Writer’s Craft #31 – I See Story Ideas

Jennifer Brozek, Author
Jennifer Brozek, Author

This week’s guest is Jennifer Brozek, who sees stories everywhere. (Lynda)

This is my sigfile: “I see story ideas. All the time. They’re everywhere. Just walking around like normal ideas. They don’t know they’re stories.”

It’s a riff off of a well-known quote from the movie Sixth Sense and it intrigues a lot of people. When Lynda asked me to write about it, I was delighted. To me, it’s kind of how I’m hardwired. I can take any situation—and I mean any—and turn it into the set up for a horror or apocalyptic story. I can be a lot of fun in hospitals, on broken down BART trains/buses, or livening up boring parties.

What I do out of habit is nothing more than taking an observation or two and playing the “what if” game. Sometimes the stories are awesome. Sometimes not so much.

We have all had strange things happen to us. An example: A friend of mine was waiting for the elevator. When it opened, there were five people inside. The old man in the middle looked at my friend and said, “By tomorrow, we will all be dead.” If that isn’t the beginning of a supernatural story, I don’t know what is.

What I do is look at the mundane and do the same thing. Both me and my best friend were wearing carnelian rings one day, so I thought: What if there was a creature about that could only be seen by those wearing carnelian rings?

In A Gilded Light by Jennifer Brozek
In A Gilded Light by Jennifer Brozek

Everything around you has the potential for story fodder, from the pencil you just bought to the mailman who waves at you as you drive by. For examples, I invite you to read my horror collection In a Gilded Light. At the end of each of these 105 flash fiction pieces, I tell the reader what real world thing inspired the story.

Please share your own examples of stories that sprang from real life observations or ideas, including links to illustrations, like mine, if available. Or tell us your approach to generating stories from life experience.


15 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #31 – I See Story Ideas

  1. It really is a story-teller’s mindset. If we were in marketing, we’d walk into a room and see opportunities for making pitches. Or every situation would make us think of some way to capitalize on it for profit. But we think in terms of tales.

    In addition to my fiction, I write a regular feature as “freelance philosopher” for the Concord Monitor newspaper. Not just certain situations, but a string of situations will suddenly seem to me to be connected with a theme. They are part of a similar metaphor and thus work together as an essay with a point. Often, it’s just how you look at something that makes it take on meaning, like seeing familiar shapes in the clouds.

    For non-fiction, it is, “Wow, these all mean….” For fiction, it is “Wow, this could mean….” In the former, we are finding stories in what is. In the latter, we find stories in what might be. But I think perhaps that story-building impulse is the same, trying to find narrative in what we experience, the way our minds try to see faces in random patterns.

  2. Jennifer, thanks for sharing, you’ve explained things with such passion that I”m sold on your book! (Any way to get an autographed copy? You mention BART, are you in the bay area?)

    As for me, I don’t see ‘story lines’, I see ‘suggestions from my muse’, but only when I ask for them. For example, a month ago I was writing a scene where I needed a dirty joke. So I asked (Prayed? …but one doesn’t pray for a dirty joke so ‘ask’ it is) my muse for one, and 12 hours later got a text message from my sister, unsolicited… of a dirty joke.

    Yesterday I needed some dialogue ideas for men talking men stuff (I’m a woman, so I never phone up a friend and say, ‘whats up, dog?’)

    Two minutes later a group of choice men set up their armchairs alongside me at the beach, complete with a case beer and lack of women. Ah what I heard…

    1. I use to live in the bay area. So, much of what I write about is drawn from there. As for autographs, I will be at DDC next year. Otherwise, I will have to think of a better answer.

  3. And one of the best parts is how the writer influences the direction the “what if” goes. For a mainstream fiction writer, two carnelian rings would have been the small but ironically tragic key to the downfall of the reprehensible, yet strangely compelling, bigamist. For a mystery writer, they would be the clue to discovering that the killer was a rival carnelian dealer. For a romance writer, they would have been the foundation of a torrid affair.

