Writing Ideas and Inspirations (6)
Another Bag of Tricks
This is the second part of my bunch-of-tricks writing exercises based on prompts and ideas I've used with writer's groups in schools, universities and community settings. As I always say, I don't use these sort of tricks myself since I generally don't have too much trouble coming up with things to write about, but I know some people need an occasional kick-start to get them going, so here's a few more ideas for starting off...
The 'What if...?' Scenario
Contrary to what I've just said, this is one idea I did use myself. Some years ago, I attended a playwriting session at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland. I don't recall who was running the sessions but I do remember one of the exercises. Well, I say that, but in fact, what we were given was only part of the exercise. The idea was to come up with a 'What if...?' question we could then use as a prompt for a short writing session, but we weren't given the actual prompt, just the 'What if...?' bit, which I thought was a little lame, however...
Not being much of a literary sadist, I won't demand that you finish your own sentences, so here's a few suggestions to get you going, starting with the one I came up with at the aforementioned writing session.
- What if time starts going backwards and you're the only person who knows why?
- What if one of your own characters came knocking at your door?
- What if the road outside your house collapsed, revealing a secret underground chamber?
- What if your ex-partner called in the middle of the night claiming someone was stalking him/her?
- What if the plot of the short story you've been commissioned to write for a literary magazine starts to come true?
- What if your left hand began doing things of its own accord?
- What if, on your bus journey to work one morning, you see someone who looks exactly like you?
Developing the 'What if...'
Now, these aren't necessarily ideas that will lead directly to a brilliant plot, but they will work as starting points and that simply means they will get you thinking about something, and that's when you need to start exploring 'outside the box'. Don't limit yourself. Work out what could happen and if there's a possible answer to your initial question. Of course, your question might change, but that doesn't matter, the point is to come up with a storyline that interests you.
For instance, that first one (about time going backwards) was my initial thought in that writing group, but that first thought prompted me to think about time travel. I came up with a character that got himself into a situation where the only possible solution was to go back in time in order to fix what he'd done wrong. A few months later, I entered a play-writing competition which required that I write a synopsis of the basic story. At that stage I didn't know how the story would end, so I came up with a synopsis. I've included that original synopsis here to demonstrate how my initial idea developed:
Synopsis of 'How to Build a Time Machine'
A mysterious grey cloud appears over the North East coast. Pete MacTaggart has a theory. He has several theories. Unfortunately, his fiancée Anna is not interested in theories.
Pete and Anna’s wedding is only a few weeks away. The preparations are going well. Or at least they are until Pete forgets to book the restaurant to mark Anna’s 30th birthday. With dozens of friends and relatives travelling to Scotland for the event, this is a major catastrophe. Anna will never forgive him.
To make things worse, Anna thinks Pete’s obsession with time travel is getting ridiculous. It’s not as if he’s a scientist, or in a position to pursue his ideas. Anna has had enough and when she discovers Pete has neglected to perform the simple task of booking the restaurant, she packs her bags and gives him an ultimatum - one he can never hope to achieve.
Or can he?
Pete’s only hope of getting Anna back is to accomplish one of the following:
Plan A) Turn back time and put things right.
Plan B) There is no Plan B. Revert to Plan A.
Pete’s long-suffering best pal and sci-fi fan Hamish offers to help. If the mysterious grey cloud over the coastline is what Pete thinks it is, maybe they still have a chance.
Pete must somehow overcome his lack of scientific knowledge and harness the power of the mysterious grey cloud. But what about Anna? And why is Hamish persuading Pete to attempt the impossible?
In a true race-against-time adventure, Pete and Hamish build a time machine, book the restaurant, get Anna back and save the universe from certain disaster. Or at least…that’s the plan…
I'd love to say that I won the competition, completed the play and went on to win major theatrical awards on the West End stage, but I can't, because it didn't happen. The play is still unfinished and I'm now considering rewriting it as a short story. So, good ideas sometimes take a while to reach the finish line.
A Funny Thing Happened...
