I talk a lot about writing prompts and Story Sparks around here. They are your secret weapons for getting through a month of extreme short story writing!
What is a Story Spark?
It’s a term I coined for something that is less than a story idea and certainly not an outline, but something that you notice while walking the world: things that make you go ‘hmmm’, if you will.
Story sparks are details about the world that you can use either to spark or add richness to a story. They can be:
- Fragments of conversation: become a dedicated eavesdropper, if you aren’t all ready.
- Details from the world around you: the exact color and shape of a dogwood flower in April; a snippet of conversation overhead, out of context; the rhythm of a 14 year old girl’s speech,
- Big Ideas that occur to you randomly: the ‘where are all these people going?’ that pops into your head while you’re sitting in traffic; what if my baby had been born with wings? why do so many of us believe in a deity?.
- Memories: spend some time going through old memories and pulling out interesting characters, conflicts, fears, hopes, joys. Gather some of them as Story Sparks.
Some of these, with a little interrogation and development could be come a story or a series of stories, but for now they are simply ideas that flit across your brain.You needn’t have any clue what kind of story they’ll fit into or how you might use them.
Save them for later.
How To Harness The Power Of Story Sparks
To feel the power of Story Sparks you must gather them continuously.
Set yourself a goal of gathering three story sparks every day and you will find yourself seeing the world in a different way (a writer’s way).Aim to have 15 at the end of each week, but don’t collect them all on one day.
By getting into the habit of observing the world around you and capturing story sparks daily, you are training your brain to see the world through an artist’s filter. This will help immeasurably when you sit down to write.
Writing Prompts Are Not Story Sparks
(At least not the way I do them here at StoryADay)
I provide an optional writing prompt for every day in May (If you want to support the challenge and give me a pat on the back, you can grab a copy of last year’s prompts here or stay tuned for the release of this year’s prompt ebook)
My writing prompts are intentionally vague.
I don’t know if you prefer comedy or tragedy, sci fi or contemporary romance. I don’t know if you’re a woman or a man or a child or a nonogenarian. So I keep the prompts vague. Here’s an example:
Write a story in which a character tells the same story at three different times in their life.
I’m not giving you a topic or a character or telling you where to set your story. I’m giving you a way into a story.
This is the perfect time to start digging around in your Story Sparks notebook/file and see what might fit with this prompt. Choose a Spark that leaps out at you today, in today’s mood, with today’s time restrictions and today’s challenges.
I also give you tips everyday. They are intended to help you drill down further into the prompt, and figure out how you can make it work for you.
We build our memories of events by retelling the story to ourselves…and usually we like to justify our own actions, even if everyone else was being an idiot. So how we tell the story is shaped by our values and the expectations of the society we move in. That means we remember things how we wish they’d happened, not with absolute clarity and dispassion.
When a character does that it offers up delicious possibilities for conflict (between expectation and reality; between the character’s image of their perfect self, and the actions that self took).
How the character remembers the event may change over time, again shaped by the company they’re keeping and their own changing values.
Allowing the character to retell the same incident three times, at different ages, to different audiences, will allow you to allow the reader to infer what has changed in their lives without you having to spell it out.
Short story readers love a puzzle, so this seems like a really promising framework for a short story.
You don’t need to provide transitions or explain time breaks, or even who your character is talking to. Let the reader do some detective work.
Here’s another example:
Your story starts with a character standing on a windswept, desolate plain. How did they get there? What do they want? And what is that on the horizon, and why is it getting closer?
Notice, I don’t tell you what kind of character to choose or where to place him/her. That’s up to you. Dig into your Story Sparks and see if you can find inspiration for a character who might have these qualities.
Here are the tips I provided for this prompt:
This story can take place anywhere, at any time and with any kind of protagonist.
It could be a space opera, a farce, the climax of a tense kidnap story told in flashbacks, a mystery, a comedy, a romance or a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Whatever your taste runs to.
You don’t ever have to explain why the character is there or what is approaching. You can focus on the character, his/her emotions, memories or senses and still have a satisfying story.
Your story can stay on the plain or, if you’re not the outdoorsy type, have your character scuttle into the huge building right behind her that we couldn’t see in the ‘opening shot’ of the story.
Consider sharing this with other people in the community who are writing to the same prompt. If you ever had any concerns about not being able to write anything ‘original’, sharing the results of this prompts should cure you of that!
Again, you’ll need to bring your own ideas to this exercise. It’s not a scenario that dictates any details about the story, but rather a prompt; a way into finding a character and a story that matter to you.
And that is the only way to write a story that matters to readers.
So go now and start collecting Story Sparks: 3 a day. You’ll thank me, around Day 14, when the creative well is not only dry but cracking and threatening to implode.