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How To Write A Story To Guidelines

How To Write A Story To Guidelines

How To Write A Story To Guidelines


Most, if not all, writers start by writing the story idea that pops into their head and they fall in love with.
Which is exactly how it should be.

There are lots of reasons you might need a change from this. Perhaps you want to start writing for publications or competitions, or maybe you’re blocked. Stuck staring at a blank page and no idea how to move forward.

This is where the art of writing on commission comes in. By commission, I mean you’re writing to a set of guidelines rather than the juicy idea you’ve been mulling over for months.

Writing a story against a set of guidelines is so very different to writing your own thing. There are a number of advantages to writing to someone else’s requests or guidelines:

  1. You have a story you can submit to other places.
  2. You can practise your writing without writing a novel.
  3. You can learn a new style of writing. Writing a short story is very different to flash fiction which is very different from a novella.
  4. You can experiment with different genres. Play around, see what you enjoy.
  5. You can discover new characters and new worlds without waiting for inspiration to hit.

So, what are the options for writing stories to guidelines or on request and how do you go about it?


Writing for publications

The majority of people writing to a set of guidelines will be writing short fiction, whether it be flash fiction, short stories or short novellas, for magazines, e-zines, competitions and anthologies.

Submitting to these publications can be a great way to practise writing, learn how to write short stories, get published and make readers aware that you exist. Some even pay! Which is a nice bonus.

Often, these publications will have a theme and some may even add a little more about what they want to see that you can incorporate into your story.

Figuring out a story this way is similar to coming up with your own ideas, but I personally often find this a little overwhelming and constraining.

Actually, you need to look at it as a stepping stone. You’ve been given a writing prompt and a starting point.

How to write it

If the theme doesn’t immediately inspire an idea, here’s what you can try to get inspired:

  • See if any of the characters or plots already mulling away inside your head work with the theme and suggestions. Can you write a short story about your novel’s protagonist, for example?
    (I used this technique with a rare short story I wrote a few years ago. I used a character who was only just taking shape in my head at the time. The prompts used in the contest helped me develop her and the world she lived in further. I won second place and that character is getting a book all about her in the future.
  • Google news items about the theme and get inspired. You can do this even if it’s a really weird topic. There are some fantastic places to find weird news stories online, just search ‘weird news’!
  • Have fun coming up with a new character. You never know, this short story could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship between you and a new protagonist or antagonist.
  • Brainstorm by free writing. Write down all of the things the theme makes you think of, all ideas welcome. Ready? Go!

My one big tip for this, from my personal experience, is not to force it. Mull over the ideas. Let them grow, as you would any other story ideas. Just don’t take too long. Publications and contests usually have deadlines.


Writing for friends

I have had a lot more success with this than writing for competitions (although I’m working on it!) and writing for friends can either be much more fun or much more pressured!

If you ever wrote stories at school, you might have had similar experiences to me. Friends who love reading your stuff and asking you to write them a story, or write them into a story.

And, at first, you just panic. What are you going to write? What if they hate it? ARGH!

This can actually be a lot of fun.

In fact, if you’re after a challenge and you have friends who love and support your writing, then suggest this exercise to them.

How to write it

This can be so easy:

  1. Ask them to provide you with so many images. They can find these images by doing a Google search. Or, even better, use stock images. You can get some fantastic free stock images that you can legally use on your social media, websites and books on Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels.
  1. Take the images they give you and figure out what story they tell you as a collective. Do you have images of characters, or settings or plot points?
    Make notes of them all, write down everything the images tell you and build your story from there.

One of my friends introduced me to this technique many years ago. She sent me a selection of images she’d found on Google (which I sadly can’t share here due to copyright) and asked me to write her a story.

The images included art of two elves, a beautiful tree of coloured lights, a black wolf, a ruined building and a stream running through woodland (all very her).

I printed each image out and stuck it to a piece of paper. Next to each one, I brainstormed ideas, characters, settings, what I thought the image showed and how it could all fit together. Slowly, characters were developed and a plot began to form.

I wrote the story, edited it, sent it to my friend and gnawed on my fingernails until she told me she loved it (eek!). Then I submitted it to a number of publications.

Unfortunately, no one wanted it. As I wrote it a few years ago, I’m tempted to go back, rewrite, edit and try again.
That’s the beauty of writing fiction and the wonderful thing about writing stories on the request of other people, it can be reused, submitted to different places and used as great writing practise.


Writing for themed contests, publication submission windows, or for friends, can be a great way to develop your writing, learn new skills and break through inspiration blocks.

Do you have friends who would love a story written for them?
Or would you prefer to find publications looking for themed stories?

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