they need.

Often times, the want is something physically and the need is something mental or emotional (but this is writing and there are no “real rules” in writing). The need is something that the character has to figure out along the way (or maybe they don’t figure it out, but the reader does).

So right now, my nameless, ageless, genderless, ordinary character wants to ask someone to the prom. But what they need is acceptance amongst their peers and the self-esteem and courage to ask someone out to the prom.

Perfect. Moving on.

3. Who is my character?

Now that I’ve established what the want and needs are, I can finally start to flesh out my character. In all honesty, when I came up with a want, maybe I did have a specific character in mind (this happened to me). That’s okay. Sometimes you need to do things out of order.

I’m a very character-driven writer, and I tend to enjoy reading stories that are character driven as well. I could spend days coming up with every single detail about my character and stretching her out until I know her better than I know my best friend. But that’s just me.

Some basics things I like to consider are: name, age, appearance, bad habits, their relationships with family and friends, a weird fact or two, some defining aspects of their personality, and any unique qualities that make them different from other characters I’ve created.

Right now I have a boy in his senior year of high school. He’s not the best student because he’s too lazy to do his homework, but it’s not a dumb kid. He has a few really close friends he’s know since he was in elementary school. He’s a little quiet but not shy. He’s a vegetarian and plays the trumpet but doesn’t like the school band. He’s a great friend. He really likes this girl but doesn’t know how to ask her to the prom and he’s afraid his classmates will make fun of him.

I’m going to stop for now because I could really continue this for the rest of the day.

4. What is standing in my character’s way?

We have our want, we have our need, and we have our character, but we need some obstacles. Without obstacles, there’s no story! Where is the plot if the characters always get what they want immediately! The short story would take on a whole new meaning of the word “short”.

In a traditional story arc, there are many crises leading up until the climax, each one getting more and more serious. This means, we need to have multiple obstacles, each one bigger and with more serious consequences than the one before it.

One of the fun things is to decide whether your character will get what the want (or what they need). Sometimes, just the experience is enough of a story. But decide if all of your obstacles are going to be beatable.

Some of my obstacles for my 18 year old boy who is asking a girl to the prom may include: his friends thinking the prom is lame, overhearing the girl likes someone else, my character getting too nervous and backing down, someone else already asking the girl, the girl turning him down, etc.

Those are the four main questions I would ask myself before starting a short story. I’m excited because before I sat down to write the post I had no idea what my story is going to be about, and now I’m churning possibilities around in my head!

What are some questions or prompts to get your creative juices flowing? Is there anything else I should add to help me come up with ideas?

 

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