Tag Archives: story ideas

How to Get Story Ideas From Unexpected Headlines

No, this is not a how-to for creating fake news. It’s a prompt that opens a never-ending well of ideas for any fiction writer. I’m talking about how to get story ideas from headlines in the news. Try it out today and see what happens!

How to Get Story Ideas From Headlines: 4 Steps

A few years ago, I read a startling headline in a back section of the Sunday newspaper. It said “Man Likely Padlocked Himself in Bag Found in Bathtub.” I blinked twice, sure I had misread something.

Even after I read the article, I still couldn’t believe it. I was grieved for his family and friends, but I couldn’t help but see the possibilities for inspiring fiction. I wondered how it could even be done?  As a claustrophobic, I wondered, why?

This situation and article were surely stranger than fiction, but it prompted so many questions. Turns out questions are at the heart of great fiction, and you can use headlines to develop ideas all day long. Here’s how to get story ideas from the strangest news headlines.

1. Find Headlines

The first step in how to get story ideas from headlines? Look for headlines.

Find a newspaper and scan through the headlines. You don’t have to read entire articles to find inspiration from their titles. I have found that for fiction, I prefer to search anywhere but the front page. I usually know too much already about the events that make the front page, and I’m after something that prompts new questions, ideas, and worlds.

Look until you find a headline that immediately floods your mind with questions. Headlines that prompt a “Why” and “What if . . .” response are best. Some from today’s headlines:

Workers Unearth Mystery Buried in SC School

Family Car Parked at Charlotte Douglas [Airport] Was Filled with Ants. They Want an Explanation.

Parents Brawl During Youth Football Handshake Line

I found all of these headlines in about five minutes by looking up regional or state newspapers and clicking on the “local” tab.

2. Ask Questions

Once I find a few headlines that scream for exploration, I make a list of the questions one prompts. Again, I spend no time reading the article; I’m only mining the headline for ideas. Here are some questions I wrote down for my headlines above.

Workers Unearth Mystery Buried in SC School: The wording of this headline fascinates me. Buried IN school? Like inside a wall? What were they digging up? Were children present? What is the mystery? Who will solve it? Is it valuable and might need protection? Is it linked to an old legend or cold case?

My only question for the ant-filled car was, Did you fumigate it and what did you use? (I can’t seem to get rid of some ants here, so I might be a little caught up in my own problems to fully explore this one.)

For the parent brawl, I want to know about the relationships. Who started it? Was it between parents on the same team? Was it a mixed group of men and women? Who broke it up? How much irony can you pack in one scene where adults fight while kids shake hands?

3. Flip the Genre

Once you have a good set of questions for several headlines, choose the one that is most compelling. Some of my example headlines lend themselves easily to certain genres.

The “mystery unearthed” might well be mystery, suspense, or horror. The ants could be science fiction or magical realism (Did anyone else think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ants from One Hundred Years of Solitude when you read that headline?). The parent brawl might be realistic fiction or the beginning of a crime fiction piece.

Identifying genre can be a short-cut to creating fresh ideas, simply because you can flip or twist what is expected.

What if the mystery unearthed isn’t suspense but a romance? What if the car full of ants becomes a witty children’s book instead of the horror story it appears to be? Maybe the parent brawl isn’t the beginning of a true crime tale but the opening to a space opera story where irony beams people into an antigravitational state. (I think I might have gone too far on that last one — I’m out of my depth).

4. Apply Story Principles and Write

Once you have those questions and a possible genre, identify your main character and give them a strong goal. Throw things in the way of getting what they want, and force them to act.

The story might go somewhere completely unexpected, but that’s the fun! I’ve had students write two to three stories in different genres using the same headline to show them how inspiration can go anywhere they want.

Stranger Than Fiction

Oh, and the guy in the duffle bag? Turns out he was a spy, but they reported he did indeed lock himself in the bag. Hmmm . . . I have a few questions.

(Yes, I apologize for my morbid insensitivity at reading about a man’s death and trying to spin fiction from it. I’m not fit for polite company. May he rest in peace.)

Real life might be stranger than fiction, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint when you are looking for story ideas.

Have you ever read any headlines that inspired a story? Share in the comments.

