“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.”Andre Dubus
Are you running out of short story prompts or ideas? Or, are you experiencing writer’s block? Want to write a short story, but you have no idea where to even begin? If so, this article is for you. We included a long list of creative writing prompts in this article, story starters, and writing exercises to help you get your creative juices flowing.
What Makes a Good Short Story?
Any good short story has rich characters, an interesting plot, and an immersive setting. Unlike a novel, short story writers have to traverse their character arcs in a short amount of time in a way that keeps the reader engaged. The writing skills required to write a short story are:
- An ability to be concise
- The ability to engage the reader immediately
- Natural and realistic use of dialogue
- The power to paint a compelling image with words
- Interesting plot developments and character arcs
If you have a short story that you would like to publish or are trying to get started with just writing it, consider the abovementioned points. If your story lacks any of the above, it is wise to revisit and add whatever is missing.
Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Short Stories
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box, the renowned American 20th-century writer shares some important tips for anyone who wishes to write a compelling short story. According to Vonnegut’s advice, a short story should:
- Use the time of a total stranger so that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters are, make awful things happen to them so that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
How Long Should My Short Story Be?
There is no exact word count for a short story. Some are merely a page or two, while others can be 10 or 20 pages. Typically, the word count of a good short story falls somewhere between 5000-10,000 words.
The Importance of Feedback
It is always wise to get as much feedback as possible about your story. Share your work with fellow writers, avid readers, and friends and family who do not write or read much at all. Get all kinds of opinions, insights, and criticisms from all sorts of people to gain a clearer sense of your story’s impact.
Short Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Help You Get Started
- A man wakes up in a new town with no idea how he got there.
- A young woman receives a letter from a mysterious stranger.
- Three strangers who look alike meet in a bar.
- A man gets blamed for a crime he did not commit.
- A child’s dog wanders through the forest, and he follows it.
- A character notices that his neighbor is acting strange and suspicious.
- The internet shuts down all over the world without warning.
- Passengers on a train wake up one by one at an abandoned station.
- A quiz show winner enjoys their prize until someone claims that the show was rigged.
- A young woman loses her partner for years and sets out on a solo adventure worldwide.
- A coming-of-age story in which high school students prepare for their final exams and the different journey the friend group will take when they move on to university.
- A middle-aged man gets tired of his job and quits on a whim. Now jobless and in need of income, he joins a team of young professionals who create a dating app for middle-aged singles. He volunteers to provide greater information for the team and the app – in person, by going on as many dates as he can.
More Creative Writing Prompts
We have included some genre-specific short story ideas below, including fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Even if these are not your go-to genres, it is worth checking them out. In attempting to write one of the following, you may find inspiration for a different story altogether.
Fantasy Short Story Prompts
- A young man stumbles across an ancient gemstone. With the stone in his possession, he attracts the attention of strange people who seem to want to harm him and one new friend who has some unexpected answers.
- A young girl who lives on a farm with her family finds a large unhatched egg. She takes care of the egg in her room without telling her parents. The egg begins to hatch, but the creature that emerges is far from what she expected.
- The main character makes a living selling fake artifacts. One artifact in his collection is the real deal, but he has no idea until a strange customer shows up.
- A prince is captured in a foreign land and is held at ransom. The hostage-taker is a mercenary hired by someone close to the prince.
- A teenage farm boy is visited at night by a white horse. The horse stands outside his window, and the boy approaches. The horse walks on, stops, and waits for the boy. The boy follows and eventually mounts the horse. As the horse begins to gallop, the boy looks back at his house, only to find that the entire landscape has changed and his house is no longer there.
Science Fiction Short Story Prompts
- An airplane flies through turbulence. The turbulence passes, the plane stabilizes, but half of the passengers are missing. The pilot tries to contact the ground but to no avail.
- A man reports strange sights in the skies, but no one believes him. He pleads them to believe him because he is convinced that what he saw was not of this earth. As more and more people begin to see the strange lights in the sky, the man is nowhere to be found.
