Getting Ideas Exercise
A great short story starts with a great idea. Anyone can have a great idea, but writers must learn to hunt down ideas and nurture them and capture them before they get away.
1. Hunt for Ideas
Choose one or more of the following exercises and let your mind run freely to come up with many ideas that could happen in your story. Jot the ideas down in enough detail to remember them. Don’t evaluate or censor your ideas at this point. Just let your ideas multiply.
Choose an unusual person whom you have met, one who attracts your attention from the beginning. He doesn’t need to be truly weird, just someone memorable. Fictionalize him. Take his basic personality, his spirit, and change details to make him come alive as a fictional character. Picture him. How does he dress? What does he like and dislike? What makes him mad? What makes him happy? How do people react to him? What kind of work does he do? Does he have hobbies? Does he show off? How does he display various emotions?
Give him a character to interact with. You might choose someone who is his opposite. Contrasting characters give lots of potential for conflict and charm. Think about using some of these combinations: young and old, rich and poor, bookish and street smart, show-off and introvert, social climber and unknown, city person and rural person.
Think about the various things that could happen to these characters until you come up with a plot that interests you and makes you wonder what will happen.
Think of an event which has captured your attention lately. How could you fictionalize that as a story? What makes the incident memorable? How can you use fiction to make it even stronger?
Build a plot around that.
Choose a situation, real or fictional, that you know about. What are the various things that could happen in that situation? What if a new worker and an experienced boss suddenly switched roles? What if a woman had to work for her worst enemy and learn from her? What if a rich person suddenly lost all his money and had to survive by his wits? What if an unpopular girl grew up, succeeded, and then had the opportunity to go back to high school? What if a person could enter his fantasy world, but had trouble getting back out?
Play with the various plot possibilities until you find one you like.
Choose an issue you feel strongly about. What kind of characters would naturally deal with that kind of issue?
Choose characters on both sides of the issue. Give both sides intelligence, reasons for what they believe, character strengths and weaknesses. Set up a confrontation and challenge the characters to act on what they believe. Find an unpredictable ending that is a natural effect from the cause you have given.
Choose a strong emotion and start your plot there.
Humiliation, for example, is a very strong emotion. Here are some movies built on that emotion: Joe Somebody (Tim Allen), Never Been Kissed (Drew Barrymore), Ever After (Drew Barrymore), Princess Diaries (Anne Hathaway), Runaway Bride (Richard Gere), In Good Company (Dennis Quaid). [Apologies for any profanity and sexual references. Just fast forward through any of that.]
This idea comes from James Scott Bell’s excellent book, Plot and Structure (techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish.) This Writer’s Digest book deals with writing a novel, but has some good ideas for short stories as well.
Choose one word and write it down in the middle of a piece of paper. (James Bell chose “baseball.” I chose “humiliation.”) Then let your mind run free and write words around that word that relate to it. Don’t censor yourself, just keep writing. Some words will start a thread of thought which you can build like a family tree.
For example, under “humiliation” I have the word “recital.” This reminds me of a humiliating experience I had in high school. Building on that word I have the names of people who made that experience humiliating for me, the name of the song whose middle I forgot, etc.
Drawing this mind map will furnish you with all kinds of memories and ideas related to the topic. Use these to develop an idea for your story.
James Bell says that coming up with one idea for your plot and one ending is “the path to the reaction, ‘I’ve seen this before.’” Instead, he says, “You need to do the opposite. You need to come up with hundreds of ideas, toss out the ones that don’t grab you, and then nurture and develop what’s left.”
James Bell is talking about writing a novel when he says this, but the same principle applies to short stories. If you find one obvious ending to your story, you may leave your reader bored. Think of several ways your story could end.
O Henry is a prolific short story writer from about one hundred years ago. He wrote about ordinary people who lived in New York City. While his stories are dated, his plot twists are a valuable study for writers who want to craft unpredictable endings.
Taking an exact plot with exact characters and claiming it as your own is plagiarism. But no one can copyright a pattern or an idea. Study some of O Henry’s stories for ideas for plot twists.
Here are some of my favorite O Henry stories. They are in public domain now and can be found on the internet by googling “O Henry” and the name of the story. “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” “A Retrieved Reformation,” “The Last Leaf.”
Years ago you may have seen the Disney movie “No Deposit, No Return” with Don Knotts and Darren McGavin. Our family videotaped this movie and watched it many times when our girls were young. But if you’re an O Henry fan, you can’t miss the similarities to this movie and “A Retrieved Reformation” and “Ransom of Red Chief.”
Warning: If you borrow ideas, which you likely will even if you don’t realize it, give your unique twist to the story. Keep the reader guessing about the outcome.
2. Choose your best idea.
How do you know a good idea?
1. Does it move the emotions of the reader? So far you only have the idea for your story. It’s only a beginning. But choose an idea that has the potential to make your reader make an emotional investment in the story. Is it a situation the reader can identify with? We talked about the emotion of humiliation. Your character may be humiliated in a way the reader has never been, but most readers can identify with the feeling of humiliation.
2. Can you give a subtle message with your idea? You don’t want to be preachy, but your story should have something to say. You may not start with your theme, but somewhere along the line you will need to figure out what point you are trying to make. Will your idea work for this?
3. Is it original enough to keep the reader guessing about the outcome?
4. Would the idea interest you if you weren’t writing it?
3. Capture your idea before it escapes.
When you have found an original idea that will move the reader and keep him guessing, you need to write it down before you lose it.
At this point, don’t worry about style, grammar, or punctuation. Don’t try to recreate the scene or produce dialog or spell out the details. Just write down what happens. You could write it like a synopsis if you want.
Example from The Gift of the Magi:
Della only had $1.87 to buy her beloved Jim a Christmas gift. She wants to buy him a ___ but she doesn’t know where to get the money. She decides to _____. When Jim comes home he _____. Etc.
Then take a break. You’ve taken the first important step in writing your short story. You’ve captured the idea and are ready to begin writing.