May 21, 2012

How to Come Up with Four Unique Story Prompts a Week

Seven days a week I sit at my desk and talk to people from worlds that will never exist.

No, I don’t have a magic mirror to help me peer into the secret places of the mind, but I have a storyteller’s brain. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve got one too.

Now I’m going to tell you how I come up with four unique story premises every week. No tricks, no shortcuts. 

Where do stories come from?

1. I always ask myself, 
Where's the conflict?

Basically, story ideas emerge from areas of conflict.

Wherever you have
a) science vs. superstition
b) objectivity and reason vs. magical thinking
c) hidden knowledge vs. a desire for clarity and transparency
d) want vs. possession
e) human nature vs. human law,
f) weird vs. normal,

there lies the overarching theme of a story. The six items I listed above aren’t the only sources of conflict and drama, mind you. But they cover a hell of a lot.

Antigone, by Sam Weber
Take e), for one -- human nature vs. human law. Antigone wanted to give her dead brother Polyneices a proper burial, but Creon, ruler of Thebes, forbade it. A rebel’s corpse should be left to the worms and carrion birds. Family ties being what they are, Antigone buried her brother anyway.

You can find this dramatic conflict in any story, even when it’s not the central concern. Don’t think human nature vs. law is confined to courtroom dramas. Even in the Alien movies a very human impulse – greed – drives the trilogy. Someone at Weyland-Yutani decided that the xenomorph would make an excellent biological weapon, so they decided to sacrifice six human lives to capture it. Of course, those six crew members were only a downpayment in blood; I don’t have a body count for the whole trilogy. (Yes, a trilogy. The fourth movie is an afterthought.)

So look for a conflict. ALWAYS. That little ‘vs.’ up there? That is the crux, the linchpin, the forward thrust.

2. Sources:
Where should you go for ideas?

Exposure to ideas isn’t enough to make you a great writer, but it helps to be plugged into the noosphere, the idea-space we all inhabit and the Internet makes so accessible.

I follow tons of blogs, most of which focus on something other than writing. Blogs for writers will not, for the most part, present you with great story ideas. They deal with craft, not with the fine art of teasing out stories from under a thousand metric tons of information.

Here’s a small sample of my reading list, just to get you started:

Art, Design and Architecture:

Psychology, Communication and Neuromarketing:

Alt-culture, magic, futurology, fringe-ology

12 jumping-off points. 12 promises. 12 windows into a world of hope, transformation and better writing.
And by better writing I mean informed writing that illumines rather than obscures.

3. Discipline:
Do you really need it?

If you want to fail at everything, just make tons of promises you can’t keep. Experience disappointment every day. Dream big, do nothing about it.

We can’t download skills just yet so, if you want to succeed, embrace the idea of training.

Get comfortable with scheduling your work. It helps. Now, how much time can you devote to your writing? Fifteen minutes a day? Ten minutes? Five? It doesn’t matter. Better stay sharp for two minutes than dawdle for ten.

That’s how I come up with four prompts a week.

Don't wait for inspiration. Make it come to you.
I made this for fun. If you want it as a wallpaper, all you have to do is ask.

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