- The main character wakes up with no memory of his past. He finds himself equipped with advanced weapons, strange technology, and a chip in his arm. War and conflict rage outside his room. As he begins to wake up, he notices a letter by his bed with an address and note that says ‘Urgent!’
- AI has advanced exponentially since our current day, most of humanity has been wiped out, and the remaining humans now live in small tribes. A team of humans who take refuge deep in the desert must traverse, but the AIs occupied the lands for more resources for their survival.
- A large unidentified object hurtles through space on a direct trajectory to earth. A team of scientists and astronauts are on a timer to divert the object before it gets too close. Time is ticking, people are panicking, and the team faces resistance when gathering support.
- The year is 3100. Humanity lives in bunkers underground due to an apocalyptic event 500 years earlier. As the dust settles, the surviving humans begin to emerge from their underground shelter only to find new inhabitants living and ruling on the surface.
- A scientist discovers a means of traversing galaxies at light speed, but the cost of the technology is millions of lives. Authorities seek to understand and control his discovery. However, his moral compass drives him to keep his discovery out of the hands of those who would sacrifice millions without a second thought.
- Humans on a mission to revive a dead planet are met by resistance from living creatures under the surface. On their escape back to earth, one of the planet’s inhabitants has made its way onto their ship and hides there until the team arrives home.
- A microchip inserted into the brain allows authorities to influence and control the thoughts of chipped people. The unchipped are now few in numbers but are the only humans left who can think independently. Time is ticking as the last remaining free-thinkers are mercilessly hunted down. A ragtag group, a multi-disciplinary team of survivalists, scientists, and hackers, must fight the authority and free those who have been brainwashed into the authority’s oppressive regime.
- In the near future, the elites will control the fate of the rest of us at the press of a button. Access to water, food, and even sunshine depend on a nation or community’s willingness to send a large proportion of their population into competition against each other for survival.
Scary Story Prompts
- A young couple moves into a new house in the countryside. The house is empty except for an old-fashioned dress in a wardrobe. The young woman, packing her stuff away, tries on the dress. As soon as she wears it, she starts acting strange.
- One night in an allegedly haunted house in the country, friends planned a trip. They partied, drank, and danced all through the night. Later, one of the friends pulls out an Ouija board. Most of the friends disagree and go to bed for the night. Five friends stayed up and played the game with ghostly consequences.
- Kids visit their grandmother’s house and find a secret room in the basement. They enter the room, and the door vanishes.
- Trick or treaters visit houses on Halloween night. One family offers lots of candy to the kids who show up and say trick or treat! A child shows up at the house and rings the bell. When the family answers, the child is alone and silent. The family invites him in to ask where his friends and parents are, the greatest mistake they ever made.
Romantic Short Story Prompts
- A correspondence of love letters between two now long separated and aged former lovers. They are no longer together, but the letters reveal the ups and downs of their relationships and how close yet far they were from becoming lasting lovers.
- A young man about to take off on his travels stops by a café to grab a coffee before he goes. While sipping his coffee, he meets a high school crush he knew years earlier. She has a suitcase.
- A woman plans an exotic holiday on her time off from work with her best friend. Her best friend decides to cancel at the last minute, so, on a whim, the woman asks her coworker to join. They set off on this unexpected journey, but the shared journey is not the only thing they had not expected.
- A man’s sick and dying mother is being taken care of by an at-home nurse. The man hears of his mother’s fading health and decides to rush home to be with her, worried and guilty for not having spent time with her in recent months. The nurse and the man’s mother have developed a close relationship, and even though the mother is dying, the nurse keeps her in good humor. After her passing, the nurse and the man do not want to say goodbye to each other.
Whether you are a first-time short story writer looking for inspiration or a seasoned writer stumped with writer’s block, the prompts and ideas above should help you get a story flowing. Even if you do not decide to follow through with any of the ideas above, attempt writing at least one of them—the more you write, the more skilled you become, so write poorly, write slowly but make sure to keep writing.
“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the best teacher of how to write.”Annie Proulx