I am capable of some good writing on the microlevel, that is, I can build character and setting. My problem is taking the parts and making them fit into an actual story that is interesting.
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Th best approach for developing an idea is definitely to state which is the main idea of the story, and web out at least 5 instances in the story which will back up this theme. This could be 5 causes and effects, 5 dialogues, 5 problems and solutions et al. If you go to freeology.com there are hundreds of webs for writers to map out their main ideas and add supporting details. Quite helpful too!
If characters and setting are your strengths, certainly start there. What you need then is to discover/create some sort of conflict for these characters to encounter.
You certainly have to follow your own idiosyncratic creative process, but one thing that has worked for me is to scan the newspaper for such conflicts. Morbid as it might sound, obituaries are often great sources for such conflicts. Once you have identified a potential conflict, then begin to think about how it might fit with your characters and setting. Good fiction is often a blend of the factual and the imagined.
Another valuable technique that many professional writers use is to carry around a small notebook and jot down interesting things that happen, that they see, that someone says, etc. Reviewing this can often spark ideas.
Personally, I find that I get ideas most often when I just sit down to write for 45 minutes or so. Often at the start I can't think of anything! However, if I just start writing about how I can't think of anything, before you know it I'm onto something.
Finally, I have sometimes gotten ideas from my dreams. However, I find it frustrating to try to capture too much from dreams -- I can never seem to recreate the whole story.
You'll probably receive a wide range of English teacher answers for this one, but personally speaking, the first step I would advise is finding a prewriting method that works best for you.
Outlining is one positive way to organize your writing thoughts, while clustering or webbing is a technique used mostly by writers who are more visual, mentally speaking. Another technique you may wish to try is freewriting. This will allow you to get words on paper, and then later you can worry about structure and organization.
Any of the above techniques serve as good starting points. You may wish to try several, and see which one works best for you. Graphic organizers are also handy for this task.
I realize this is an old post now, but it's an interesting question so I'd like to revive it.
I think that what engtchr5 says about a prewriting technique that works for you is key.
After that, you have to find a method of story-building that works for you, as well. First, make sure you know what constitutes a short story (versus a scene, say, or a short-short). What makes a short story what it is has a lot to do with its composition. (A great way to get a handle on this is to copy out, by hand or typing, a story you really like, imagining you're the writer. Deconstructing successful models of stories is the most hands-on way to get the feel of what it should be.) My writing professor often tells us, "scenes are the building-blocks of stories." The Aristotelian model of the story - beginning, middle, and end - is a good place to start when fashioning a storyline... but you don't have to come up with the elements in that order.
As far as "taking the parts and making them fit into an actual story" goes, for example, I would try imagining your characters in their setting (since you say this is one of your strengths) and try to picture the ending. For a Carver-esque story, for example, picture two of your characters in a moment of reconciliation (one might reach out, physically, to help the other somehow). For a Wolff- or Salinger-style story, picture one of your characters having a revelation of sorts. Et cetera. The key is to picture an action that embodies these states of mind, and then build the scene around that. Then I would go back and build the scenes needed to set this scene up, and to make it important. "Show, don't tell" really is the best advice on writing fiction well.
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