By Sue Weems
Source: thewritepractice.com

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How to end a novel: Writing strong story endings

Knowing how to end a novel is an essential skill for fiction writers. Story endings often stay with us as readers – especially when they’re satisfying, haunting, clever or profound. Here are 7 ways to end a novel. May they inspire you to find the best closing for your story:

1. Leave readers guessing: The open-ended story

2. Bring readers full circle: Ending where you began

3. Pull the rug from beneath their feet: Shocking twist endings

4. Create feel-good lingering: ‘Happily ever after’ endings

5. Build in ‘what next?’ – Cliffhanger endings

6. Create complex resolutions: Combining ending types

7. Avoid cliched and unsatisfying story endings: Ending ‘don’ts’

Let’s explore each of these story ending types in greater detail:

1. Leave readers guessing: The open-ended story

Leaving your story open-ended is an interesting but risky approach. Open-ended closing chapters may work in a literary novel. Yet in a genre romance novel, readers typically expect that lovers will be united.

What makes an open-ended story satisfying? It allows the reader to imagine, to fill in the blanks. Without a guide for how we should interpret the final scenes, we’re free to decide for ourselves what they mean.

An example of an open ending: An anti-hero killer ends up relocating and going incognito. This ending was used by the writer’s of the Showtime TV adaptation of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series. Not giving a final conflict or confrontation leaves room for future installments.

J.K. Rowling took a similar approach in the final book of her Harry Potter series. (Rowling however also advanced the timeline several years, with her characters shown as grown adults in her epilogue. This was interpreted as a way for the author to convince her devoted readers there would be no more stories involving her characters’ teenage years.)

Even though this type of story ending leaves some room for imagination and interpretation, make sure that you:

  1. Resolve secondary conflicts and arcs so that there is at least some sense of resolution. For example, even if a primary villain lives to fight another day, perhaps their henchmen get their just desserts.
  2. Don’t mistake an open ending for letting the story peter out – even if there is no decisive conclusion, maintain tension to the end.
  3. Know your reason for leaving your story open-ended. Perhaps you want to convey a specific message (in the case of the example above, it could be that sometimes ‘bad’ people get away with bad deeds).

Another type of story ending is the ‘full circle’ closing. Here, everything returns to how it all began:

2. Bring readers full circle: Ending where you began

If you prefer a stronger sense of an ending, the ‘full circle’ story ending can be highly satisfying. This is a particularly effective way to end a book if your story began with a mysterious, unresolved situation. [Brainstorm the starting and ending scenarios for your story using Now Novel’s step-by-step process.]

Example of a ‘full circle’ story ending

David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas is an excellent example of this type of novel ending.

In his sci-fi adventure novel, Mitchell hops between eras and locations from section to section. Each section ends on a cliffhanger or with an unknown unexplained. The author resolves each story arc in reverse order from the middle. This creates a sort of mirror structure around the central post-apocalyptic section.

Cloud Atlas ends with the resolution of the first interrupted story arc. We learn the fate of a character taken ill aboard a ship, and a shocking twist about a primary relationship for the character. Mitchell thus returns us to the first set of characters, and the novel’s first time setting and style (the first and last sections are written as journal entries at sea). This mirror or cyclical structure gives Mitchell’s novel a particularly satisfying sense of completion.

Shocking story endings that surprise us with a major twist are also effective:

3. Pull the rug from beneath their feet: Shocking twist endings

The plot twist is a typical ending for the short story. Famous short fiction authors such as O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe mastered the ‘twist in the tale’ ending. Yet this can also be a satisfying ending to a longer work of fiction. Masters of the surprise ending include the authors Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.

Alec Worley, in his post ‘The 5 types of twist ending’, lists the following types of story twists:

How to end a novel with a reversal: the 5 types

  1. Identity reversal: In which ‘someone turns out to be someone else’. A character is not who we (or other characters) thought they were. This is a common ending type when there is an unreliable narrator.
  2. Motive reversal: In which the reader assumes a character is acting out of the desire for x when what they really want turns out to be y. For example, we think a character seeks a lover because they’re romantic, but they turn out to be controlling and power-seeking.
  3. Perception reversal: In this type of story ending, the protagonist realizes their world or their understanding of it is out of step with reality. This is a common ending type in Poe’s dark, Gothic stories.
  4. Fortune reversal: Here a character is brought low or elevated to new highs by a stroke of luck or unforeseen circumstances. Dickens’ Great Expectations is an example. The character Pip inherits a fortune from a mystery benefactor, who turns out not to be the person he thought.
  5. Fulfillment reversal: A character reaches the goal of their primary motivation. But another character’s actions undo their hard work.

An ending doesn’t have to be shocking or surprising. Yet surprising reversal endings give readers the uncanny feeling of having been duped. This sense of surprise can make your climax more dynamic and exciting.

Story endings - quote by Stephen King | Now Novel

4. Create feel-good lingering: ‘Happily ever after’ endings

A twist ending, especially a shocking, discomforting one, carries the risk of angering readers who were looking forward to an expected resolution. Sometimes you’ll simply want to give readers what they expect and desire of a novel in your genre.

A tidy wrap-up can be comforting and reassuring – it’s why most childhood tales end with ‘happily ever after’ (or simply the reassuring finality of ‘the end’).

Even if a tidy ending feels a little too predictable, there are ways to make the wrap-up more interesting:

5. Build in ‘What if?’ – Cliffhanger endings

If you want to explore your fictional world further over a series of books, cliffhangers are effective story endings.

Think of how screenwriters handle plot arcs in thriller TV series. While each major plot arc of each season is mostly resolved, there is something left over that leaves viewers hankering for the next season to start. The bodyguard’s ward may be killed and they fail in their main task, but they (and us) still need further answers. Who was the culprit? What was their motivation?

Think of each book in your series as a season. Building the ‘what next?’ into your closing chapter will keep readers on the lookout for your next installment. It also helps to stop your resolution from feeling too tidy and convenient.

6. Create complex resolutions: Combining ending types

There’s no reason why you should have to stick to just one of the story ending types listed above.

There’s no single correct answer for how to end a novel. A simple return to the beginning can be effective, but the way David Mitchell returns to the beginning in Cloud Atlas with new information is both complex and satisfying. It’s a combination of a ‘full circle’ ending and a final twist.

Explore ways you can combine different types of ending to provide some surprise and some satisfaction.

Writing story endings - John Irving quote | Now Novel

7. Avoid cliched and unsatisfying story endings: Ending ‘don’ts’

Some story endings feel hollow and unsatisfying. Here are novel endings to avoid in your writing:

  1. The deus ex machina

    A deus ex machina describes when an unlikely story event provides a quick, all-too-convenient resolution. It usually feels contrived. The term is derived from the ancient Greek for ‘God from the machine’. In the Greek theatre, actors playing Gods would be lowered onto the stage on a rope via a crane-like contraption, usually to resolve primary conflicts. Try to avoid lowering in convenient Gods near the end of your story on obvious rope.

  2. The abrupt ending

    The end of a novel serves multiple important functions: It resolves major questions raised by preceding plot events (or purposefully leaves some unanswered). It clarifies and rounds off important ideas or themes (reinforces the ‘point’ of the novel). It also shapes the lingering impression readers will have of your story as a whole.

    Avoid moving your story to an end without sufficient build-up and release. The best story endings weave together all the different threads that have been laid out before the reader. It’s often subtler to do this over several ending scenes or chapters. This is often smoother than hurriedly tying all your characters’ arcs up in a clumsy knot. This being said, there are no ‘rules’. Bret Easton Ellis ends The Rules of Attraction mid-sentence. However you choose to end your story, know your reasons.

Source: nownovel.com

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Small Moments Make Your Story Big

“A big story is about a small moment.” ~Matthew Dicks

Think about that for a moment (not a small one).

Every book you have ever read is about a small moment—an epiphany when a character realizes an emotional truth with complete clarity.

Let me provide examples:

THE MONSTORE is not just about a store that sells monsters. It’s about a brother and sister who learn to appreciate one another and cooperate.

 

7 ATE 9 is about number 9 realizing his worth.

 

LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD is about not judging someone before you get to know them.

 

Before I read Matthew Dicks’ STORYWORTHY, I used to phrase this “small moment” concept differently. I would explain that a story, especially a picture book, required an emotional core. Now I realize that is an amorphous blob of a statement.

In other words, not very helpful.

Likewise, if I told you my manuscript was about siblings who learn to get along, that doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Sounds preachy and boring—been there, done that.

However, frame that sibling story in a shop of misbehaving monsters and suddenly it’s a must-read.

Small moments. They are what make your story BIG.

You may ask, do I set out writing about small moments? NEVER. I begin with an appealing, kid-friendly premise about dolphins or aliens or robots or puppies. If I am doing my job correctly, my main dolphin is not going to be the same dolphin by the end of the story. That dolphin has changed. Not from a bottlenose to a pantropical spotted, but from a mean dolphin to a nice one. Or one who doesn’t believe in narwhals to one who does. That small moment of emotional transformation is what makes the journey through the waves (and the story) meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just splashing in the ocean.

Your small moment appears with the story’s organic evolution. Often, if you begin with a small moment you end up sounding like a big know-it-all. Why? Because you can unknowingly force that theme into being. Never do I write in THE MONSTORE, “Zach and Gracie learned to appreciate one another and cooperate.” SNOOZEFEST. Instead, they open another Monstore together. That’s a lot more fun, and the small moment of transformation shines through.

While STORYWORTHY by Matthew Dicks is about crafting personal storytelling narratives, it contains nuggets of writing gold applicable to picture books. I had a small moment myself when I read about small moments.

So examine your manuscript. Does it contain a small moment? If you hear from an editor that your story requires another layer, that emotional epiphany could be the big answer.

Source: taralazar.com

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How Story Affects Us

Continuing in our four post series on the foundation for harnessing your readers’ psychology, today we’re exploring how story affects us. We’ve already explored where story is (essentially, everywhere), and why we love it so much (because it serves a very useful function!), and now we’re going to discover exactly how deeply it’s been wired into our grey matter.

Genes are the building blocks of our DNA. They mutate and blend, creating an myriad of possibilities for survival of the fittest to select from. Each gene is a blueprint for a particular characteristic, and if that particular characteristic helps us survive, it receives a tick of evolutionary approval and is spread throughout the population. Evolution thought opposable thumbs were pretty cool, language was pretty useful, and that being drawn to story was pretty important.

Evolution thought the benefits of narratives were so important that it actually wired us for story. In fact, it thought it was so important that it deeply embedded it into our grey matter in two significant ways. The first is in the chemical communications that happen in our head. Namely dopamine, the little molecule involved in pleasure and reward. Cheesecake, coitus and cocaine all trigger the release of dopamine in our brain.

And so does devouring a good book.

In the case of reading, dopamine is your brain’s way of rewarding curiosity, so you can learn the hard-won lessons the character is enduring (in the safety of the library or your bedroom). Interestingly, the more dopamine is released, the more of a high we get, the more we want to keep doing what we’re doing. Most importantly, if the brain anticipates doing that activity again, like reading, it will release dopamine accordingly.

Think about it, we’ve all been there when our favourite author releases a new book. When that book finally rests in your palms, that happy, heady feeling has you diving into the first page no matter where you are. It’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to go for it because it felt so good last time.

The second has us probing right down at a cellular level. Neurons are the spindly, spidery cells that make up our brain matter. They’re the little suckers that zip information and messages all around our brain and body. A relatively recent discovery was that of mirror neurons, cells that fire both when you do something but also when you see someone else doing it. Oh, like hear a story, watch a movie…or read a book! Mirror neurons are why we get just as excited watching sport as playing it, why we scrunch up in our seats and turn our eyes away from a horror film.

Or why we have a physical, visceral response to a great book. One study scanned participants brains whilst they watched scenes from Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) showed was that viewers’ brains ‘caught’ whatever emotions were being acted out on the screen. When Eastwood was angry, the viewers brain was angry. When the scene was sad, the viewers brain was sad, too.

In a similar study, a team of neuroscientists popped some research subjects in a fMRI scanner while they played a short clip of an actor drinking from a cup and then grimacing in disgust. They also scanned subjects while researchers read a short story, asking participants to imagine walking down the street, accidentally bumping into a retching drunk, and catching some of the vomit in their own mouths (anyone else have an instinctive, visceral reaction to that?!? Actually, that’s our very own mirror neurons working right now!). Finally, the scientists scanned the subjects’ brains while they actually tasted disgusting solutions.

In all three cases, the region of the brain associated with disgust (the anterior insula, in case you were wondering) lit up. It’s fascinating to appreciate that whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens—we activate the sensation of disgust. This is exactly why reading a book can make us feel as if we are literally experiencing what the characters are going through.

Pretty cool, huh?

What’s more, in addition to the evidence that the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, science has also discovered it treats social interactions among fictional characters as real-life. A review of 86 fMRI studies by psychologist Raymond Mar concluded that there is substantial overlap in brain networks used to understand stories and those used to navigate interactions with other individuals. What’s more, this is particularly evident in interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.

Actually, it’s not surprising that reading fiction can improve a reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. But what’s really cool for us lovers of the written word is that recent research has discovered that people who read score higher in empathy and understanding others. Readers who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathise with them and see the world from their perspective. Yes, it literally makes you a better person! And when empathy is linked to prosocial behaviour and health benefits for the individual, it seems everyone wins when you pick up a book.

Are you noticing the overlap of this information with the earlier chapter on why we’re drawn to story? These studies of the ‘brain on fiction’ are consistent with the theory that story functions as a virtual reality, a place for us to safely learn so we can improve our ability to deal with real-life problems, but more specifically, the complexities of social life.

Straddling the unique position of both reader and writer, authors already appreciate that story offers a unique opportunity to engage this capacity—it’s a space where we can identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and vicariously experience encounters with friends and lovers, competitors and enemies. As a reader we’ve felt the heady sensation of immersion, and as a writer we try to capture it.

For you as a writer, this neuro-soup of cells and chemicals is one you want to tap into. When a reader is experiencing that rush of dopamine, they will keep reading. When they are experiencing your story world as if it were their own, they will keep reading. Building on what we’ve learned, there’s one big thing you have into include in your story, and that’s what we’re going to explore next.

By Tamar Sloan
Source: psychwriter.com.au

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9 Quick Fixes For Short Story Writers Who Run Out Of Ideas

It is Short Story Africa Day on 21 June each year! It is the shortest day in the southern hemisphere.

To celebrate, we’re sharing ways to find ideas for your stories. If you are a short story writer and you’re looking for a quick fix, try one of these.

1.  Find Out What Lies Behind The Lyrics

Choose a date. What song was number one on that day? Do some research about the song. Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who inspired it? Use what you find out as inspiration for your short story.

2.  Use A Writing Prompt

Sign up for a daily writing prompt. Follow people who share them on social media. ‘A prompt can be anything. A word, a line from a poem or a song, a name or even a picture. Anything that gets you writing. Find ones you enjoy.’ (via) Your daily prompt could inspire your short story.

3.  Rewrite A Fairy Tale

Take a fairy take and write it as a modern day story. Change the sexes of the main characters. Choose a random setting. If the tale is too long for a short story, write the beginning or ending as your short story.

4.  Rewrite A Myth

A myth is an ancient story involving supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes. It is used to explain aspects of the natural world or to show the psychology, customs, or ideals of a society. Examples: The Myth of Creation, Arthur and Camelot, The Rain Queen. Write a myth using one of our 20 Myth Prompts as a short story.

5.  Obsess Over Details

Find one thing that interests you. Keep a file and save these items in it. It can be in a photograph or something you’ve heard. Research it and use it as inspiration for a story. Use this random first line generator to start your story.

6.  Hashtags On Instagram

Choose a topic that interests you. Visit Instagram and click on a hashtag related to the topic. Look at the posts and choose an image that inspires a story. Use this ‘What if?’ generator to enhance your scenario.

7.  Ask Your Followers

If you have a social media following, ask your fans what they want you to write about. Create a poll of some of the ideas you get and write about the one that gets the most votes. Use easypolls or pollcode or pollmaker. Use the embed code to share it on your blog or link it to your social media platform.

8.  Use A Holiday

Which public holiday is next on the calendar. Write a short story about someone who is planning for this holiday, or a story that centres around the holiday in some way.

9.  Write About The Day Your Parents Met

Rewrite the story of your parent’s first meeting. Write it from the perspective of a stranger watching them. Change names, swap the sexes of the characters, change locations. Go!

By Amanda Patterson
Source: writerswrite.co.za

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Should Your Story Have a Happy Ending?

Once upon a time my wife and were doing our second-favorite thing, sitting up late at night reading. Suddenly she yelled something like ARRGH or UGH and threw the book across the room, where the poor thing bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. The cat wisely jumped up and took off for parts unknown, while I was thinking, “She’s between me and the kitchen where all the sharp objects are.”

“Uh, honey, is something wrong?”

“At the end, an atomic bomb went off and they all died.”

“Uh, why did the bomb go off?”

”No reason. Just because.”

She wasn’t kidding. The End. And they all died unhappily ever after.

And I know how she felt because when I was in Junior High I read a novel about hot rodders where, at the end, the hero drives off a bridge, his head collides with his girlfriend’s with a “bone-shattering crunch.” The End. I felt cheated. I went back and read the end again. Yep. Dead as can be. Let that be a lesson to you kids — no racing around in souped-up jalopies.

Let’s talk about what most of us do, and that’s genre fiction. Let’s talk about “. . . and they all died.” Maybe indulge in a little compare and contrast between tales that do not end with everybody dying, that say, yes, Virginia, happiness is possible.

  • Popular memes about genre fiction and how to fight them

Meme Number One — grim stories about the futility of modern life are more true-to-life and realistic because the world is going to Hell in a hand basket.

Meme Number Two — stories about miserable characters trapped in meaningless lives who stay miserable and do nothing about it are somehow more important than a series of paranormal romances.

At their dark, bleeding hearts these memes would have you believe that a happy ending is easier to write, and therefore less worthy. “He stood over the heroine’s body, holding the knife, laughed maniacally and went back to the castle.” That Stephanie Plum is less valuable to readers than the woman at the heart of Gone Girl.

Don’t you believe it.

  • The world is going to Hell In a hand basket

If it is, people have been saying that for generations. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) starring Kevin McCarthy, the hero talks to a psychiatrist about the people in Santa Mira who believe their friends or family members have been replaced by doubles. The shrink replies, “It’s mass hysteria. Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” That was 1955 and we’re still here. Remember the kids driving their hot rod off a bridge? First it was juvenile delinquents, then hot rodders, followed by surfers, then hippies and later, slackers, each iteration of youth marking the end of civilization as we know it. If anything, the Jayne Ann Krentz ending, with relatively happy protagonists, is more realistic because we’re still here; Charon is still waiting to take that hand basket across the River Styx.

  • Dark and brooding is more important 

Oh, really? Okay, sales numbers do not always relate to quality — Valley of the Dolls was a huge seller — but you want meaningful numbers? Romance novels account for 29% of all titles sold.1

That’s right, almost one in three books, including e-books, has a lady with cleavage, or a guy on the cover who makes me feel inadequate. Add in thrillers and mysteries and it’s over half of everything sold. That number has held steady for years, and to me that says something. It says that a good story can end happily, and that such stories fill an important need. Note that here I am including a typical Stephen King ending where victory is obtained, but at a cost. This attitude isn’t new, either. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Guns of August was praised, sort of, by scholars as “popular history.”2 It was an instant best seller and continues to sell to this day.

I believe in Story. I believe in laughter. For my money there’s not enough of either one in the world.

First, Story, with a capital S.

The world around us is often chaotic, we humans have a hard time figuring out why things happen and often the answer is simply, “because.” The cliche of the woman holding the body of her husband and shrieking at the heavens, “Why? Why?” is constructed like a flawed pearl around a pebble of wisdom, because often the answer is — just because.

Art, Story, provides a respite from the unrelenting randomness of real life. “Just because” doesn’t work in a novel. How random is life? The chain of causality that led me to writing this essay goes like this: I was in high school, headed for UCLA with my best friend Mark. When he was killed I lost interest in UCLA, went to Cal State Long Beach instead, where I met my wife (the book-thrower) and through her the lady who invited me to contribute to WITS. But is that a story? Of course not. It’s “just because.”

Our job is to layer on structure, to remove the extraneous. (And as a side note, wouldn’t that be a good topic for one of these essays? Do we as storytellers create the structure, or is it always there, waiting for us to reveal it? In a possibly apocryphal story Michelangelo once said the statue was always in the piece of marble; he just had to chip away the part that wasn’t David.) We either make or reveal the structure, and provide a tale to entertain.

Humor, happiness, is hard! You want tragedy? Just open your AP news feed.

Jerry Lewis said in the documentary “No Apologies,” “I see people all over the world desperate for laughter.”3 He was right, and I would add to that they are desperate for simple joy.

He described a plaque given to him by John F. Kennedy that reads:

There are three things which are real:
God, human folly and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension
So we must do what we can with the third.

Here’s the point. It’s important how you feel about your work, and if you’re writing a series about a shape-shifting alien prince, or a detective who indulges in self-deprecating humor, you may feel a nagging sense that literary writers are somehow “better.” Fight it.

In the final analysis, what I’ve always wanted to do is what Don McLean says in, “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” — “maybe they’d be happy for a while.” What I’ve learned, no, what has been driven home to me recently, is just how important that is.

Source: writersinthestormblog.com

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Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Human beings are built for story.

Story is how we perceive the world around us and how we understand ourselves and other people. Through story, we learn and make connections. We use stories to map the future and study the past.

Stories are the single most effective tools for education, communication, and persuasion, which is why they are prevalent in advertising and political campaigning. Marketers know the power of story.

Stories are powerful because we see ourselves in them. We put ourselves into the stories we read and experience things we could never otherwise experience.

Put simply, stories transcend. 

Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories is, foremost, a book on the craft of narrative journalism, which is the art of telling true stories while adhering to the standards of journalism. It’s a dense book (the paperback is 317 pages) filled with essays about reporting and writing, but its greatest value is the experience and wisdom shared by its authors:

“Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.” — Jacqui Banaszynski, Telling True Stories

This collection of essays features some of the most successful and prominent journalists and nonfiction authors who gather every year for Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories offers their best insights from finding the right topic to structuring a story, from ethical considerations to building a career.

Insights from Telling True Stories

In my experience, reading books on the craft of writing that are outside my form or genre is one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the craft as a whole. If you’re a fiction writer and all you do is read fiction (and books on fiction writing), you’re missing out on the many nuances of writing that are not addressed in the realm of fiction. I have found that my studies of poetry have greatly enriched all my other forms of writing, from copywriting and blogging to fiction writing.

So I wasn’t surprised to find that, even though I’m not a journalist, there were plenty of wonderful nuggets of writing advice and insight that I could apply to my own writing. Some insights were new; others were welcome reminders:

  • The ending must bring a payoff. (p. 28)
  • Every deep story involves a subjective person slamming into an objective world. (p. 35)
  • The first draft takes the longest and is the most painful. (p. 53)
  • You start with an unformed, fuzzy idea, throw it into a funnel, and out comes a focused, purposeful story. (p. 55)
  • Writing is like scraping off a piece of yourself; people can see beneath your skin. (p. 100)
  • Every detail you select should help communicate your story’s theme. (p. 147)
  • The editor is the reader’s professional representative. (p. 197)
  • Successful rewriting requires a fierce sense of competition with yourself, not anyone else. You must be dogged in reaching for your personal best. (p. 205)
  • When a good editor or another reader gives you feedback, listen hard to everything he or she says. This isn’t a time to protect your ego; it’s an opportunity to re-explore your story and force yourself to delve even deeper. (p. 207)
  • One way to attract readers is to create an irresistible central character, one the reader truly cares about. (p. 219)
  • Every story contains an engine: the unanswered question that keeps the reader going. (p. 220)

This is just a small sampling of the wit and wisdom that I discovered while reading Telling True Stories. But this isn’t one of those books that you can’t put down. I found that I needed to read it in small chunks, which is unusual for me since I usually either inhale a book or cast it aside after the first few chapters. With Telling True Stories, I wanted to read a few essays, then chew on what I’d read.

It also made me want to write. Sometimes I had to put the book down so I could work on my own story, (which is not a true story, by the way). Like I said, I’m not a journalist, but I learned a lot about my craft from the narrative journalists who shared their expertise and experience in this wonderful collection of essays.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for writing resources that you can use to strengthen your writing skills or inspire fresh ideas. Telling True Stories will be a valuable addition to your collection.

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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Stumped for Story Ideas? Try This One Tip

In a recent episode of Jane the Virgin, the main character, Jane, is stumped for story ideas. She already published one book, but that was inspired by her dramatic telenovela-like life. She’s convinced that she has no other story to tell.

one tip 2

When she shares her dilemma with her fellow writing-class students, they assure her that what she described is not a problem at all. She doesn’t need new story ideas. Why?

Because she can retell the same story.

Follow the Heat

Cheryl Strayed calls this “following the heat.” Her most famous book is Wild, a memoir about the hike that help her deal with her mother’s death.

But she wrote about that period of her life and the loss of her mother repeatedly. She wrote personal essays about it and fiction inspired by it. She told and retold her story as many times and as many ways as she could.

That’s following the heat.

There are so many examples of authors rehashing the same story ideas and telling stories about the same thing over and over again. Philip Roth is one of the most prolific American writers ever—somehow Newark, NJ manages to find its way into most, if not all, of his books. In the show, Jane’s fellow classmates astutely point to Jamaica Kincaid and John Updike and their tendency to return to the same themes or characters.

Tell and Retell

So, do you feel like you’ve already told your one great story?

No problem. Tell it again.

Tell it from a different perspective (e.g, a side character). Zoom in on a specific moment or zoom out to show how it fits into something bigger. Try telling your great story in a different format: perhaps a personal essay instead of a novel, or vice versa.

