From Idea To Story: 7 Ways To Develop Great Stories From Sparks

So far this week we’ve talked about How To Decide What To Write and How To Justify Your Writing Time (To Your Friends and To Yourself).

Now that you’re all keyed up to write, we turn to the tricky question of how to take all your good ideas and turn them into story drafts.
angelou-untold-story

From Idea To Story

Ideas are great.

Story Sparks are great.

Writing prompts can be great.

But anyone can have an idea.

It takes a writer to develop and idea and turn it into a story. Yeah, uh, how do we do that, then?

The Right Way To Write A Short Story

There is no one right way to write a short story.

That’s the beauty of the short story. It can be anything from a classic three-act narrative to a loosely connected collection of nouns verbs and prepositions.

There are as many ways to write a short story as there are writers. The only right way to write a story is to tell it the way you want to tell it.

Writing a short story that readers want to read, however, is a little more limiting.

1. Play With Structure

Short stories don’t have to follow a particular structure. With a short story you can forget about plot diagrams and character arcs and still end up with a satisfying story.

Why? Because short stories exist to immerse a reader in a moment in a character’s life. Or to make them question an assumption by illustrating its absurdity in miniature.

A list can be a short story. A diary entry can be a short story. A tweet can be a short story. But none of them work without the active participation of the reader.

Think about it: in writing short stories, you have to leave a lot out. You can’t spend a lot of time describing the six layers of undergarments worn by ladies of the court, the way you can in a novel. You can’t give much (any) backstory. You can imply, hint and leave spaces.

It’s up to the reader to slow down, pay attention and supply those details. In that way, the short story is a lot like poetry. Even as you play with the structure you must write for the reader.

2. Write For Readers

I don’t mean ‘write for acquisition editors and publishers’. I mean write for your ideal reader.

Readers expect certain things in a story. They expect setting and character and something to happen. Depending on your reader’s preference and tolerance level, they may expect suspense (or not), character development (or not), and a resolution of sorts (or not).

Literary fiction can get away with more of those ‘or not’s than genre and mainstream fiction. Mainstream readers tend to be looking for a less intense escape from reality than literary readers who are willing to study every line as if there’ll be a test on Friday (which they intend to ace.)

But it’s OK for even mainstream or genres readers to expect their readers to participate in the story.

What Do You Mean, Readers Have To Participate?

Read this oft-cited example of the shortest-short story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

So what? On one hand, it’s just a classified ad. But if you, the reader really start to think about it, you start filling in the details: why the shoes were never worn; who might have placed the ad; and inevitably, how they must have felt, doing so.

You, the reader, are telling the story in cooperation with the author.

This is a pretty extreme version, of course. But you should be aiming for the same effect in every story you write, no matter its shape or length.

I’ve been hosting StoryADay since 2010 and I’ve read a lot of stories in that time. The stories that immerse me in a character or a world or a moment are the ones that stay with me. The stories that ask a question and make me care about the answer (whether or not they supply it) are the ones I seek out and re-read.

So how do you take an idea (either from your own head or from a writing prompt, or from some combination of the two) and make readers keep wondering about it long after they’ve stopped reading the words on the screen?

3. Ask Questions

If you start with in idea about a particular character or setting, next ask yourself “who cares?”. Who will be interested about a story about that character or setting?

Then ask “why”? What makes this situation different? What makes this person interesting?

For example, The Care And Feeding of Plants by Art Taylor, opens with two people who are having an affair, one is married, the other is not. Ho-hum, right? Except that “During one of their trysts…Robert told Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cook-out.” Wait, what? DURING? What kind of people are these? I don’t know about you but I had to keep reading!

Next take your idea and ask yourself “if…then” questions.

In the example above the author might have asked himself: if the husband does come over, what could happen? If the wife refuses to invite him, then what happens? If the lover changes his mind, then what? Follow this line of reasoning down its most interesting, tangled alleys and see what you can come up with. (If you’re like me you’ll need to start writing round about now, because you’ll be too excited not to!) 

4. Leave Gaps

Not literally (though maybe, depending on your story). But leave gaps, as in the six word short story above, and readers will start to ask the questions you leave lying around for them to find.

It might not be necessary to tell readers in the first sentence why your character is standing on a bridge, wind whipping her hair around her tear-stained face, one hand on the thin guide rail behind her. Just put her there and then make us care. You can supply the reasons (or not) later.

You might not need to walk through your character’s entire day to make poignant the moment when they walk through the front door of their home, mussed-up and frazzled.

Think about the minimum amount of information you can give the reader in order to pull them in, and keep them interested, yet still give them room to search for clues in the context as to what’s really going on in the story.

In “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, the entire story is told as a set of responses to questions that the reader never hears. Bob Newhart did a series of comedy sketches based on a one-sided phone call (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnO1lnPH3BQ). He never tells us what happens at 1:41, but I’ll bet you, along with the laughing audience, can guess. You can replicate these ideas or you can use them to remind yourself to leave some things unsaid in your stories, to draw the reader in.

