You know the inevitable question. All together now: “Where do you get your ideas?”
Honestly, some fall in my lap, completely ripe and ready to use. Unfortunately, those are most often the ones I CAN’T USE.
A woman in my family loved a man for many years, but he would never ask her to marry him. Tired of waiting, she became engaged to another man. The evening before the wedding she received a telegram—yes, a telegram—which read, “You will never leave the church alive.”
Who she told about the telegram, who she refused to tell, and what the people she told did is a ready-made story. I heard it forty years after the events happened. An elderly relative and I were rocking on her front porch one summer evening. A man walked past the house and tipped his baseball cap to us. My relative turned her face away and ignored him. I asked her why? She told me the story as casually as if it were her recipe for peach cobbler. The man who had tipped his hat to us was the grandson of the man who’d sent the telegram. The families hadn’t spoken to one another since the day of the wedding.
All I had to do was write that story down, just the way she told it, but I can’t use it because one of the people involved is still alive. Some day . . .
There is, of course, an obvious second story. It was a small town. The telegrapher knew both the person who’d sent the telegram and the person to whom it was addressed. Why the heck did he deliver it? Why didn’t he take it to the police chief? No one knows, but I bet I could make a story out of that, too.
When the universe doesn’t smile with a ready-made story, here’s an exercise I do when I’m teaching and someone asks the idea question. I start by asking people in the audience to tell me one thing they did in the past twenty-four hours. I write five or six thing on the board, then the group picks one.
Let’s say the group pick: washed my clothes at the Laundromat.
So, a character is in a Laundromat, washing clothes. What happens?
Most people, even professional writers, don’t think of a great story idea right off. The most common answers? An old lover comes in. An old enemy comes in. A missing relative comes in. An escaping bank robber takes everyone in the Laundromat hostage. A body is found in one of the dryers. The pay phone rings, the person on the line screams, “Help me,” and then the line goes dead.
Suppose we go with the missing relative idea. Who is he? How is he related to our person washing clothes? How long has he been missing? Why does him showing up now mean something? What’s the turning point that’s happening?
It’s interesting to watch the group at this point. Some people get excited, calling out possibilities, some get quiet. When I first started doing this exercise, in my naïvety, I thought the quiet ones probably watched too much television and couldn’t think of anything original. Now I think they’re probably the ones to watch. There’s a good possibility that a story is brewing in their head, and they don’t want to share it yet.
Here’s one scenario a class built:
The person washing clothes is a detective and the missing relative is his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in years. The detective’s seven-year-old son is dying from a blood disease. He needs a bone marrow transplant, but none of the family is a close donor match. The boy’s uncle will turn out to be the needed match.
Next step, throw in something weird, something short of aliens landing in the park, but a complication that narrows the available options, and complicated or limits the protagonist’s choices. Yes, the astute among you will recognize this as raising the stakes.
The Laundromat owner appears to burst into flame from spontaneous combustion and burns to death. Police departments being reluctant to accept the the existence of spontaneous combustion arrest the brother for first-degree murder. Because a mob boss won public sympathy and an eventual acquittal on a murder charge after donating a kidney to a terminally-ill wife and mother, there is a new state law prohibiting anyone under charges for a major crime from participating in medical research or organ donation. If the detective can’t prove that the Laundromat owner died of spontaneous combustion, or another cause that his brother had nothing to do with, the detectives son will die.
Main plot: who killed the Laundromat owner, why, and how.
Sub-plots: the relationship between the two brothers, the reasons the brother left and returned, the detective’s relationship with his son, and the question of whether spontaneous combustion is or isn’t possible.
All this from washing clothes.
If you want to try this as a party game, here are the steps:
1. Make a list of several every-day things that individuals in the group did in the last twenty-four hours. Pick one.
2. Ask what happens, and make a list. Expect the list to be pretty pedestrian. Pick one of the things on that list.
3. Start filling in details.
4. Throw in something weird—no aliens landing in the park—a complication that narrows the available options available, and complicated or limits the protagonist’s choices. Extra points for raising both public and private stakes.
Writing quote for the week:
Raise the public stakes. Make the public stakes private. Raise the public stakes again.
~Donald Maass, editor and agent