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September 01, 2018

Developing Story Ideas

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Developing Story Ideas

Now that you’ve collected a lot of story ideas, what do you do with them?Well, no matter how much people want artists to be free thinkers, you are NOT absolutely free to write anything. Artists are more slave to their obsessions and their favorite ideas than anyone else. As you experiment more you’ll find that some of your ideas simply fall flat. Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Michelangelo (might have) said about his sculptures of angels that he went to the rock and simply removed everything that wasn’t an angel. This is what you need to do; write a lot of crap and then remove everything that isn’t an angel.

Prepare ideas to become stories: basically this means to contextualize your idea.  Ask yourself about the image you see, or the situation implied by the phrase or the moment you’ve observed, or the moment the question implies:

What is happening here?

  • is the backhoe animated? Does it think? Is it resting?
  • Does “blue, everywhere” mean literally that? That everything is blue?  Did someone go crazy and paint his whole house blue? 
  • Did the toddler learn that gesture from his dead father, the only legacy he has? Does his mother see this and finally realize that her husband is gone?
  • If I were tortured, would I betray my boyfriend? What if the mafia tortured me in a motel room and I gave him up?
  • What if the girl really isn’t the white rasta’s daughter? What if she doesn’t remember where she comes from? What if she helps him with his drug deals because she’s afraid of losing the only family she remembers?

Where would this happen? 

In what part of the world, or in what kind of place (suburb, sewer, penthouse, playground, forest, space station, etc.)?  On the street or on the sidewalk? In a Confucian society or a Judeo-Christian one? In the women’s room, or the men’s room? In a ghetto or a mansion? In an animistic world or a void?  In a single place or on the road?

When would this happen? 

In 1934 or 2025? In ancient, medieval, or modern times, or in the future? In the morning or evening?  When she was angry or when she was calm?  When society was at war or when society was at peace?  During an economic high or low? Before, during or after the cataclysm?

Why would this happen?  The moment that you’ve seen – the image, conversation, gesture, situation – what would cause that situation to be?

  • Did the rasta drug dealer kidnap her for ransom only to find that her parents had died in a car accident? Did his stone heart crack just a little? 
  • Did the young mother have a fight with her husband before he was murdered? Has she been in guilt and denial?
  • Does all heavy machinery have a soul? Are we simply being treated to the inside view of the life of a backhoe? 
  • Is the blue guy schizophrenic? Has he been hanging on by a thread until now?  Did the voices start speaking to him in the middle of a job interview? 
  • What if my boyfriend were a gambling addict who fell afoul of the mafia and ran away, leaving me to their tender mercies?

Select an idea and begin to write: This is the one part no one can tell you how to proceed in. This is where your subconscious takes over. Which idea catches at your attention?  Which commands you? Which do you wantto write? By this time, one of these ideas will have caught your imagination and you’ll be spinning it out without thinking. This is the best part. Enjoy it!

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