Story Starters: Some Prompts

Often ideas for stories can come from things we overhear people say, things that make us curious. For example, I once heard a woman say, “I’m just a drunk girl in stilettos.” Okay, I confess the woman who said it would one day be my wife. The actual facts of the story don’t matter, What matters is the instant I heard her say that, I thought, hmm. . . “Drunk Girl in Stilettos.” Now there’s an interesting title for a story. I set out to write one that would be completely different from the kind of story you’d expect from such a title. The only other time I wrote a story to fit a title came from something else my wife said. She showed me a photo from someone’s Facebook page, and she said, “Now that’s a cat on a bad couch.” The music of that caught my ear, and so I wrote a story titled “Cat on a Bad Couch.” I was curious about the story of the cat and the story of an ugly couch that my main character bought in spite of knowing it was hideous.

Today, I want to offer you some story starters in case you need something to jumpstart your imagination. We all have those fallow periods when we don’t quite know what we want to write. Here are some ideas.

The first asks you to come up with your own still life title like “Drunk Girl in Stilettos” or “Cat on a Bad Couch” and then let your imagination lead you to a narrative. Challenge yourself to make that narrative something opposite of what the title would suggest.

Last night, I heard someone say, “One time I started drinking grappa, and I ended up in an Indian restaurant and I didn’t know where I was.” Now how in the heck did that happen? Write a story to find out. Feel free to substitute something else for the grappa and the Indian restaurant if you’re so inclined.

Today, I heard someone say, “A protective wallet? I don’t need a protective wallet. My information is so secure no one would ever be able to steal it.” Oh, yeah. Write a story to prove this person wrong.

So there are three story starters for you. Feel free to create your own prompts or to modify mine however you’d like. Just keep in mind that the good story isn’t so much interested in what happens; it’s more interested in the why and how. The former takes us to plot; the latter takes us to character. I know I’ve passed on this quote from Faulkner a number of times, but it bears repeating. Stories should be interested in what he called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” We get to those via the contradictions and mysteries that make up our characters. The plots for stories come from the choices those characters make and the consequences they create.

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