Welcome to our first lesson from Building a Short Story from the Ground Up. We are offering two options for this class:
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Lesson 1: Generating Ideas
While some writers find themselves juggling half a dozen ideas before they sit down to their morning cup of coffee, others are stuck at the starting gate, waiting for the perfect idea to arrive. And therein lies the problem—the “perfect” idea. Story ideas, generally speaking, are not good or bad necessarily. It’s the development of the idea that counts, which we’ll cover throughout this course. For now, let’s turn over a few rocks and go story hunting.
Where do story ideas come from?
A snippet of conversation. That unforgettable phrase the checkout lady said, or that strange comment your significant other left you with as you hurried out the door. (The comment that’s been bugging you all day.) Or maybe it’s the argument you overheard between the middle-aged couple at the diner.
I once wrote a story from something an old man said to my husband when my husband and I were over at the man’s barn picking up a load of hay. Being the farm girl, I spied a stray bale that had fallen off the load and went to hoist it up on the pickup bed, something my husband has seen me do countless times. The old man thought the bale might be too heavy for me and gently admonished my husband to take better care of me, saying, “Women is precious.” He had recently lost his wife, he went on to explain, and regretted that he hadn’t appreciated her more while she was still with him. I was touched by the line and used it not only in my story, but also as the title itself—bad grammar intact.
A writing professor at a workshop I once attended had a student who wrote down all the odd one-liners people said to her over the course of several days and found she had more than enough fodder for story starters.
Eavesdropping is a gold mine for stories. And there’s no sense feeling guilty about listening in, either. You’re a writer. It’s your job to observe the world around you!
A story on the news or in the newspaper. Tune into the evening news—if you dare. While you’ll find more than plenty of dark or sad situations, you’ll occasionally come across something humorous, too, like the story a young boy who fought off a robber using only a lightsabre to protect his mother and himself. Have a pen handy to jot down anything unusual, uplifting, hilarious, sad, frightening, or inspiring. Major news events also work well as the backdrop of a story. The Flood of ’93 served as the setting for a story I wrote which paralleled the rising flood waters with the rise of a couple’s marriage problems.
An intriguing image in a book or magazine. Recently my daughter saw a picture of an elderly man in a wheelchair attempting to stand as the flag passed by—the only person along the parade route standing. The picture moved her to write a fictional story about it.
Think back to some memorable pictures you’ve seen. A few come to mind for me. The starving girl in Africa with a large vulture beside her. The sailor kissing a woman in the crowd as they celebrated the end of World War II. A smiling Harry Truman holding up the paper with the mistaken headline that proclaimed his opponent as the new president. Unforgettable images can make unforgettable stories.
Someone or something that grabs your attention. Go people watching and listen to the latest gossip, and you’ll likely return with quite a few stories in the making. The teenager holding a purple iris sitting on a bench outside the courthouse. (Story.) The guy who kills cows at the slaughterhouse. (Story.) An elderly man and woman who decide to start dating. (Story.) The woman eating at the pizza restaurant whose child has been missing for several years. (Story.)
These are just a few ideas that worked for me. It pays to pay attention. Events from your own or someone else’s life can work well, too. Remember to fictionalize, of course.
We’ve only scratched the surface, really. Ideas are all around us. Books, TV, movies—stories themselves often spawn other stories.
More Story Starters
- Look through abandoned projects. An exchange of dialogue you liked from a scrapped story or a favorite line from a discarded poem might serve as the catalyst for an entirely new story. It’s worth a second look.
- Decide what type of story you want to write—humorous or sentimental. Scary. Sad. Then do some free writing. For example, write “humorous story” in the center of a sheet of paper, and then list memories, people, things you find funny.
- Choose something you’re passionate about, and turn that something into story. Chances are whatever it is that moves you will move the reader as well. The passion will come through in the writing.
Write down three ideas you have for stories, explaining each in a paragraph. If you already have a story idea in mind, write that one first and mark it as the idea you want to develop, but go ahead and write two other ideas as well. Don’t stress too much about the actual writing yet. Remember, we’re still in the stages of development.
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