5. Try Something New

If you always write narrative stories with a character encountering an obstacle that clashes with their desires/needs, take a break. Try something different. Instead, write a story made up only of dialogue, or in the form of a memo to the staff, or a series of social-media posts or voicemails.

Challenge yourself to create complete characters or illustrate an absurdity, without talking directly to the reader.

As you write, keep asking ‘what if’ and ‘so what’ questions of your ideas.

6. Getting Unstuck

There’s a point, somewhere in the middle of every story, where it’s very easy to get stuck.

You’ve set up the characters and the situation, but now you’re starting to get tired and the thought of fighting your way to the end (with all the digressions that crop up as you think of objections and things you’ve left out, and things you want to explain) is just too much to bear. (A bit like that sentence.)

At this point, we go back to the questions.

If you don’t know what should happen next, ask yourself: what does your character want? What is standing in her way? How can you make it worse? What is she not prepared to do? Can you force her to do it? How can you resolve the reader’s question of “does she get what she wants” as quickly as possible?

If you’re really stuck, simply finish your sentence then write the words “But then” Finish that sentence and write: “And so” Finish that sentence. Repeat as necessary. You can edit out these phrases and clean up the prose in the rewrite (what else do you have to do in June?), but sometimes a crude, structural approach forms the foundation of a what turns out to be a strong story.

7. Keep Writing

If you are really stuck, the only thing to do is to write. Not brainstorm. Not diagram. Not sketch ideas. And certainly not turn to the next, bright shiny idea.

Write your way out of the problem and get to the end of the story.

It’s a short story. What do you have to lose? No one dies if you get it wrong. No one even needs to see it. But by finishing it, you will have learned so much more than if you give up.

I promise you, from bitter, joyful, exhausted experience, this is the truth.

Use the tactics in this article to blast past your fear, push through the mushy middle, and get to the end of today’s story. It might be a mess. It might be the foundation of something great. It might be a complete mistake.

But the biggest mistake of all is to stop writing.

Fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living.

-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost

 

Tomorrow we talk about how the heck you keep doing this over and over again for 31 days in a row. With tips from past “winners” (Plus: how to be a winner even if you don’t write 31 stories)

At the end of this week I’ll be telling you about how you can get your hands onAvailable now a tool to help you sit down and write every day: the 2015 StoryADay Month of Writing Prompts ebook.

Want more articles like this?

Get a free creativity workbook when you sign up for more articles like this



[Writing Prompt] Write A Compelling Opening

Want to bore your readers and ensure they never get past your first paragraph? Write your opening as it were stage directions: describe a character or a room or the light or the hills…

YAWN!

It’s a familiar trap and we do it for a good reason — we’re trying to create an atmosphere or paint a picture in the reader’s head. The problem, from a reader’s perspective, is that we haven’t given them a reason to care about the pretty picture we’re painting.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen to combat this problem is to start your scene as close to the action as possible (and by ‘action’ I mean ‘conflict’, and by ‘conflict’ I mean ‘the thing that’s going to torment/delight your character and therefore your reader, until the story is finished.)

How Quentin Tarantino Slapped Me in The Face

Color-coded Criminals by
Buy this as a t-shirt at Threadless.com

Reservoir Dogs is a deeply unpleasant, unsettling movie, but when I went to see it in the theaters I came out stunned, not just by the gore, but also by the masterful storytelling. And it started right from the opening.

The opening scene takes place in a diner. No, there’s no ‘action’ in the scene but the conversation sets up all the characters (including a discussion about tipping). The meal is over, we’re entering the scene at the last possible minute, right before the interesting stuff happens and the characters reveal themselves. We feel that the characters existed, knew things, had lives, before we started to observe them.

Immediately after the credits, we jump to the interior of a car where, clearly, something has gone wrong. Mr Orange has been shot and Mr White and he are racing away from somewhere. Granted, Reservoir Dogs ‘cheats’ a little because the rest of the movie is told in flashbacks, but for our purposes, this scene illustrates my point. This scene could have started with the crime going wrong. It could have started with Mr Orange injured and being dragged to the car. But it doesn’t. They’re in the car. He’s sure he’s dying. Mr White appears to be helping him (quite tenderly, for a foul-mouthed criminal…). Horrifying as the scene is, you are fascinated. It’s hard to resist finding out what is going on.

And all because we walk in to the story when the action has already started. This is something we, as writers, need to do in our stories.

The Prompt

Write a heist story, but start it as late in the action as you possibly can.

Tips

You don’t have to go all Reservoir Dogs. You can write a gentle, comedy ‘heist’ where no-one is really in peril (a little old lady trying to make off with a pie from one of those rotating cases in a diner, armed only with a crochet hook…)

Try not to use ‘flashbacks’. Instead, start the scene when it’s getting interesting (when the crook is confronted? When the pursuit is in full flight?)

