Recently one of my dear Twitter friends sent out a call for help to a few of her fellow Tweeps. She’s a dab hand at flash fiction and has no qualms about noveling, but when she’s staring a short story deadline in the face, her mind goes blank. Not an uncommon dilemma, as I’m sure most of us can agree.
My co-askees offered some excellent practical advice on using beatsheets, grids, outlines and post-first-draft outlines. I, on the other hand, focused on magic. Okay, not entirely, but magic really is one of the critical ingredients in my toolbox of story-generating tricks. Magic and Percolation–an unbeatable combination.
I decided to share my (somewhat edited) suggestions here, in case any of you are struggling with a looming deadline and finding your brain bereft of the barest whiff of story potential.
Using Magic and Percolation to Find Story
Rule #1 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Don’t Panic! (also a pivotal rule in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so you can’t really go wrong by embracing it.)
Rule #2 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Continue Not Panicking Whilst Embracing the Fact That YOU CAN DO THIS.
Keeping those two rules top of mind, let’s dive into the nitty gritty.
Beatsheets, outlines and the griddy McGriddlecakes approach to story-writing are all useful and might be common-sensical enough to ground you and stave off the panic, and I strongly suggest giving them a go. My approach, however, is a bit more woofty, and it’s a multi-pronged strategy. In no particular order, I’ve use the following techniques to generate short story ideas (most also work for stirring up flash and novel ideas, too):
- When you go to bed at night, take a glass of water with you. (I SAID my ways are woofty!) Just before you turn off the light, you tell yourself (aloud or not, doesn’t matter): “Self, I need to wake up with a story idea. If it could involve a pixie living in the trunk of Ford Escort, that would be helpful. This magic elixir (cue sipping of water) will ferment the story while I sleep, and when I wake up, a story will be born.” If you like fairytales, there’s no reason at all that this can’t work. It’s worked for me on more occasions than I can count.
- Think back to a flash fiction prompt where it was difficult for you to pack your story into 100 words (or 500). Can you take that fragment and examine it for story potential that you suppressed in the first go around due to space constraints?
- Do you have ideas for novels that you’re probably never going to write? Yank a character or two out of one of them and play with them on the page for a while. You can’t take the whole concept with you, because you’re going to get stuck again in the “hideously complex” trap, but you might be able to play on the conflict you’d originally envisioned, to create the briefer, more intense snapshot you need for a short story.
- Go for a long walk with an idea. Make sure it’s a small, basic idea. Just a kernel of an idea, really. It’s your single ingredient. Just let it float around in your head while you pretend it isn’t there, and be open to all the other ideas that are constantly clamouring to be turned into story. You’ll reject most of those ideas, but in my experience this particular exercise has worked well, even when the original idea is hopelessly vague. It’s like cooking. You have an ingredient that is kind of bland and unappetizing on it’s own, like a handful of spaghetti noodles, and then a bottle of pesto sauce comes floating out of the ether, and bam! Dinner is served!
- Talk it out with a writing buddy, either in person or via email. If you have a kernel of an idea, flapping your gums about it in a safe environment can help you stumble over the obstacles and bump into the essence of your story. If your idea is bulging at the seams with a bazillion and four characters, conflicts and plot divergences, chatting about it with a writing buddy can help you strip it down to size. As a rule, I’m horribly secretive about my WIPs, but when I do, I find that articulating my woes can be enough to get me past the roadblocks. It can be especially useful to ask your writing buddy to just listen and answer your specific questions before piling on with the suggestions and questions of their own.
- Finally, and probably most importantly, read short stories. Lots of them. Glut yourself on them until you start collapsing every situation and every conflict you encounter into short story structure.
Just remember: Don’t Panic!
So, how about you? Any sure-fire tips for tickling the short story muse?