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A Fun Way to Write Short Fiction

By Lisa Lawler
Copyright © 2008 by Lisa Lawler, All Rights Reserved

I came across an interesting method to help writers put together ideas for a piece of short fiction. It's called the Bubble Method, and each step is well-defined and easy to follow. This method will get you writing, even when you are short of ideas.

I have adapted the Bubble Method to incorporate Mind Mapping, developed by Tony Buzan. Mind Mapping, according to Buzan, is "a powerful graphic technique which provides a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain." (You can find more about Mind Mapping and the Bubble Method in the Further Reading section at the end.)

A story usually needs four elements: Character, Setting, Conflict, and Resolution. This method will help you discover them.

What you'll need:

Some blank sheets of paper

  • A pen

  • A highlighter

  • Coloured pencils/pens

  • A timer

On the first sheet of paper, in the centre but with enough space to write above it, write the word Setting. Put a circle around it.

In the centre of the page, directly beneath the word Setting, write the word Emotion, and put a circle around it.

At the bottom of the page, directly beneath the other two words but with enough space to write below it, write the word Perspective and put a circle around it.

These are your three 'bubbles'. Draw eight lines coming from each of them.

We're going to work on the Setting first. Set the timer for 60 seconds and write down eight ideas for settings. Be as creative and as exotic as you like. Don't censor yourself. Take the first ideas that come to mind and write them down, one against each line, e.g. bed, clothes-line, kitchen.

Once you've finished, move straight on to the second bubble - Emotion. Set your timer for 60 seconds and write down eight different emotions, e.g. love, envy, heartache.

Now move on to the third bubble - Perspective. This bubble is going to be about your main character's perspective.

Set the timer for 60 seconds and write down eight animals (insects, fish, birds, mammals, amphibians – anything goes!). There is a wealth of symbolism, myth, and legend attached to animals, but, in addition to that, everyone also has their own personal idea of an animal's attributes. For example, cat-lovers think that their little darlings are playful and independent, elegant and refined. Non-cat-lovers might see them as conniving, wily, snooty, and cold-hearted - a bit like T.S. Eliot’s McCavity! For Perspective, I come up with cat, alligator, and spider.

Once you've finished, look back over your bubbles and choose one word from each. Don't think too much about it. Just go for whichever words excite or interest you. For this example, I'm going to choose kitchen from Setting, envy from Emotion, and spider from Perspective.

Circle your choices and highlight them.

Once you've completed this first stage, you can take a break and come back when you have more time. You may even find that, as you go about your day, your subconscious will be working on ideas for you to write about at your next writing session.

Once this stage of the Bubble Technique has been completed, I turn to Mind Mapping. This is great fun, so take out those coloured pencils or pens and put on your artist's smock and beret!

I believe that stories begin with characters, so it makes sense, for me, to approach the task by considering whom the story is about. (If you prefer to work from a different starting point, adapt the following procedure to suit.)

Take a second sheet of paper. In the centre of the sheet write Character, and put a circle around it.

Draw six thickly-coloured wavy lines coming from your Character circle. Why wavy? According to Tony Buzan, our brains like curvilinear, organic shapes. The wavy lines encourage our brains to look for links and associations, while the colours stimulate the right side of our brain, which is the creative, artistic side.

We'll be focussing on the ending of the story, because when you know how the story ends then you can think backwards to find out how the character came to be in that position.

On each coloured line, write one of WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? WHY? and HOW? Make sure that the lengths of the lines match the lengths of the words. Everything is free-flow. Use the question words to ask questions about your character, and write words (one per answer per line) and draw an accompanying picture.

The WHO? is answered for me. My character, at the end of the story, has the perspective of a spider, so I add a thinner coloured wavy line onto WHO? and write spider in block capitals on it. Out comes the black pen and I draw a spider beside it.

The WHERE? is also answered - the character is in a kitchen. I add a coloured wavy line onto WHERE? and I write kitchen along it, again in block capitals, making sure the word fills the line. With my coloured pens I draw a saucepan simmering. (Why a saucepan? That's the first picture that came to mind.)

The WHAT?, as in "What is my character feeling?" is answered, too - envy. I add a line and write envy along it. Hmmm. What picture would I use to depict envy? I'm no artist, but I'll draw something that is instantly recognisable to me as envy. Maybe a face with thin eyes and a straight line for a mouth.

