Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Ideas

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All story ideas are also story starters, of course, but not all story starters are story ideas.

Most of this chapter will talk about where to get story ideas, but I thought this was the most appropriate place to talk about story starters too.

First, the differences.

The story starter is any physical, emotional or mental stimulus that evokes a memory of something that happened or provides a catalyst to something that could happen. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

The story idea is a character with a problem in a setting. It’s only a trigger, nothing more.

Both are only triggers, nothing more. The sole purpose of both is to get you to the keyboard.

The Story Starter

A story starter can be literally anything.

It can be a scent or a sound or the lighting or something seen or heard in a particular lighting.

For example, the aroma of a rosewood-scented candle might evoke a memory or a story. The same aroma in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story. The same aroma wafting past on a beach will almost certainly evoke another completely different story.

The same goes for things seen or heard or smelled or tasted or felt, physically or emotionally, in various lighting situations and with various background noise types and combinations or various olfactory sensations and so on.

In other words, that same aroma of a rosewood-scented candle mixed with the predominant aroma of freshly baked bread with the sound of cars passing in the background would start another completely different story. And the same stimuli in a dimly lighted room might evoke a completely different story.

A story starter can be the single chirp of a bird. It can be a rock in a particular shape that you see as you’re walking down the road. It can be what she said the last time you saw her, or part of what she said. Or it can be the way she said it. Or both.

It can be a lyric or a line of dialogue or narrative. It can be a character name or a character type. It can be a flash from a scene, like a bull rising into the air as the chute gate is pulled open at a rodeo.

Any of those and anything else can be a story starter.

Any stimulus that can evoke a memory of your past can also evoke a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet (so a story).

What matters is what you do with it.

I should add here that some writers can turn a quick story starter straight into a story. And it happens so quickly that they practically skip over the “character with a problem in a setting” story idea stage.

Dean Wesley Smith collects pulp magazines. He keeps a list of titles from stories in those magazines. Then when he wants to write a story, he selects HALF of one story title and crashes it into HALF of another story title. The resulting title serves as his story starter.

So perhaps he sees a story titled “The Breath Formed” and another one titled “Mouth Watering.” He might crash those together to get “The Mouth Formed.” (Horror, anyone?)

He sits down, puts his fingers on the keyboard, and types in The Mouth Formed. Then he hits the Enter key a couple of times and writes whatever comes to him.

I do the same thing, although seldom with titles.

I collect professional grade photos to use as the basis for book covers. Occasionally I’ll glance through them. As I’m looking at a photo, a title or a line of dialogue or a character laughing will come to me and bam, I’m off and typing.

It really is that easy.

The hard part is sitting down and putting your fingers on the keyboard. Once you get over that horribly traumatic notion, the rest of it is a snap.

The Story Idea

As I wrote above, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. That’s it.

Many would-be writers say they can’t come up with ideas. Most often that’s because they don’t know what an idea is.

They believe, perhaps, that the story has to be born whole. That simply isn’t true.

A story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible.

Most would-be writers believe a story idea is a hobbit finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. But then a wizard shows up and tells him the ring is evil. Turns out the poor hobbit must travel a great distance, during which he encounters all manner of strange, wonderful and terrible creatures. He also must endure various misfortunes, danger and great hardships in order to destroy this thing he holds so precious.

That is not a story idea. That is a plot line.

Could you write that without infringing on The Lord of the Rings? Of course. You might want to change “hobbit” to “grelber” or something, but that’s pretty much the only problem.

But I could never write it, period. Why? Because there’s no room for the hobbit (or grelber) to exercise free will. He might as well be in chains. I know where he’s going, and I know why he’s going. End of story. Ugh. Writing it would just be boring.

So get over the notion that you have to get an entire story all at one time in order to start writing. You don’t. And if you do get that, I recommend you go get another idea. One that will allow you to drop into the story and enjoy it as the characters write it.

Again, a story idea is a Character with a Problem in a Setting. And the problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. It just has to be a problem that this character has to solve in the immediate future. It’s just a trigger, something to get you to the keyboard, to get you started.

Here you go:

John is running a half-marathon. Within a mile of the finish, something sharp pokes him hard on the instep of his right foot. With every step it pokes him again. He can barely stand the pain, but his main rival is behind him only about a hundred yards. What does he do?

Sit down and write it.

Want a little more?

At the first poke, John grimaces. Me. Always me. Why is it always me?

At the first poke, John grins and shakes his head and points to the sky. “You and me, Lord. You and me.”

At the first poke, John winces. What in the world was— And crumples to the ground, dead.

Okay, now sit down and write it.

So Where Do You Get Ideas?

When a conference goer asked Harlan Ellison that, the famous writer replied, “I get all mine from a little shop in Schenectady.”

He said that because if he told the truth nobody would believe him.

The truth is, where do you NOT get ideas? They’re all over the place.

Again, a Character with a Problem in a Setting.

You’re out for a walk early in the morning on a dirt road. An SUV passes you. It doesn’t slow down, and when you glare at it you see a woman (the driver) apparently angry and gesturing toward the back seat.

If you’re a writer, probably you have two immediate thoughts.

