Thinking Story The What If Game

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Writers train themselves to "think story"—to look at people, places, and situations with an eye to discerning what dramatic potential they might contain.

Your subconscious constantly gives you clues about where to begin. Whenever something jiggles your mind enough to make you think, "That's interesting..." or, "I wonder...," it's a signal that a story idea is there, waiting for you to discover it.

The next step is to think, "What if..." Make it a game to discover the story possibilities around you.

Suppose you're lunching at a cafe, and you notice a young woman with a green silk scarf sitting at the window table. She's been there for an hour, nursing a cappuccino and impatiently looking at her watch. What's going on?

What if she's waiting for her lover? What if she has sneaked away from her job to grab a few minutes with him, risking her boss's anger? What if she is married, meeting her lover in secret, and her mother strolls by and sees her in the cafe window? Or her husband does? What if her lover then shows up? Or what if he never shows up and she decides to find out why?

Another scenario: What if the young woman has discovered that the company she works for is defrauding its clients? What if she has arranged to meet a police detective who is investigating similar frauds? What if the green scarf is a signal so that the detective will recognize her, and the briefcase by her chair is filled with incriminating documents?

You can play the "what if..." game anywhere. At the airport, as you wait for your delayed plane to board, pick one or two of your fellow passengers—the man in the business suit slumped in the hard seat, perhaps, or the redheaded girl sipping coffee from a paper cup. Think story: Why are they making this trip? What awaits them at their final destination? How will their lives be made difficult by this flight's being late?

In line at the supermarket, contemplate the young woman behind you with the squalling infant in her cart. Where does she live, and who is waiting for her there? What if she walks into her apartment and finds her husband at home when he should be at work? Or what if she's expecting her husband to greet her, but when she arrives he is gone? What if she then finds a cryptic note on the kitchen table?

A volume of excellent story ideas can be delivered to your doorstep every day: the newspaper. Pick an article that intrigues you and try the "what if..." game. The point is not to make a story out of the actual circumstances that are described or to turn the real people involved into fictional characters. What you want to do is isolate the basic situation and draw a brand new story out of it. You might try working from the headline alone.

For instance, suppose the headline reads: "Government Official Is Arrested by USA on Espionage Charges." Ignore the article and let your imagination play. Who is this person, and what led him or her to become a spy? What if he's been falsely accused and is not guilty? What if it's a case of mistaken identity? What if his boss set him up to take the fall? What if he is in fact a double agent, pretending to spy for a foreign government but really gathering information for the CIA?

To get your imagination really humming, try to come up with three or more scenarios for each person, place, or situation that triggers a "what if "

A Short Story's Basic Ingredients

Now that you have an idea for a story, let's revisit our second dictionary definition and expand on that word designed a bit. Our revised definition is this: A short story is "a short narrative in which the author combines elements of character, conflict, plot, and setting in an artful way to interest, amuse, or inform the reader."

The four elements and the artful way in which the author presents them are the essential ingredients of any short story— the sugar, eggs, cinnamon, and cream that you knead together to turn your story idea into a bread or pastry that is tasty and satisfying.

In the following chapters, we'll take an in-depth look at these five topics—the basic crafts of short story writing. We'll examine the contribution each of the ingredients makes to the story and how they interact, influencing its development.

• Characters. No matter how compelling your initial idea is, it won't come alive until you conjure up some imaginary people and hand it to them. Through their motivations, actions, and responses, they create the story. For a truly satisfying story, skip ordering up stock figures from central casting and breathe life into your characters, making them as solid and complex and real as you and your readers are. Chapter Two shows you how.

• Conflict. This is the life's blood of your story, flowing through it and giving it energy. The conflict you set up propels the events of the story and raises the issues that must be resolved. In taking action to deal with it, your characters reveal themselves: their motivations, weaknesses, and strengths. Chapter Three examines how conflict drives the story and creates the suspense that keeps readers hooked until the last page.

• Plot and structure. The structure of a story is like the framing of a house or the skeleton inside a body: It organizes and gives shape to the disparate parts. Once you know who your characters are and what conflict they face, you can explore how you want to arrange and present the story's events, from beginning to middle to end. Although there are other ways to structure a story, Chapter Four concentrates on the traditional method which, though it was first explored in ancient times, still offers tremendous challenges and satisfactions to writers and readers alike—the construction of an effective plot.

• Setting and atmosphere. A story's setting provides a context for its characters and events. Not only does it situate them in time and place, but it shapes the people and influences what happens to them. It influences readers too. When your setting is vivid and your atmosphere supports the story's tone and mood, you bring readers right inside the story, increasing their involvement in what's going on. Chapter Five explains how to create this you-are-there effect.

• Narrative voice. The first four elements constitute the who, why, what, when, and where of the story; they define what the story is about. The fifth element is the how, the "artful way" the story is told.

The term voice encompasses all the choices a writer makes about language and style. It also includes the unique perspective that any author brings to his or her own work. Had Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner ever described the same set of events, the resulting stories would have been very different, thanks to their strong and distinctive voices.

Beginner or pro, every writer has a voice, whether conscious of it or not. Novice writers often borrow someone else's voice, and it may fit the writer no better than a suit of borrowed clothes would. One mark of a writer's growing skill is the increased willingness to "say it my way" and to do so with care and precision. Chapter Six will help you to understand the concept of voice, and to discover and develop your own.

Sitting Down to Write

Okay, you have some ideas for your story and a few thoughts about how to put them together. Now comes the tricky part: Writing the darn thing. Here are four important things to remember as you sit down, pen in hand or fingers on the keyboard.


Author W. Somerset Maugham once said: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." This wise comment applies equally to short stories.

What you read in this book (or anywhere else) are suggestions, observations, things that might offer some insight, points that it might be helpful to keep in mind. As you read, you are sure to encounter plenty of stories, some of them excellent, that defy or contradict every key point that I make. Part of growing as a writer is honing your own instinct for what does and does not work in a story and developing confidence in your own choices.

Writing a story is a nonlinear process. You can't go from Step One, to Step Two, to Step Three, from beginning to end, the way you would assemble a bookcase or even (despite our earlier analogy) the way you would bake a cake. You move forward, then backward. Inward, then outward. Down side roads and around in circles. Eventually, if you stick with it, you have finished writing a story.

A story begins with a single idea, a glimmering—something that niggles at your brain and says, "Follow me." So that's what you do. There's no predicting where it will lead you. Many a writer, upon finishing a manuscript, realizes that the finished product bears little resemblance to the story she thought she was setting out to write. As you begin the first draft, you may have only the faintest notion of what the final story will be. Even when you decide on an ending early on, you can't know how you or your characters will get there until you actually undertake the journey, and you may discover that your destination changes as you travel along.

A story evolves. Writing one is like holding a conversation between your conscious and subconscious minds. The process is fraught with contradictions. A story must be focused and organized, yet the creation of it, especially in the early stages, tends to be unfocused and disorganized. The author must keep control of the story and at the same time let go of it, allowing the elements of characters, conflict, structure, setting, and voice to push on each other, to interact and mix and mingle and romp in rough-and-tumble fashion until the story is done.

There are no absolutes in writing fiction, no right way or wrong way to do it. The right way for you is the way that lets you achieve your own goal for the story most effectively. Your success is measured only in terms of how well the story satisfies you and your readers.

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