Friday, October 12, 2012

Story Seeds

At Moonlight and Magnolias, one of the agents I was pitching to asked me where I'd gotten the idea for the story. At the time I couldn't remember, and said it was probably a dream--if you haven't noticed, my dreams tend to be wild and fertile soil for stories.

But later I thought about it, and remembered. Last year I did a writing exercise. I created a character who deeply loved her family, gave her a magic she couldn't use, and ended on a vague disaster that made me so curious I had to know more, which meant I had to write more!

I had three seeds: a character, a hint of a disaster, and an irony.

Every novel was planted as a random seed and bloomed into a full-fledged manuscript, then trimmed and twined into publishable form. There are no limits to the germination of ideas, because everything--everything--can be planted, and if planted in the right soil, with the correct combination of other ideas, and watered with a diligent word count, it will grow.

Some stories are easier to grow than others. Sometimes stories wither and die before reaching the right shape. Sometimes they get neglected and go feral, taking over some forgotten corner of your mind until they strangle themselves into scraggly weeds no one would ever want to inflict on the neighbors.

And sometimes they bloom.

Seeds aren't always grandiose, or even remarkable. In high school my friends and I would choose a random idea and present each other with a full-fledged short story the next week. These ideas were things like a failed sneeze, or a lunch room, or a cold breeze, or a buzzing. And from them came a vast array of aliens, magics, spies, and quirky poems, each wildly different from the last, each unique and strangely compelling.

It wasn't the topic that made these stories. The topics were things to which we tied other things:
For me, a lunch room combined with aliens and just another day in the office to make a space drama. For another, a lunch room contained a spy and a lost contact to create a heist.

Just seeds. Little, ordinary, boring seeds buried together and watered with words until they sprouted into an idea.

If you're having trouble coming up with an idea for your next story, look around yourself and pick up a couple of seeds. Put them in a bowl together and see what sprouts. Start simple: something about a character (hair color, profession, clothing, accent), add an object (paperclip, jewelry, toy, shoe), and an event (lost it, killed something with it, it has a secret, someone else wants it.)

Chain them together: A blue-haired woman loses a paperclip.

Now ask yourself: Why is this paperclip important to her? (form a connection)

Then ask: What happens when she loses it? (figure out the consequence. Make it dramatic enough that you're hooked!)

Then ask: Why is it important that she's blue-haired? (Everything must be important! This step provides your plot twists, a glimpse of your setting, or some deeper characterization to get you started.)

Follow up: Add in a twist (intrigue) and then explain why that twist is important (make relevance)

Example: The paperclip was holding together her notes for a presentation that will make or break her career. (connection) It falls off in the elevator. When she steps off the elevator, someone runs into her, and the papers go flying. Because of this, she gets rattled and stumbles through the presentation, and gets fired. (Consequence/initial hook) But it turns out that the man she ran into is the company's most important client, and when he discovers that he caused her to lose her job, he sets out to fix things--but he doesn't want others to know he's a nice guy, so he's out to do it without anyone knowing. (intrigue!)

Now it's your turn. Why is it important that she has blue hair? Why can't the client let people know he's actually a good person?


  1. She's got blue hair because she works for a marketing company with a 'colorful' image, and she has a web presence of "the Blue Dollar." Without the company her web persona is at loose strings. Meanwhile, since the client's reputation as a corporate lawyer requires him to maintain a 'hard-hearted' image to earn his millions, he can't afford to look soft by being nice. To preserve his image, he'll have to make it look like he's 'stealing' a deal.

    He decides to con her company into hiring her back by trying to 'poach' the marketing guru Blue Dollar for his law firm. But she decides to con a rival marketing company into hiring her by destroying the Blue Dollar's image using the very marketing plan whose pitch she failed. Whose pitch will win--and can the high-priced lawyer resist poaching the Blue Dollar for himself?

  2. Or it could be a paranormal...

    The lady's blue-haired because she's a transfer from the intergalactic law group InterLaw, the first of her humanoid species to land a position on Earth. If she doesn't have a job, she'll be deported back to her home planet in shame--a shame that would demote her entire family from noble to laymen. As an expert in intergalactic law, she forms a desperate plan to get her job back: she'll implicate the company's own client in an intergalactic snafu, until they come begging for her to return to defend him.

    He's a politician whose conservative party forces him to claim a tough stance against immigration from other planets, one he doesn't actually agree with. But if he breaks ranks, he'll lose his candidacy. With a rival candidate digging for dirt, he'll have to be sneaky to save his blue-haired alien from trouble without getting caught. Can his conscience be reconciled with his ambitions?

  3. This is a great post and a really fun exercise for developing and enhancing story plot. I took a fantastic workshop on story conflict led by Madeline Hunter which really helped us to drill down deeper in our characters and our story.

    Hmm... I say that the woman has blue hair because she is going through "blue period" in her life. She uses her hair as a canvas to reflect the mood of her life. He doesn't want anyone to know he is a nice guy because he is a cutthroat lawyer who has a reputation for eviscerating his opponents. He wants people to think he is evil and heartless.

    1. Thanks, Roxanne! I was sorry to miss the first half of the workshop; everyone said it was fantastic!

      That sounds good--wouldn't it be interesting to see how he fits into her blue period? ;D