The first one is, Frankly, I’m fortunate she didn’t run over me. Does she know me? And then you laugh. Maybe.

And your second thought is, Okay, her name is Jillian, her husband came home drunk and abusive one too many times and she’s headed for her mother’s house with the children. They’re in the back seat and wondering aloud why Daddy isn’t coming too.

Sit down. Write it.

Ways to Create Triggers (to Get You to the Keyboard) and Ideas

Select three words at random from the dictionary. Sparrow, hay, tornado.

Select two seemingly opposing ideas and crash them together (in my “The Compartmentalized Mantis,” a feminine personality in a man’s environmental suit / in “Saving the Baby,” the main character sees an artillery shell as an infant). More on this technique in the first exercise.

Select a setting, put a character in it, give him a problem and write.

Select a character, give him a problem, put him in a setting and write.

Select a problem, slap it on a character in a setting and write.

Collect titles, lines of dialogue, settings, characters, problems/situations. Put them in a list and browse it occasionally.

Collect photos. (When you need a story idea, glance over the photos. I have a few hundred from CanStock, BigStock, iStock, ShutterStock, et al but photos from any source will work for ideas. Just don’t use them for covers unless you have permission.)

Shrug. And whatever else you can think of.

Notes on Story Ideas

Inspiration is wonderful. Take it when it comes, but professional writers never wait for it. At the bottom of my emails is this signature: “Like Peter DeVries, I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 3 a.m.”

Lose the notion that ideas are gold. They aren’t. If you lose one, get another one.

Remember, practice coming up with ideas. The ability to come up with an idea is a muscle. The more you use it, the more natural using it will become.

Observe everything and everyone. Make up stories about people you see in waiting rooms, in malls. Make up stories about storefronts you see as you’re driving by, or people who are driving by you.

The ability to convert an idea into a story also is a muscle. Remember, an idea is nothing more than a trigger to get you to the keyboard. So when you get an idea, get to the keyboard right now, sit down and write it.

Lose the notion that all ideas will work. Most will, but some won’t. You might even go through a period during which some will work and most won’t.

Next up: Chapter 4 — Writing the Opening

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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4 thoughts on “Chapter 3 — Story Starters and Where to Get Ideas”

  1. One respondent emailed me to say
    Respondent: “I note the strong and positive influence of Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.”
    Answer: I appreciate that, but I’ve never read it. However, my approach to writing is very similar to Bradbury’s, so I’m kind of glad you noticed.

    Respondent: “For chapter three, as a reader I’d like to see specific examples–probably from your own writing–converting the collected titles, lines of dialogue, settings, characters, etc., into actual stories.”
    Answer: Every story I write is an example of what I’m teaching in this book, from short stories to novels. You can see the specific examples you’re looking for in any of my over 120 short stories, any of my 17 five-story collection, any of my 8 ten-story collections, or any of my 14 novels or novella. All of those were written off triggers.

    Respondent: “The reader might enjoy seeing how the story’s first paragraph captures the above trigger and get a sense of the many options after that take-off point.”
    Answer: That’s coming in Chapter 5: Writing the Hook (grin)

    Since I’m posting here on behalf of the respondent, I won’t use any of this in the book, but I thought it might be useful for others who read these posts.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this chapter (and of course the rest of the book)! As a reader I found that the most intriguing part of a writer’s job is how they can come up with such elaborate idea? And this mystery tends to be reinforced by writers themselves, when they talk about their muse, and strikings of inspiration, and so on. Obviously, this myth probably helps keeping an impressive image of writers, as amazing beings who are able to elaborate a very intricate story out of thin air, so it makes sense that many writer go on.

    So it is great to hear real writers who are honest and share their real process, even if the process is way more down-to-earth. I had read Dean Wesley Smith process for starting short stories on his blog (putting two half-titles together). Taking your inspiration from photos also sounds great to me, it probably depends whether your subconscious is more easily triggered by images or by words.

    I also enjoyed reading Neil Gaiman’s answer to this question (on his blog, apparently the essay was written in 1997), it might interest you if you haven’t read it yet:

    His first answers sound a bit like the one you quote from Harlan Ellison. I especially liked the one where he says he gets his ideas “from Pete Atkins”, a writer friend of his who himself answered “from Neil Gaiman”, so both of them had a ready answer to that question. The funny thing is that apparently, when he tried to tell the truth (“I make them up” or “Out of my head”) nobody believed him!

    So thank again for destroying the myth, even though apparently some readers don’t want this myth to be destroyed for them 🙂

    • Thank You for this. I appreciate it. Especially at writers’ conferences and writers’ organization meetings, when a “real” writer (my definition is one who regularly puts new words on the page, it’s his or her job) says where they get their ideas (Where DON’T you get them? All over the place. Everywhere I look.) the would-bes invariably say something like, “Fine, if you don’t want to tell me, just keep it to yourself.” (grin) But if you lean your head back like you’re suddenly developing a migraine, put your forefinger and thumb on your temples, and say, “Oh, I channel Hemingway and Dorothy Parker,” their eyes will get wide and they’ll say, “Really?” (grin)

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