Make sure your readers know, early on, what’s at stake, and gradually unfold the reasons for your main character’s actions as the story goes on.

You can make the criminal sympathetic by giving them a good reason for attempting robbery, or you can make someone else the hero.

Keep putting obstacles in your protagonist’s way.

The Rules:

1. You should use the prompt in your story.

2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.

3. Post the story in the comments — if you’re brave enough.

4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is about openings #storyaday http://storyaday.org/wow-openings

Come and write with us! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://storyaday.org/wow-openings

See my story – and write your own, today: openings! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://storyaday.org/wow-openings

Don’t miss my heist story #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://storyaday.org/wow-openings

Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think

 

What Is Flash Fiction?

There are, of course, as many definitions of Flash Fiction as there are writers.

Flash Fiction image

Length: The closest point of consensus I could find is that Flash Fiction ought to be not more than 1000 words.

(One journal points out that, in China, this fiction is described as a story you can read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Since there’s no smoking in public places where I live, we’ll have to come up with an alternate definition. A story you can read while waiting for the barista to finish making your non-fat, no-foam, chai vanilla iced latte? Tea-break tales? Soda stories?)

Content: Flash fiction must contain a complete story — a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be in any genre. It may — or may not — have a twist in the end.

What Flash Fiction Is Not

Flash Fiction, though short, is not:

  • Simplistic – Getting a whole short story into so few words requires all the tricks up a writer’s sleeve. After writing a few of these, you’ll start to look fondly at that half-finished novel you just archived.
  • A Fragment – a description of a scene or a character is not a Flash Fiction story. It’s a fragment.
  • Easy – A Flash Fiction story requires just as much thought and planning as a longer story (perhaps more).
  • Quick – Spare, pointed writing often takes much longer to create than longer works. The good news is that much of the ‘writing’ can be done in your head before you even sit down to type.

How To Write Flash Fiction

Good Subjects for Flash Fiction

“Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the complex interrelationship of parents and children you’d need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex issue. How kids feel when they aren’t included in a conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the car.”

G. W. Thomas, writing in Fiction Factor

This is excellent advice. It’s easy to let a story run away with you, but the beauty of short stories is exactly this ability to focus on the moments that shape the big ideas.

Another way to find subjects for flash fiction is to take advantage of what the reader already knows: base a story on familiar tales (fairy tales, urban myths, traditional myths). These provide many short cuts for the writer: if you talk about a fairy godmother, we know what we should expect (and you’re free to quickly subvert that!). If you write about someone waking up in a bath full of ice, the reader immediately thinks they know something. Run with it (or away from it!).

And don’t forget about mystery and humor. What is a good joke, after all, but a tiny mystery tied up with a punchline?

Techniques

In the same article, G. W. Thomas advises focusing on one powerful image. E. B. White uses this technique in his short story The Door, where the single image of the lab rat’s trigger (a circle) runs throughout the story, tying it all together. It’s a very efficient and effective technique.

Short-short stories often feature a mystery or a twist in the tale, subverted expectations. you only have so many words, and this is a great way to pack a punch. Be careful, though, not to make your ending feel too much like a traditional punchline, or risk alienating your reader.

Some writers advocate writing long stories and then paring them to the bone. Me? I’m lazy and that seems like a lot of extra work. I’m working on focusing on the essentials as I write (but that comes with the risk of inviting in the dreaded Inner Editor, so beware).

Writing spare, low-word-count fiction doesn’t mean you have to state the bald facts and lose all your style. You get to choose every word: leave out dialogue attributions and lush descriptions if your style tends towards satirical commentary and unexpected metaphors. Or cut the metaphors and go dialogue-heavy. There is plenty of room for style in a Flash Fiction story as long as you focus on one central idea, and pare away everything that isn’t ‘you’.

Where To Read Good Flash Fiction

There really is no excuse for not reading flash fiction: it doesn’t take long! You can study the form a lot more quickly than if your preference were the Russian masters.

Finding Flash Fiction is not hard to do. The Internet is the perfect vehicle, especially now that we’re all walking around peering at our mobile devices.

Flash Fiction Online – a paying market, so you know it is curated and someone has decided it’s worth a look.

The Raleigh Review – has a page of sample Flash Fiction.

Every Day Fiction – long-running site that sends a new story to your inbox every day.

Daily Science Fiction – a short science fiction emailed to you every day!

Romance Flash – no, the sci-fi fans don’t get to have all the fun 😉

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts – This is for all you literary types.

10Flash Quarterly – self-described fans of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, suspense, crime capers and slipstream”.

Vestal Review – describes itself as ‘the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”.

Microcosms – Twitter-length fiction with a speculative tinge.

Nanoism – Another long-running Twitter fiction site.

FlashFiction Chronicles – which is part of Every Day Fiction. It has a fabulous resource page that led me to many of the sites listed here. It also has an annual Flash Fiction contest with a cash prize. Check them out.

Get a free creativity workbook when you sign up for more articles like this