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.
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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.

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[Write On Wednesday] Story Sparks

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Every established writer has a tale to tell about being asked that question.

Some of them lie and tell people they order them from an Idea store. Some wearily answer that they think really hard until the ideas come. Still others joyfully shout that ideas are everywhere, what are you crazy? Don’t you see them?!

The truth is, the more you look for ideas, the more you’ll see them. But you do have to look

The Prompt

This week’s prompt is not a writing prompt, but a prompt-prompt. This week you’re going to look for Story Sparks.

We’re just over a month away from StoryADay May. You’re going to need at least 31 ideas (more in case a few don’t work out).  I’m not talking about outlining your stories, or even coming  up with great ideas, just about writing a list of sparks for stories, or places you can find those sparks.

Ray Bradbury in Zen In The Art of Writing, talks about one method of gathering what I’ve come to think of as “story sparks”:

“I began to gather long lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These nouns were provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface.”

Today, set a timer for as long as you can manage (ten minutes? 20? Half an hour?) and then use that time to write down as many Story Sparks as you can.

Write down:

  • Lists of nouns (things that scare you, matter to you, frustrate you)
  • Your favorite colorful metaphors. (Consider them as titles for a story)
  • Aphorisms you can play with (“See No Evil” “A Bird In The Hand”)
  • The names of the weirdest people you have met in your life (or a quick description if you can’t remember their real names)
  • Lyrics and lines from poetry that have stuck in your brain for years
  • The titles of your favorite artworks
  • The most striking places you’ve visited (potential settings)
  • Historical tidbits you’ve learned on trips (or in your own town)

Extra Credit

Capture three more story sparks every day for the next week: eavesdrop, read obituaries, browse the front page of Wikipedia, bookmark quirky photographs, read poetry, delve into medical textbooks, looks, listen, smell, breathe in the world around you. Capture three sparks from all that living you do every day.

Share in the comments a source of story sparks that you discovered or found most productive.

Need more help? Get the ebook that grew out of this article: Breaking Writers’ Block, A StoryADay Guide

Ideas! Ideas! Finding Writing Ideas For Your Short Story

Some days finding ideas is easier than others.

On the days where the story ideas are flowing, stick a bucket under the spigot and catch them all. You’ll need them later. Here are some prompts to get that idea spigot to open. Get ready with your notebook…

Some days finding ideas is easier than others.

On the days where the story ideas are flowing, stick a bucket under the spigot and catch them all. You’ll need them later.

(And when you come back to them, give them your full attention. “Cell-phone trouser call” might not mean much at first glance, but on a second glance you’ll remember the idea you had for a girlfriend whose boyfriend had an amusing habit of putting his bluetooth headset in his pocket and redialing her by accident. If you give it few moments of serious thought you’ll remember how you thought that might go bad and what tone of story it was going to be. If today’s the day for that story, go for it.)

Here are some prompts to get that idea spigot to open. Get ready with your notebook…

Your past

Think of incidents in your life that have stayed with you: the playground fight when you were 10; the day everyone gathered to watch you complete the Rubik’s cube; your wedding day; that time you embarrassed yourself so horribly that you blushed to think about for five years straight. Can you go back and put a fictional character in that situation? Can she go somewhere with it? Why is she there? Does it happen the same way or does she handle it the way you wish you had? play!

Your Family’s Past

What about all those stories that you heard, growing up? Yu heard them over and over again until you groaned. You might not know exactly what Poughkeepsie looked lik in 1956, but you know the emotional core of the story and you know one or two details that will give your short story authenticity(didn’t your mother always interrupt your dad’s story to rib him about his finely coiffed ‘DA’ hair? And didn’t your dad get her back by reminding her of the gold necklace she was so snooty about, but that turned her neck green?). Re-purpose these stories, with different people and a different setting if you need to. But stay true to the point of the story, to the point the teller was trying to make.

Your future

You know how interviewers ask you where you see yourself in five years? Well, why not turn that into a story? Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s a character you’ve had rattling around in your head. Maybe it’s a ‘real’ fictional character. Where is Moriarty five years after Holmes’s death? What about Harry Potter? (Now, these would count as ‘fan fiction’ and might represent a breach of trademark or copyright, but if you’re just writing them as a creativity exercise for yourself, you probably shouldn’t worry too much. But you might not want to try to publish these ones. [3. there’s a recent book by Melanie Benjamin called Alice I Have Been which imagines the life of the real girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland)

Obituaries

Obituaries of ordinary people contain wonderful character sketches: the whole family, the era they lived in, their interests, their careers. Sometimes you can imagine the person, their hopes and dreams, from the activities they pursued and the comments of those left behind. Online obituary listings often have ‘guest books’ where loved ones add more detail. OK, maybe you think I’m being ghoulish. I prefer to see this ideas as a tribute to the departed person.

Your world

Look around. What do you see that is out of place? What could it mean? Elizabeth Peters saw a trash bag lying lumpily at the side of the road and thought,

‘Oo, what if that was a dead body?’

Then she wrote a novel – a whole novel! – from that kernel of an idea.

What can you see

A man, talking quietly into a cell phone at the coffee shop? Why quietly? Might we say ‘furtively’? Why is he here and not at work or at home with his wife? Is he meeting his girlfriend? Oh look, a beautiful woman just walked in and sat with him. He smiles too much, is way too chatty for that to be his wife. Is he having an affair? What if his wife arrives? What if he is meeting with an event planner to plan a lavish 40th birthday party for the wife?

Is there a traffic cone on top of a statue in town? We all know students put it there, but who were they? How did they feel? Would they do it again?
There’s a kite stuck in a tree? How did it get there?

An old man sits on a bench, staring at his shoes. Who is he? What is he thinking? What has he seen in his life?


Ideas are everywhere. Keep your eyes open and your notebook handy.

Need more help? Get the ebook that grew out of this article: Breaking Writers’ Block, A StoryADay Guide