I come back to the spider idea, because I've thought of a web. I draw a line with web written on it, and draw a picture. Web makes me think of networking, so possibly my character is a socialite. From web I draw a line with networking written on it and draw in some stick people or a cocktail glass. I can draw another line from networking, even if I can't think of anything to write on it straight away. My brain will see the empty space and it will look at the word networking and the web picture and start working on filling in the blank.

While that's in progress, I'll move back to kitchen, and continue working there.

I've drawn a saucepan. Kitchens are for preparing food. I'll draw a wavy coloured line, write food on it and draw a plate of food. Now, my character is feeling envious, so maybe that food isn't too healthy. Maybe it's poisoned! Another wavy line, Poison written along it, and a picture of a skull and crossbones to accompany it.

The thing to remember about your setting is that it can be a physical place, or it can be a metaphorical place. Maybe my character is in a kitchen in her mind (it looks like I've decided that my character is a she) and she's 'cooking something up' for someone she feels envious of. I’ll draw a second wavy line from kitchen and write plotting on it, plus a head with a cloud bubble above it to show the head is thinking.

This leads me back to Web and I draw a second line from it because webs are sticky and catch flies. Maybe my character is trying to catch someone. Is she out for revenge? Or is she a manipulative person? Another wavy line emanating from Web, with predator written on it and maybe a picture of teeth.

All sorts of questions are coming to me now. If she's a socialite, who is her 'enemy'? That's the WHO? line again. Networking – maybe she will be in contact with someone who can help her ‘do away’ with her enemy? Maybe my main character is after revenge? That takes me to the question WHY? and more wavy lines.

The ideas are flowing thick and fast at this stage, and it's all I can do to get words, wavy lines, and pictures drawn to keep up with my ideas. My mind is looking for gaps on the page and trying to fill them in, while finding links for what’s already there.

Keep asking questions, write down a one-word answer, and draw it along the appropriate wavy line with a picture, linking it to what's gone before.

Make sure the line lengths match the word lengths. If a line is too long for a word then there is a gap between it and the word linking to it. This visual gap between the two words erases the link between them for our brain.

You might find that different wavy lines feature the same word. For instance, developing my spider line and my revenge line I see that they, like kitchen, both have the word Poison on them. I circle the three instances, noting to myself that the poison can also be metaphorical and not literal. Networking and gossip maybe? Damaging someone’s reputation?

If you come across words that appear two or three times, circle and highlight them. These words might lead you to discovering your theme or an element that is important to the plot. These words will help in some way to give a sense of depth to your writing.

The idea of the Mind Mapping stage is to have fun, let your imagination run riot, draw pictures, play with the colours, and let the ideas flow without censorship. At some point, the storyline will take on a life of its own in your head and you will want to get the outline of the story down on paper.

It is now time for the Timed Writing stage. By limiting the amount of time you have to write, you will be more inclined to write only your first ideas and not as inclined to censor yourself.

Set the timer for ten minutes, and write down the story as it is being played out in your head. Don't read back over your writing; don't correct any spelling or grammar mistakes; just keep writing until you get all the ideas down on the page. Write steadily for ten minutes, and don't let your pen stop moving over the paper, or your hands stop moving over the keyboard.

At the end of the ten minutes you may have finished the outline of your first draft. If not, set the timer again and write for another ten minutes.


And that's how you move from having no ideas to having the first draft of a piece of writing. What I like about this method is that it appeals to the playful creative side of writers, and also allows those with limited free time to get their first draft written down over the course of two or three ten-minute writing sessions. The Mind Mapping stage can be expanded on in between other daily tasks because your subconscious keeps working on the links and blank spaces, even while you're doing other things. This is the goal of the method: to get your mind busy creating ideas that you can write about.

I am using this technique at the moment to write a short story for a local competition and it's been fun. No more nail-biting. No more hyperventilating about the deadline while I look at a blank piece of paper. No more laying my forehead on the desk, whispering Think! Combining the Bubble Method with Mind Mapping has made the whole process quick, easy, and fun.

I wish you all the best in your own writing.


Further Reading:

The Bubble Method article:

Tony Buzan and Mind Mapping:

The poem McCavity the Mystery Cat by T.S. Eliot can be found here: