Coming up with a story

When I lead a writing group, there are always people who want to be writers but have no idea how to form a story.  They know they want to write, even without the tools, and I totally understand that.  The truth for many of us is that writing is its own motivation, like eating or breathing.  So many people with vivid imaginations feel stifled because they just don’t know what to eat (write).

Even seasoned writers have been there.  We get the “oh crap, what comes next?” moments, and days, and weeks.  A long story stalls, a blank screen mocks us… some folks call it writer’s block.  I call it “time to break out the cards”.

Story Creation Methods

My very favorite tools for coming up with really great stories are the Osho Zen tarot cards.  I like these ones specifically because the imagery on them is breathtaking and deeply inspiring on a number of levels.  You don’t have to know anything about tarot or divination to use them – just shuffle and lay out a few cards to see if they make a story.  They almost always do.

Tarot cards are based on the most common archetypes of humanity (and, thus, stories), so having a random generator with those elements makes sense.  For instance, I pulled these cards for my NaNoWriMo group a few years ago:

There was one other, but I don’t remember just yet what it was.  What I got out of it, though, was a space story.  People were alone out there in the universe, and they were slowing down from their destination.  That was the premise I needed to start “Lost Ground”, wherein a generational colony ship inexplicably starts losing speed and are thus going to miss their rendez-vous with their intended home system.  (If you love to science the hell out of things, you’ll enjoy this one.)  That spun into a few other stories as well – “The Last Monument of Imogene Fleeks” and “Quaylee’s Accord”, among others – that are being collected and massaged for a proper anthology.

See?  Nothing about the meanings of the cards, just the pretty pictures.

(If you want something with slightly more nudity and full-on wang, the Robin Wood deck is also gorgeous.)

Of course, throw a rock on the internet and you’ll find a website that offers prompts.  Writers Digest has thousands, and I like ThinkWritten’s as well for their year-long challenge, but those are really random.  When I’m stuck for ideas, I really want to see something with real dramatic potential.

This set of Story Cubes is another one I’ve used periodically.  Lists of obscure words are a good source as well.  Imagining how an alien or an elf or a person who’s been asleep for a hundred (or thousand) years would perceive and describe a Starbucks is another favorite exercise.

And then what?

Most of the time, the first part of a story concept will be the premise.  This is where we actively try to imagine a world without cars, for instance, or maybe how history would have unfolded if the Native North American Apocalypse hadn’t happened.  That’s a great place to start.  Write the history and background of this world, even if it’s a nearly-realistic place.  Okay, so your story takes place on Cape Cod in a normal neighborhood – why is that important?  What part of the culture speaks to the story?  How does that work?  In short, your first stage is the setting.

Next comes the plot.  What kind of adventures (or misadventures) happen within that premise?  What sort of events are going to be relevant to the setting?  This is where your genre actually comes in because that’s what determines what kind of plot you’ve got on your hands.

I’m going to take a short aside here and mention that I do not consider science fiction to be a genre – it is a setting.  Likewise, Westerns are settings, historical fiction are settings, because within each of those you can have any number of different types of genre plots.

What qualifies as a genre plot?  That would be Romance, Adventure, Horror, Action, Man vs Nature, Nature vs Man, Comedy, Satire, Politics… those are genres.  Any of them can be applied to any setting.  Got it?

Lastly, in this, the planning phase, we ask “Who’s telling the story and who’s the story about?”  In a first person narrative, these are the same person, but in third or other perspectives, it’s two different personalities.  Your narrator has an attitude.  What is it?

These are the questions that will get your creative juices flowing.  Fill in these blanks, and you can go from “wut r werds” to something downright entertaining.  Eventually.

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