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Have you ever struggled to come up with ideas that you could develop into a short story? It can be tough.

I actually find developing ideas for novels somewhat easier than ideas for a short story. A story needs to do all the things a novel does: develop characters, have a clear conflict, a plot, some sort of resolution, and be a whole story, but in a much tighter time frame.

For me, longer is easier, not harder. When I want to write short stories, I tend to come up with either plots that are way too complicated OR stories that don’t have plots. I have cool characters but can’t figure out what to do with them. Ever had that problem?

Then, I had an epiphany. I was thinking about one of my novels and wondering why the antagonist doesn’t get along with either the protagonist. What happened? What was the backstory there? I had one of those moments where I wanted to smack the side of my head and shout “duh.”

I have all of these characters who I know inside and out. I know HOW they feel about one another. I can then write the story of WHY they feel that way – there’s my short story!

If you’ve written or developed any longer piece: a novel, another short story, a novella, this strategy is like a shortcut to great short story ideas.

Five Benefits of Writing Short Stories to Develop a Character’s Backstory

1) You already have characters you’ve developed and you know well. You know how your characters will react when you put them into difficult situations.

2) You also have a familiar setting and relationships between characters. Using these as a starting place, allows you to focus on the plot and conflict rather than be overwhelmed with every aspect of a story.

3) If you need to develop your characters for your novel further, this is a fun and creative way to do just that. You can throw these characters into a new situation and see how they’ll react. You’ll get to know your characters before you write your novel. You might find some surprising aspects to your characters that you were unaware of.

4) You can put this short story into your novel as a scene, or it can be its own short story.

5) Writing short stories helps to develop all the skills of writing fiction – plot, conflict, setting, point of view, character, dialogue, description, voice, and style – in a few pages rather than in a novel length piece which helps with all of your writing.

Once you’ve decided you want to try this, the next question becomes, how do you create a short story from a novel or longer piece?

Four Steps to Find a Short Story Idea in a Longer Piece You’ve already Written

1) Choose the piece you want to play with and read through it. As you read, make a list including the main character (protagonist), villain (antagonist), sidekicks, or mentor figures

2) Then, make some notes about the relationships these characters have with one another. How do they feel about each other or themselves? Do they feel like, hate, admiration, grudging respect,  disdain?  The answer to that question is where your story lies.

3) Your short story is in the development of your main characters’ relationships BEFORE your novel starts. For example,

  • Why does the villain hate the protagonist? What happened there?
  • Why is the villain villainous? What happened to them to make them hateful or difficult people?
  • What major events happened in the protagonist’s or antagonist’s life to shape what they want and how they act?
  • How did the main character and the side-kick meet?

You are really limited here only by the questions that you ask yourself about your characters. When you decide what character you want to focus on, start asking “what if” to develop your story.

4) Remember that short stories tend to be more plot focused than character focused.

I’ve written one of these stories and have ideas for a few more. They’re coming together well, and I’m having fun playing with the shorter format of a story but with characters I already know and love.

What’s your favorite strategy for coming up with short story ideas?