Always have two or three story ideas you could work on.
Always have two or three story ideas you could work on.

Truth—The Story Idea

Theme—Four Questions

  1. Is it your story to tell? Can you make it your own? Most often dynamic story ideas won’t be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they’ll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Is this something I really care about, something I partly understand, something that seems to want working out.
  2. Is it too personal for readers to become involved with it? You want what you say to reach and move a reader. You want to share exploration. Some experience is too close to us to do this. A second criterion should be: Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful to somebody else.
  3. Is it going somewhere? Plot is a verb. Does your idea divide itself into a vivid opening, one or more specific developments and a solid ending. Can you put these in terms of scenes with a minimum of explanation. Does it have a plot or do I have to create a plot for it?
  4. What’s at stake? Is there something quite specific and vital at state—not just to me, but to one or more of the characters involved? Ideally you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. If this sounds original, fine; if not, don’t worry. Nothing is original. It’s in the telling and in readers’ reactions that it becomes unique. There are always new readers and readers who weren’t ready for this when they read something similar to it before.

Exploring Story Ideas           

Story Idea Possibility Exercise (The Sun)

Mothers and sons (fathers and daughters)

Living alone


Visiting relatives

Fears and phobias


Cleaning up


Too close for comfort

Can’t win for losing

The bedroom


Class/Individual Examples

story idea



Do 3 of your own, plus settings and characters for each (share) 


The theme of a successful story is inseparably embedded in the action taken by the characters. There are two types of action: fixed action and moving action. Fixed action is a pattern of behavior that shows character. However with moving action something happens, however slight, that won’t happen again. It is assumed that the events of moving action will take place only once and that whatever happens to the character as a result alters or moves him or her in such a way that the person will never experience or do the same thing in exactly the same way. Moving action alters fixed action. 


“Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented yet. For the air and iron, fire and spit of our daily mortal adventure there is nothing like fiction: it makes sociology look priggish, history problematical, the film media two-dimensional and the National Enquirer as silly as last week’s cereal box.”—John Updike

CoJournaling Exercise

Describe in some detail an older person you know fairly well. Look at the person’s situation and personality in a way that is more psychological or sociological than literary. 

Next try to imagine how that older person came to be that way. What happened to him or her? Now imagine a scene (a couple paragraphs) that show this happening. Track back to the moment when the subject started to become the way they are now, and present it as if it were happening before us.

 1.Evening Exercise (this should be three to six hand-written pages)

Construct a story as a series of three casually related events, and present each event as a scene. For example, show a woman who has lived for pleasure alone and who, therefore, compromises her family, fortune and happiness. Under extreme duress—nearly on her deathbed in a hospital, from a disease—she realizes how different her life could have been. From this central “epiphany,” the character decides to change. Either she dies, and the change is only a spiritual one, or she recovers and tries to reverse the damage she has don. Perhaps she succeeds and becomes happy—its best not to make that decision before you write, but in the midst of the events as you detail them.

 Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—Picasso

Significant Detail

If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind. We read a few words at the beginning of a book or the particular story, and suddenly we find ourselves seeing not words on a page but a train moving through Russia, an old Italian crying, or a farmhouse battered by rain. We read on—dream on—not passively but actively, worrying about the choices the characters have to make, listening in panic for some sound behind the fictional door, exulting in characters’ successes, bemoaning their failures. In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to the imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as thought they were real: We sympathize, think and judge. We act out, vicariously, the trials of characters and learn from the failures and successes of particular modes of action, particular attitudes, opinions, assertions, and beliefs exactly as we learn from life…

     Whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re dreaming, and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion. The chief mistake a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream

             —John Gardner, The Art of Fiction


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