In a writer’s life, there are times where ideas seem plentiful, like the molecules in a river, and other times, ideas seem scarce like water in a desert. No matter how plentiful or scarce your ideas are, the hardest aspect to them is constructing those ideas into workable stories. In the following writer’s exercise from Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (pg. 49, original exercise devised by Brittany Winner), the challenge is to take these ideas and channel them into a workable story.
- First set your timer to two minutes. Next, pick a genre and create an eight word summary of your scene. Once you have this summary, start your timer.
- Think about the summary and your genre. What image comes to mind? Take that first image and construct it in detail.
- Consider the following questions: What does your character(s) look like and what are they wearing?
Where is your character(s)?
What is going on around them?
What actions does your character(s) take? Why do they take those actions?
- Write this down in as much detail as you can.
Genre: Science Fiction
8-word Summary: A daily jog transforms into life-threatening situation.
Full-figured lady with dark curly hair and brown eyes. She is jogging in a park full of trees and an occasional bench along the path. There is birds singing in the tree branches, and the trees are oak and cedar. A person clothed in black shirt and pants grabs her arm. Startled, she grabs her mace spray and fires it in his face. He clutches his eyes as she kicks him in the groin. A second assailant shoots her. And she falls to the ground, blood coating the front of her bright blue shirt.
So that was all I had time to write in two minutes. I spent at least half that time thinking about what the life-threatening situation could be and decided on an attack. This is what I call a story nugget. It’s a short scene but evocative and leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions such as:
- Who are the assailants and why did they attack her?
- What is the motivation of the assailants?
- Will she live or will she be kidnapped?
- Who is she? Is she someone important or just an unlucky jogger? If she is not someone important to the community or a specific group and is not wealthy, then why would they target her?
- How does she escape?
These are all questions I need to answer if I were to sit down and develop this story nugget into a full-fledged story. Since this is a science fiction genre, some of the answers to these questions could draw upon science fictional ideas.
For example, perhaps she is a scientist who likes to go for daily jogs in the park after a day in the laboratory. Her research could be focused on nanotechnology, specifically building tiny robots that perform surgery without having to cut open the body directly. She is attacked because the assailants are part of a fringe group, who find her research to be a danger to society. They hoped to kill her and then raid her facility later that night. Their plan included dumping her dead body in the lab as a symbol of their movement.
Now this story nugget is slowly starting to grow into a possible short story. However, the last question still hasn’t been answered. How does she escape? Should I introduce a new character, such as another jogger, who happens upon the scene and calls for help? This could introduce a third aspect to the story, one in which bystander intervention could spell the difference between life and death.
If I go this route, then I may need to either use two points of view — the first jogger and second jogger — or have her see the second jogger stop at the sight of her and the assailants and then turn and run. The sounds of sirens will then sound within a few minutes as she struggles to negotiate with her attackers to avoid death. The sirens could cause them to run off for fear of getting caught, leaving her to bleed to death. The bystander may return with police and an ambulance team, and she could be saved by her own technology. Thus the assailants inadvertently hurt their cause as the press will see the attack as another example of how important her work is, and the fringe group will lose more credibility.
Now that this story nugget has been fleshed out, I can sit down and write the story. However, one thing to note: even with all this planning and outlining, it is rare for me to follow these ideas exactly. Once I am inside the story idea and writing it down fully, the characters often surprise me. Sometimes they introduce new ideas and scenarios that I never would have contemplated during the outline process. Due to this, my stories tend toward a more organic form of growth, where the characters influence the final result immensely and the plot can evolve into new territory in interesting and fascinating ways. It’s why my outlines often lay forgotten during the writing process, especially after character input has altered the story in a way that improves upon my original ideas. Keep this in mind as you work on your story nuggets. Let your characters guide you as you get to know them better, and you may discover interesting ideas and subplots that could beef up your story further.
When you write this first draft, try to include all the possible ideas and scenes that may transpire during the course of the story. You don’t want to limit yourself in the first draft, for some of these side tangents may prove more interesting than your original idea. In the editing and pruning process, you can cut out any unnecessary scenes that don’t move the story forward and really start to polish the piece. Until then, channel your imagination and let it flow freely and abundantly. The above exercise can help jump-start that process, but don’t let it confine you either.