Whether you are an aspiring writer or a published author, you might be asked where you find ideas for your fiction.
Typical sources are newspapers, magazines, television shows, movies, and works by other authors. Many times I’ve read a book or watched a movie and an event or character will spark an idea for a story. One time while driving down the street, I observed a man standing on a street corner and wanted to write about this character.
Hundreds of creative writing books exist in various formats. I own at least four such books. For the cost-conscious, you will find a wealth of free help on the Internet. I typed “Creative Writing Prompts” on Google and received almost five million hits.
You can choose from any number of software programs for writers, such as WriteSparks Lite, which generates random phrases, words, clichés, and what-if-situations to stimulate writing. I wrote a flash fiction piece using three words (housewife, motel room, necklace) generated by the free trial download of WriteSparks Lite.
Songwriters tell a story using music, and you can use music to tell a story. A few weeks ago, while exercising on the treadmill and listening to music on my iPod, the song Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger started playing. The first two lines of the song follow:
She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
My work-in-progress, short story titled The Monogrammer, is based on those 19 words. I hope to publish the work in one form or another, even if only a blog entry on my website. Who knows? With a lot of work, it might become a novel.
A story consists of nothing more than words, and a “one-stop shop” exists with all the words we need: the dictionary. It contains everything: people, places, obstacles, crimes, emotions, motive, and more. It’s a matter of finding the right combination for your story idea.
The truth is, we don’t need to look far for ideas. The roadblock looms when determining how to move forward because an idea is nothing more than a starting point. You have a character or two, an event, a situation, and a place, but what comes next?
Most of the advice I read from books, magazines, articles, and software programs recommend the writer just start writing. I believe what stops many writers (it caused me to procrastinate more times than I care to admit), is they don’t see promise of a story beyond those first few sentences or paragraphs. Without a middle or an end in mind, a writer might be hesitant to answer the bell for Round 1.
This occurred with my short story The Monogrammer. My idea centered on a woman living in California and a man from the Midwest who comes out to the coast. Two characters in two places with little else kept me from writing, because I lacked confidence the story would surpass 50 words.
But these two characters insisted on imposing their will on my subconscious until I gave in and started asking questions.
- What does the man do for a living?
- Why is he going to California?
- Is he leaving the Midwest for good or perhaps for a vacation?
- Does he know this woman or do they meet for the first time?
- Is he running to or running from something?
- What events in the lives of these two characters are significant to the story?
- What relationships (family, friends, and lovers) contributed to who these people are today?
This is a starter list, and the answers to these questions will likely generate more questions.
When I found something with real “meat,” I wrote a snippet or scene, even if it didn’t appear in the final version of the story, but I was making progress by writing actual dialogue and narrative. Sure, the story might eventually stall and be trashed, but such is the writing life. Find a different character, event, situation, and place, and then repeat the process.
Consider my example of the stranger standing on a street corner.
- Who is he?
- Does he look familiar?
- Is he waiting for someone or something to happen?
- Does he belong here?
- Where did he come from?
- Why is he standing here?
- What is he doing the moment you see him?
- Is he a lookout for a crime occurring or about to occur?
- Is he a diversion?
- For those of us drawn to supernatural themes, is he visible one second and gone the next?
Answering one or more of these questions should start the pen moving (or the keys clicking).
I prefer to keep it simple because in writing, more complexity often promotes procrastination and could produce a lack of confidence. A story consists of character, plot, objects, and setting. Events (plot) happen to people (characters) with goals in a place (setting), and interaction between these characters produces conflict — all found in the dictionary.
Here’s a starter: A man posing as a doctor walks into a hospital and removes a patient from their life support system. You can start writing or start asking question, whatever works for you. If all else fails, remember to ask . . . Who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Just remember, a starting place doesn’t need to be the beginning of the story.