Worth a Thousand Words: Using Pictures to Inspire Fiction

I’m primarily a novel writer. I don’t really write short stories.

But, Lin, didn’t you just put out a book of short stories?

…All right, I’ll rephrase that.

For me, the process of writing short stories is much harder than the same for novel-length fiction, largely because I have no sense of self-restraint when it comes to a draft. If I’m writing something interesting, I want to keep going with the story, with the worldbuilding, with the characters, and obviously that’s far easier to get away with in something that goes past the 5,000- to 7,000-word mark. And when I hit a wall in a novel, I can just change scenes, or switch character POVs. That’s not as much of an option with short fiction.

So I’m always on the lookout for any trick or technique that will help me build a cohesive short story draft with an actual beginning, middle, and end.

Right now, the technique that’s working for me is using Story Cubes. All these dice with little pictures on them? Those are Story Cubes.

A number of dice rolled out on a table, showing pictures instead of the traditional numbers.

Technically, Story Cubes is meant to be played as a game. I’ve never used them that way, myself. I bought them to use for what I’m doing here: as ways to randomly generate elements of short fiction. There are many different themed sets, like Fantasy, Science Fiction, Medical, and Prehistoric.

It’s very simple: I pop all the dice into a bag, pick five dice at random, roll them, and write down what pictures I get.

Five Story Cube dice in a row, showing an eye, a piece of paper being lit by a match, an ambulance, someone giving or receiving a gift, and a stick being broken.
  • Eye
  • Lighting something on fire
  • Ambulance
  • Giving/receiving a gift
  • Breaking something

Then I sit down and write a rough draft of a short story that incorporates all of these elements. You can read what I made out of the above for free at my Patreon, if you’re interested.

It’s by no means finished, but it’s a whole draft of something and that’s what counts!

If you’re not able to purchase Story Cubes but you still want some way of randomly generating a series of story elements, another great tool is the “Random File” function at Wikimedia Commons.

The Commons is where all the images and sound files used on Wikipedia are stored. Clicking “Random File” in the left-hand menu will…do exactly what it says on the tin: it will take you to a random media file. It might be a photo of an elephant, a baroque painting, a sound file of Winston Churchill—the possibilities are nearly endless.

Here’s what I got for my five files:

I know, it looks like a mess of word salad, but don’t panic just yet. Go ahead and simplify these down to the very generalized objects, people, or places that the images represent, like the pictures on the Story Cubes.

  • Clouds
  • A bus
  • Baseball
  • Race cars
  • A bird

You can add details or signifiers back in (storm clouds, a tour bus, a black bird, etc.) but the important thing is to whittle your elements down to the barest essentials. Once you start building your story, you can layer details back in. There’s a story in everything, if you know how to look for it and work with it. Good luck!

Did you try Story Cubes and get something interesting out of it? Do you have any tricks for how to generate random story ideas? Let us know on our forum!

A. F. Linley

A. F. Linley was born in Connecticut and raised in New York's Capital District. She is a long-time government copy editor and a casual writer of various types of fiction (including government copy). She wrote her first story when she was nine and decided to pursue writing as a career when some well-meaning but foolish elementary school teacher assured her that she could make a living at this. She lives with her partner near Saratoga and is frequently mistaken for a competent adult. You can find more of her writing at aflinley.com or or patreon.com/aflinley.