    My first love is play-writing, so for me the triggers are usually in a “bit of business” that I see someone do or in something someone says, even if that idea eventually turns into a prose story, rather than a stage play. There was a bill in the state legislature last year to ban stem cell research by government-funded researchers. This sent my wife into a froth, and at one point she blurted, “Why don’t they just go ahead and…ban science!”

    That seed grew into “The New Prohibition”, a short story set in a near-future America that has, in essence, banned science. Sometimes I feel bad about taking advantage of her righteous indignation, but she says the most inspiring things!

  4. Ideas are what I generally lift and re-purpose. The way the O.J. Simpson trial morphed from “who dunnit” to “is the legal system fair to blacks” without ever changing the official purpose from “who dunnit” was the inspiration for my handling of Amel’s trial on Rire in Part 5: Far Arena, of the Okal Rel Saga. In theory, the Reetions want to know if Amel needs protective custody but in reality they need to get at all the facts to salve their fear of Sevolites.

  5. The what-if game is great fun, and good for coming up with ideas. I try to play it only every now and then, or I would be swamped in books I want to write.

  6. Good article, Jennifer. It mirrors my experience as well. I believe that writers just naturally think differently than non-writers, and that’s one of the reasons that we’re writers. Readers (at least readers who aren’t also writers) think “This person is a writer, so they must need ideas to write about. I wonder how they come up with their ideas?”

    From a writer’s perspective, the experience is more like “Arrgghhh!!! Not another idea! When am I ever going to have time to write all these stories?”

    I wrote a blog article a while back on the “Where do you get your ideas?” question that we writers tend to get, which touches on a lot of these same points. Check it out if you’re interested: http://smithwriter.com/readers_writers_and_that_question

    1. Good article Douglas. You and atsiko have it nailed. “Arrrghhhh! not another idea.” Still trying to make up my mind about whether the writer mind-set is a gift or an obstacle to getting on in life. 🙂

      1. Ha! I’ll go with gift. I personally agree with Julia Cameron (“The Artist’s Way”) that everyone is born creative, and then our western society proceeds to beat that natural creativity out of us. All I know is that I’m happiest when I’m writing.

  7. I just realized that I also have the opposite “gift” (which may be a curse). I see story-killers.

    One of my biggest story pet peeves is plots where all of the complications could be avoided if characters would just friggin’ *talk to each other* (::coughcoughchamberofsecretscough::). I will often yell at a book or movie, “Just tell him that blagh!” (Where “blagh”=”that big, scary, secret thing you think life will be improved by concealing”.) My wife pats my arm and says, “Yes, but then there wouldn’t be a story.” I disagree; there *would* be a story, just a different one–and, IMO, a better one.

    Sometimes I worry that I’m too pragmatic for fiction. I was watching, of all things, an old _Scrubs_ episode, in which the entire B plot revolved around a character stumbling into his bedroom late at night and waking up his wife, who then couldn’t get back to sleep. This turned into an allegedly funny plot involving her making him go to bed at the same time, and what a blow this was to his masculinity. And I said, “They could’ve avoided all of this by getting a blue-toned nightlight. She already sleeps with an eye mask, so the light wouldn’t bother her, and he could come in whenever he wanted without tripping over anything or harming his night vision.” But, again–then there wouldn’t be a story.

    I think there’s a lesson in there for us as writers: if an impatient reader can undo your big, gnarly plot complication in 50 words or fewer, you probably need some more complications. Maybe a carnelian smuggler.

  8. I totally agree. Ideas are everywhere. The weirdest inspiration I had was talking about my cherry coke addiction, I made a random comment that it might save my life one day (the connection being that I’d be overindulging soda instead of booze). I froze and thought about how that could make its way into a story. And it did. That story is in submissions now.

    Interesting timing on your post – my wirting communitry is having a blog tour this month on this topic.

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