Back To The Future

This is it.

This is the day Marti McFly travels forward to: 4:29 pm (California time), October 21, 2015.

And this was the moment when I knew I was going to be a writer:

Docbrownexplains

The pure joy that shot through me as the writers unveiled the time paradox, set off a bomb in my brain. I was, on the one hand, delighted that the explanation was so clever (I was a time-travel junkie, but I was only 17 and there was no Internet — at least not available to the general public — so I was not jaded by fandom’s endless discussions of the permutations of every plot trope ever).

At the same time I knew that I wanted to DO THAT: I wanted to give someone that moment of joy and revelation. I wanted to be that clever. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do it. But that was what I wanted to do.

This is why writers write: to invite people into a collective dream. To show off. To give people a thrill.

So go and write something!

[Writing Prompt] Make It Even Worse

Yesterday we took your character’s dreams and dashed them in the middle of the story.

Today I want you to take your character, and their desire and cripple them not once, but twice. Of course you get to reward them with a little win in the middle.

The Prompt

Give your character a goal, frustrate them, let them make some progress but let it come at a  cost.

Darth Vader vs Obi-Wan Kenobi

Tips

  • Think about Star Wars, the great story-outliner’s tool: Luke wants to get off this boring little planet but his aim is frustrated by obligations and lack of opportunity. When his family is murdered he finally acts. His next aim is to find and rescue the sexy princess (spoiler alert: Ew!). Problem: she’s on the most heavily defended, most technologically advanced ship in the fleet of the all-powerful empire. Somehow he succeeds. Yay! BUT, oh no, they sacrifice Obi-Wan, his mentor, at the same time. Now Luke has a new mission: overthrow the empire. Fail, Strive, Succeed but at a cost, pursue next part of his ‘want’. [Check out this Narrative Map of the Hero’s Journey]
  • Put your character in an impossible situation. Let him dig his way out only to fall into a new pit. Only this time he knows a bit more about himself and what it’ll take to climb out. (Friends? A rope? Strong hands?) Let the character use what they learned in the first part of the middle, to achieve what they need to do next.
  • It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom or drama. If you’re writing humor you can still do this. Frustration is funny. Even throwing in a moment of tragedy is acceptable in comic writing. In fact, if you’re making your reader laugh until 2/3 of the way through the story, they won’t even notice the knife in your hand until you’re sliding it between their ribs. Bam! Will that pack an emotional punch?! (Sitcoms do this from time to time. Aren’t you surprised to find yourself suddenly sobbing during your favorite 30 minute comedy?)

Go!

Don’t Try To Do Too Much in One Short Story

The best short stories can say a lot, but they don’t try to do too much.
A short story is not a novel…

one candle
The best short stories can say a lot, but they don’t try to do too much.

Writing a story a day is going to be a huge challenge. Inventing characters and settings and inhabiting them for just one day? Huge.

Don’t try to do too much.

We don’t have the time or space to tell wandering epics.

We have time for one incident or one central character or theme 1

If your story starts to wander towards an interesting side character, slap that character’s hand and promise him he can be the hero of tomorrow’s story. If you find yourself backtracking to show too much of what happened before the ‘now’ of your story, file the idea and write a prequel tomorrow.

The beauty of writing aevery day is that you don’t have to do it all today. You can write tomorrow. In fact, you have to!

Finish Today, Plan For Tomorrow

So finish the story you started (even if you’ve fallen out of love with it) and make note of all the other ideas that were so good they butted in today.


Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.
-Ezra Pound


  1. by the way all of this is also not true. In writing rules are made to be broken. Except that one about the apostrophe. I will hunt you down and smack your palm with a ruler if you put an apostrophe before the “s” in a plural!

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