How To Write A Short Story, Today!

Everything You Need In Ten Minutes

“person using silver MacBook on top of brown table” by rawpixel on Unsplash

It’s early morning. You’ve had your coffee and booted up your laptop. You sit down to write some fiction. Something’s wrong. You can’t focus your mind on anything but that damn blinking cursor. When will inspiration strike? Where do you find the ideas? The most common advice out there is this.

Just write.

It’s simple. It’s pragmatic. It’s also awful.

We don’t tell pilots to just fly or actors to just act or inventors to just invent.

Pilots run through a lengthy checklist before the even pull out of the gate. Inventors start with a seed, inspiration or a problem they want to solve. Actors study a script before they act.

The Template Game

Here is a simple exercise that takes ten to fifteen minutes. You assemble a series of independent or related snippets to facilitate your creation.

Below is a template of these elements for you or a partner to fill out. Fill in each of these elements. Pick seven or more and craft a story in one sitting. This exercise gives you a head start, an outline for your creative writing effort.

You can do this exercise yourself. If you have a writing partner, each of you can fill out a template and write a story based on your partner’s ideas. The purpose is not to turn it into a book or polished story, though you can do that. The goal is to exercise your creative skills. It forces you to think fast and connect the dots of these loosely related elements.

Here is the template.

Physical Description: Main character’s physical description.
Fascinating History: Create a compelling backstory. Something intriguing, mysterious, dark or quirky.
Food Weirdness: Any weird eating habits or preferences?
Nervous Tick: Specific mannerism for this character.
Sexual Fetish, Difficulty, Inadequacy or Hang ups: Fill this in even if you don’t plan on using it. The information could help shape the character and even your story idea.
Unusual or Exceptional Intelligence or Skill: What is she good at or what rare ability does she possess?
Verbal Marker: A catchphrase, word or phrase he uses often. Do you have a friend that says actually, literally, or use some other annoying verbiage? Feel free to borrow from real life.
Envious of: What person, life, skill or trait does he wish he possessed?
Dark Secret: Everyone’s got one. Make it interesting.
Weakness: The weakness can be something he’s not aware of or something he knows about and hides or tries to compensate.
Annoying Trait: Something other people find annoying about her.
Fears Most: What’s his biggest fear?

Once you fill in the above template, fill in two to three background setups. Finish up the exercise with an inciting event.

Setup: Basic background to set the context. Include three. Use at least two.
Inciting Event: What puts the story in motion?

Once you complete this exercise, begin your writing. It’s that simple. Here is an example that I worked on recently.

Physical Description: Male; 5’10”; moderate build; dad’s belly;
Fascinating history: Expelled from College for inciting violence after protesting a neo-nazi speech. Later sued the school and won.
Food Weirdness: Likes peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches.
Nervous Tick: Runs a hand through his hair three times in quick succession.
Sexual Fetish, Difficulty, Inadequacy or Hang ups: Likes to wear a cape during sex.
Unusual or Exceptional Intelligence or Skill: Uncanny knowledge of 90’s one hit wonders.
Verbal Marker: “Kind a like,” “at the end of the day.”
Envious of: His single best friend who dates, parties and travels.
Dark Secret: Cheated on his wife during their honeymoon.
Weakness: He’s a horrible negotiator and doesn’t know it.
Annoying Trait: Flares his nostrils when he disagrees with a statement.
Fears Most: Losing his job and being dependent on his wife.

Setup One: His wife goes on an unexpected business trip to Chicago.
Setup Two: While searching for a key to the attic, he finds a cocktail napkin, credit card receipt and room key from a hotel in Aruba; it matches the timeframe of their honeymoon, but it’s not the hotel they stayed at.
Setup Three: He finds out his wife has a secret credit card account she never revealed to him.
Inciting Action: He receives a phone call from his wife in jail.

Start writing once you have all the elements. This is not the kind of exercise where you map out an entire story before you put pen to paper. You need to think on the fly and see where it takes you. You may wind up with crap, but you will have something.