As I've said elsewhere, I like monologues - they're a great way to explore what's going on in a character's head as well as being a useful exercise if you're not sure about the character's voice, what sort of language they use, how they speak etc.
One of the exercises I used to get students to do, was:
- Think of a fairytale character
- Think about the other characters in whichever story it relates to
- Choose one of those other characters (maybe someone we don't usually hear from)
- Write a monologue as if it were that person speaking, telling us what their life is like, what it's like to be them.
Here's an example of something I wrote for a series of workshops I did with school kids in Hull, exploring one of those lesser-known characters:
The Tall Guy
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a giant? I have, and you'd think I would know, being a giant myself. Oh yes, it's true! I can see some of you sitting there thinking 'He's not a giant. No way - I've seen bigger things in soup.' Well, alright, I'm not all that tall, not what you'd call gigantic. But when your mam's a giant and your dad's a giant and all your brothers and sisters are giants, everybody expects you to carry on the family tradition, even if you're only five feet eight.
So what about other possibilities? Let's consider the story of 'Beauty and the Beast'. Forget the main characters - they've been done to death. Focus on some of the minor players. We could have:
- The woman who comes in to trim the Beast's toenails
- The pizza delivery guy who struggles with the 'monster' pizzas he has to deliver
- The window cleaner who sees a lot of pretty strange goings-on through the castle windows
Now, let's suppose you like this idea but don't really want to re-write a classic fairytale? Take the second one (pizza delivery guy) and see where it might lead:
I tell yer mate, the first time I went up there I knew somfin' wasn't right. The guy what lives there always demands the extra-extra-extra large ones and they're so bleedin' heavy I can hardly get them on the back of my bike. Anyway, first time I went to the door, this young woman appears and I'm like, whoa, she's a bit of alright, but then she's like 'Not here, go round the back - he'll go mad if he sees yer.' So I go round to the back door and she takes them off me and gives me a bag full of cash and wants to know if I'll do a little job for his lordship, so of course, I think it's gotta to be well dodgy...
Now, we know this bit comes from 'Beauty and the Beast', but our reader doesn't know. Therefore, it could be read as if it's a pizza guy who gets involved with a Mob boss (like Al Capone), or a gang leader, or maybe even (heaven forefend) a bent politician? Which takes us in a different direction altogether.
So have we got the beginnings of a story here, or have we not? (Obviously you're meant to answer a resounding 'Yes!' to that one).
The idea of taking something you're familiar with and turning it into something else, isn't a new one, but it can work very well for our purposes. Take the premise of a famous movie - Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Wrong Man'. It's the story of a man who is mistaken for someone else. Now, if we just take that idea of someone being someone or something they aren't, there are lots of possibilities, so we could have:
A woman takes the wrong hire car and finds a handbag with a photograph of her husband in the glove compartment. She is forced to pretend to be the owner of the handbag in order to find out who this woman is and how she knows her husband.
Hamish McNice is being blackmailed by Black Jock McJock. When Hamish visits Jock at home to have it out with him, he discovers Jock in a pool of blood, dead. When the police arrive, Hamish is mistaken for the new Chief Inspector...
Jenny uses Sandy's desk when the other woman is off sick and discovers a folder in Sandy's drawer with Jenny's name on it. The information relates to a folder on Sandy's computer, but the only way Jenny can get to see it is to pretend to be Sandy and request a new password from the IT department...
Therefore, by taking the basic premise of another story we can easily come up with a new one. Here's a few more from the Hitchcock canon:
Rear Window - a man sees what he thinks is a murder from his apartment window
Suspicion - a young heiress suspects that her new husband is trying to murder her
The Man Who Knew Too Much - a family on holiday accidentally uncover an assassination plot
Which could give us:
Rear Window - a young woman out shopping sees her wealthy friend stealing a large kitchen knife
Suspicion - an elderly woman begins to suspect her next-door neighbour of trying to poison her cat
The Man Who Knew Too Much - a university professor is mistakenly sent a copy of a report which uncovers murder and corruption within his own university
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That's all for now, folks, but as Steven King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. So go to it!