I believe, at some point, everyone has heard the complaint: “Oh, that would make a good story. I have too many ideas! I can never pick one!” Maybe you’ve even uttered it yourself!
For those that suffer from this affliction, I’m sure it’s a burden. For the rest of us, it’s a source of never-ending jealousy. Or maybe that’s just me?
The hardest part of Alpha for me was the very, very beginning, before the workshop even started. “Come with 2 or 3 developed ideas.”
Developed ideas? I don’t have non-developed ideas! And so, more often than not, I’d end up with 2 or 3 novel-sized ideas, just because that’s what the world-building did in my head. Point: I can’t world-build short stories. They become novels, and not good novels. They become D&D manuals. And D&D manuals can be a lot of fun! But they are not novels, and they are definitely not short stories.
Which begs the question: for those of us without that never-ending stream of ideas and the inability to choose between them, how do we find ideas worthy of excitement?
The answer: well, I’m not really sure. There are plenty of tricks, of course. My favorite is trying to write a whole story in a sentence and see what happens. Write five. Write ten of them.
“When the sun turned into a giant donut, Alfred Pickoff learned to swim in jelly.”
“Joey Donavan had always wanted to be a Pelican until he had to wash one of their beaks.”
No, not exactly prize worthy, but I bet they sparked at least one something in someone’s head. It made me want to research pelicans, if nothing else.
Let’s try something else: write the worst sentence you can think of writing.
Benny bought a broiled bagel before Benny begged Barbara to babysit Bertha, his big, broody, bulldog, but Barbara buried Benny’s bulldog before Benny could beg.
This is, of course, an example of the Bulwer-Lytton worst first sentences. Here, you should read a few: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/lyttony.htm
Now, try to rewrite your own bad sentence. Here’s mine. Barbara killed Ben’s dog before he’d had his morning bagel.
Now, we’re still nowhere near the world’s best story, but I think I can work with that. Who is Barbara? Ben’s lover? Wife? Mistress? Daughter? Friend? And does Ben follow an obsessive order in everything in life? Did Ben like his dog? Does Barbara tell Ben what she’s done or try to hide it?
If I answer a few of those questions, I have a first paragraph. If I answer a few more, I have a first page. And from there, well, if the questions are interesting enough, I might have the idea for an actual story. And I might not, but at least I’ve been thinking about writing an interesting idea. And at least it’s not a novel!
So here’s my thought. If you, like me, have trouble thinking up story ideas, write ten terrible first-sentences. Wait a few hours, days, and then go back and try to make them into something worth more than a laugh. And from there, ask whatever questions pop into your head. Write them down. Answer them. Write some more.
More questions… more answers… and you can’t help but finish with an idea.