It’s OK to take the same story ideas and tell your story again and again and again.

Can you think of other writers who have told and retold the same story? Let us know in the comments.

By Monica M. Clark
Source: thewritepractice.com

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Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another. 

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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How to Develop Story Ideas Into Amazing Stories

I often hear practicing writers ask, “What if I can’t think of anything to write about?” Sometimes they even have notebooks full of observations, but they feel like none of them are good enough for a full story, and they’re not sure how to develop story ideas into amazing stories.

I’ve felt the same way, but there are more opportunities or seeds for story ideas in our notebooks than we think. It might be an image, a snippet of a conversation we overheard at lunch, or a social issue that grates against us. Once we have the seeds, how do we take those seeds and develop them into stories?

How to Develop Story Ideas

I love hearing the different ways writers develop story ideas into full length projects. It’s one part of the writing process that often remains cloaked in mystery. Sometimes, a writer isn’t sure how an idea develops, so they’ll say, “Oh I just write,” which makes the rest of us feel like failures when we sit down and nothing comes.

Sarah Gribble shared a great way to outline fiction in a post earlier this week, but what do you do in the space between “I noticed this thing” and “outline the story”?

Some might say, “Oh that’s the magic. You can’t teach that. It’s too formulaic. It just happens.” That might be true, but I can’t have my classes of fiction writers sitting around waiting for the magic to happen. I have to teach them how to make magic. (Do I have an amazing job or what?)

Here’s one way I help my students develop a story idea into an outline and draft.

Choose Something Specific

When students begin trying to find story ideas, they inevitably pick something too big.

“I want to write a story about the way technology makes us less human!”

“Global warming!”

“True love!”

“Space opera!”

These are all topics and themes that could yield great stories, but they are too broad and too general. We need to get much more specific to capture the humanity of these themes.

As I search through my notebooks, I look for a vivid image, event, or conversation. Here’s an example I found recently:

So good to have my sister here. Odd conversation tonight that stuck with me. She said her kids might not need to learn to drive the way self-driving cars are advancing. She said, “They use information from satellites, traffic cams and even other cars to minimize user error and fatalities.” It’s hard to imagine.

The thing that interested me was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash? I pulled the idea of self-driving cars along with that one phrase from our conversation: “Minimizing fatalities.”

Find the Heat

Once you choose a specific idea, find the hot spots in it or create one. A hot spot is a place where the temperature is higher or “a place of significant activity or danger.” It might be the inherent conflict in a conversation or the oddity in an image that could lead to or expose disaster.

Again, specificity is your friend. Some examples:

You overhear a conversation: “So help me if you leave with the hamster and espresso machine, I’ll …”

Or a headline from the news with an odd (and heartbreaking) image: “Woman who gouged out her own eye found standing next to church.”

Both of these moments hold immense potential for stories because they prompt us to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” The emotions behind these small hot places can be great places to develop an idea. If you can capture the emotion behind a moment, you can build any world you like around it.

A Character as a Hot Spot

Maybe your idea isn’t an image or event, but a person. If you start with a character, you can follow the same process by asking a few specific questions.

What does this character want from the moment we meet him?

How far is he willing to go to get it?

How can this character’s fears, anger, or insecurity get them in trouble?

You can short cut this by building from someone you know or using an actor or type. Then get specific. I can start with my Uncle John, because he is curmudgeonly and outspoken against technology, but I’ll need to change it up and give the character some details that belong only to him.

Also, remember you aren’t writing about a character’s life, you are writing about his or her problem. Specific, vivid details will make the character leap off the page.

An Example

The thing that interested me most in the conversation with my sister was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash?

I asked some questions: Who is responsible in a car crash involving a self-driving car? The driver or the car company? The tech company who built the algorithm? The satellite company reporting the data?

What if a new IT graduate buys a self-driving car and her grandfather disapproves? What if that same girl is in a fatal accident?

There are a number of hotspots in this idea that could create conflict, because there are so many emotions surrounding a crash and the element of responsibility. From here, I’m ready to outline the goal of my character, the conflict, and the climax that will guide my story.

Once you’ve explored the possibilities, you can outline the main beats of your story and get to drafting.

Do you have a method for getting from seed to draft? Do you have any tips for how to develop story ideas? Let us know in the comments!

By Sue Weems
Source: thewritepractice.com

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