The question concerning story ideas is universal. “How did you come up with that idea for your story?” And the answer may be just as universal, but not necessarily very satisfying. “I don’t know. It just came to me.”
Your life, comprised of events, experiences, people, feelings, emotions, perspectives, and conclusions, can be considered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and how you creatively inter-relate and interlock them determines how many story ideas you can devise. The number must be in the thousands. Generically, these pieces would be labeled “plots,” “settings,” “characters,” “scenes,” and “dialogue.”
THE PATH TO A STORY:
What leads to a story may be the same as what jars your memory and creativity, serving as the needle which threads its way through the experiences of your life and results in a unique knit you never thought you could sow in such a manner. The clink of a glass, the smell of the ocean, or the soft voice of your secretary can suddenly cause the planets to align and spell “story.”
You could most likely not initiate this process even if you tried. You do not necessarily make it happen. It happens to you-and often at times when part of your brain is focusing on doing something entirely different, such as baking a cake, sweeping the floor, or tilling the soil in your garden. In the greater depths of your mind, creativity works backstage while you continue the mundane tasks at the front of the stage.
Perhaps the process can be reduced to inspiration, whose dynamic eclipses anything understood on the physical plane and can only be deciphered by the very word’s definition when dissected-“in spirit.” This, more than anything, may be the location of creativity, if not the very essence of it.
A memoir can be considered a piece about what happened. A short story, through rearranged pieces, can be considered what could happen if you had no limitations as to how you could connect its elements.
“If you’re like the vast majority of writers… what you start with is a vague intuition, like a hard-to-scratch itch, the uneasy feeling that accompanies something-an errand, an anniversary, a date-you’ve forgotten, but that lurks in the mind’s corner, a nagging specter,” according to Mark Baechtel in his book, “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction “(Pearson Education, 2004, p. 9). “This is how stories most often begin: small apprehensions, a twinge of spiritual discomfort, a certain stillness in the house… “
Writers, without doubt, write for themselves-what they need to say, feel, express, complete, satisfy, and clear from their systems-and secondarily do so for their readers. But you may clarify your story’s meaning by asking yourself what you wish to do to your reader through your literary efforts: inform, entertain, provide suspense, love, or have a laugh.
Writing, like sculpture and painting, is art and art is expression. Through that expression, the writer sees himself and the reader catches a glimpse of the writer and, ultimately, himself-that is, how he relates to and sees part of himself in what he reads, expanding and enhancing his self-understanding.
Like a mirror, if the reader sees himself in the writer, he sees the commonality or truth in all of us, the shared essence.
TEN IMPORTANT FICTION WRITING TIPS:
1). Stories are about events, even if small in scale that change the life of the primary character. It does not mean that they must undergo an epiphany of sorts, where they suddenly understand themselves and their place in the universe. But even in stories with the slimmest of plots, the reader must witness an irrevocable change. The main characters may not necessarily be aware of it themselves, or even its implications, but at the close of the story, the reader should be.
2). Stories are built on scenes. Scenes are significant action that deliver information readers want to know. These revelations continuously raise the stakes of the story and cause the reader to want to know more, keeping him riveted until the final line.
3). Stories must feature a character or characters the reader cares about, whether or not the reader actually likes him/her or them. The reader’s connection to them is developed through watching them struggle with their competing fears and desires, and wondering what they will do.
4). Characters must talk, but what they say should not be used as a vehicle for delivering information the story itself can provide in other ways, such as through narration, thoughts, and/or actions. For example, the following dialogue would sound artificial, egotistical, and serve as almost an oral resume: “As you know, as the director of the operations, who has been employed for six years and holds a summa-cum-laude degree in Astrophysics from Cornel University with a minor in chemistry and served on the yearbook committee… “.
5). Man is his desire or the desire of man is a measure of his kindness.
6). Characters live in the world and are products of it. How they see their current lives, as well as how they think about their futures, is directly connected to where they come from. And what they notice about their world-their setting-is directly connected to their biggest concerns of the story.
7). Stories take their own time. Often, the surprises our characters bestow upon us-the secrets they reveal, the unexpected actions they take that move the story in a direction we had not originally imagined-are gifts that we can only receive by being open to them. This can mean that when we feel “stuck” on a story, we have to put it aside, no matter how much we want to force its conclusion.
8). Because every word counts in a story, we must scrutinize each one for accuracy, clarity, and economy. Every word, phrase, sentence must serve the story’s purpose. The author is often unaware of that purpose until he has given his work time to “cool.” This is where the beauty, power, and necessity of revision comes in. In this vein, some authors are actually lousy writers, but great editors.
9). The same way a skilled chef can turn a stale piece of bread into gourmet cuisine, a writer can write about anything-and should-in order to stretch his imagination and skill beyond his comfort zone. A writer usually writes about what he knows, but when he eclipses this boundary, what he can know can equal the universe.
10). An author writes-and reads–because he cares about the mystery of life, the myriad aspects of the human condition. His writing should, to a certain degree, scare him, since to play it safe becomes a waste of time. His characters will never thrill him-or his readers-with their secrets, if the author is too scared to ask for them.
SEVEN TIPS TO BETTER WRITING SUMMARY:
1). Characters should be developed, multi-dimensional, and fleshed out, and undergo some type of change or growth by the story’s end, as should real people in real life.
2). They should influence and act upon the plot, not react to it like detached bystanders.
3). Injecting something fresh or innovative can breathe new life into an old, tired, tried-and-true, classic plot.
4). Plots require obstacles, problems, and tensions. The more important the protagonist’s goals, the more these obstructions will add turmoil and drama to the story.
5). Make sure that your readers will care about your characters; otherwise, they will not invest their time in paralleling their journey.
6). Readers should be grabbed in the first paragraph.
7). Eliminate unnecessary details, words, and back story information in order to “lean” your writing.
Baechtel, Mark. “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction.” New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.