I get too many ideas for stories, more than I have time to write. How to choose among them? I take the ones that call to both my head and my heart.

An unusual premise might interest me, but unless it comes with a character I care about or moves toward some kind of emotional unfolding, I’ll probably let it go. For instance, I wonder what would happen if an unreasonable customer managed to get a department store clerk fired, and the desperate clerk set out for revenge. A premise like that could be developed into a story humorous or horrifying—maybe both. But neither the customer nor the clerk exists as a character in my imagination. They are little more than vehicles for malevolent motives. With effort I could make them characters, but I don’t feel compelled.

Sometimes I see people whose situation moves or intrigues me, a pair of elderly men sitting on a bench at the local mall, chatting with one another. I wonder what their lives are like. I imagine one man’s modest house and the other man’s dead wife whom he still mourns. But I don’t have a story for them. Again, I could invent a story, but I’m occupied with the stories and characters that command my imagination.

They begin with a spark that illuminates the character and her journey and the emotion that gives them meaning. I experienced a moment like that with my short story “Yubi” about a woman who falls in love with her parakeet. I knew the story would end “[       ] would love [       ] as long as she lived.” Although I had not yet named the woman or the bird or constructed the events that would bring her to the realization. I felt its humor and pathos and love. It was a story I had to write.

The story that became my thriller Talion began with a spark—a moment when two girls make a bond of friendship, when all the distrust and blame and preconceptions that separate them give way to understanding. Despite all the room he occupies in the novel, the serial killer Rad first entered the story as a way of getting Lu and Lisa to that moment. It’s there in the last chapter of Talion, just as I imagined at the start.

4 replies
  1. Carol Bodensteiner
    Carol Bodensteiner says:

    It is sometimes a curse to see stories everywhere! Like you, Mary, ideas pop into my head all the time. While I’m working on my novel, I have to put blinders on and keep repeating my mantra, “one thing at a time; one thing at a time; one thing at a time.” Identifying whether the story ideas call to both head and heart is a good approach I’ll remember.

  2. Danielle Forrest
    Danielle Forrest says:

    I have a sort of rule, I guess, as well. I have a series of files consisting of story ideas and character ideas. I write a brief jot of the basics and put it aside. If it’s any good, I’ll become obsessed with the story or character and build upon it against my will (those get their own personal files!). For example, I have a character, Nina, and her four sisters. I knew certain details about them. I liked them. Really liked them. I really wanted to do a story with them, but the stories never fit. So, I continued to build the characters. I played around with them, tweaked them here and there, but didn’t let them get in the way. I played with them when I had nothing better to be doing with my downtime. When my current stories were “recharging” (what I call it when I’ve written five or ten thousand words in one shot and have run out of ideas).

    Then, I got a story idea and just KNEW they had to be the main characters. It just fit. I was sold. Now they have a home, though I have other projects to work on before I can complete their story.

    Point being, I never throw out a story or idea. Many will never amount to anything, but sometimes all it takes is a little spark, an inspiration, to take something that was missing something and make it whole, perfect. I don’t dwell on these ideas, I just store them.

    • Dreambeast7
      Dreambeast7 says:

      Thank’s for commenting, Danielle. Actually, I keep a notebook of ideas, too, but only the ones that matter to me.


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