W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

No 16. Story Ideas


One thing I hear most often from new writers is where do ideas come from. What triggers a story or a novel?


In our very active Geneva Writers Group when a member talks about a personal experience usually over lunch at the Café du Soleil, someone will almost always ask, 'Are you turning it into a story?' Thus a runaway child, a child that gets bad grades, a husband's affair, a grouchy boss, a death in the family, a broken-down car on the autoroute, a woman on the beach who talks incessantly are all potential stories.

When I was a new writer still unsure of everything I did, I visited an inner city Digital plant. The HR person told me how she wasn't afraid of being at a rather dangerous T-stop (T is the nickname for the Boston subway system) while waiting for the shuttle to the plant.

'Why?' I asked her.

'There's a wino with a big dog. He comes and stands with me. He says he's protecting me.' She laughed and shook her head. 'Not that he would be any good, but in a way, it's nice.'

This led to my short story, 'The Wino and the Woman.' The heroine changed races, age, and economic class, which became part of her story. An unsatisfactory boyfriend was added. He faired badly as a decent human compared to the wino. I showed the story to the woman who had triggered it, because I felt in I had stolen her story, but she was thrilled with it.

Many new writers when they use a life event often say, 'but it happened that way,' when a critic suggests this or that should be changed. One of the wonderful things about taking a seed of a story, is that the writer can change the results to suit themselves. Characters whose prototype never suffered for their bad actions can be penalized, the dead can live, the living can die, the fire can be put out in time or not. We don't have to follow the exact events but rearrange them to suit the story (would that we had the same power in real life). However, we have to be true to the story on what makes it work.

John Irving talks about starting with something real, but because it is boring he adds something here and there until he has an "autobiography on the way to becoming a lie."

Sometimes stories don't come from something as exact as a specific situation. Years ago, Dr. Hug, Leo Buscalgia, talked about old people still making love. This triggered my story 'Never Too Old' about how two grown daughters reacted to the discovery that their 72-year old mother was having an affair. One was shocked. One was thrilled.

Story ideas can come from the news, television programmes, an unsuccessful short story written earlier, but with a character that has something to say, from events, a sermon anything that you observe.

If you have writer friends sit down together and talk about story ideas. Try and write an anthology around a central theme: a fair, several people in the same movie theatre, a vacation resort, etc. Or take a sentence at random from somewhere and see what different stories develop from it.

Read Nathalie Goldberg's WRITING DOWN THE BONES and free write regularly.

The secret as writers is to find the seed and nourish it. To ask the what ifs - what if this happened, what if that person said this or did that. Maybe we need to do two or three different versions, highlighting different scenes, changing the balance between characters, cutting out or adding to the original idea.

The key to finding story ideas is to observe what is happening around you.


"Story ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. I might see a wire service article in the LA Times and realise that it contains the kernel for a novel as I did when I wrote Well-Schooled in Murder. I might see an exposé in a British Newspaper and decide that it can serve as the foundation for a novel as I did when I wrote Missing Joseph. I might want to use a specific location in one of my books, so I'll design a story that fits into the location…I might see someone on the street or in the underground, overhear a conversation between two individuals, listen to someone's experience, study a photograph, or determine a particular type of character would be interesting to write about. On sometimes what stimulates the story idea is a combination of any of these things.
Elizabeth George in I Richard.


1. Take a book you like. Find a minor character. Then using that character as a base, develop a life for that character.

2. Buy a tabloid. Using one of the stories about an event, 'Man escapes shark' or 'Little boy found after hours in the woods' and develop that into a story.

3. Walk around a shopping centre and listen to bits of conversation. Jot them down in a journal. Develop one into a short story.

4. List three events in your life where you were totally unsure of yourself. Narrow it down to one and create a character of the opposite sex that has a similar problem.


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