Story Starter: Rules of Thumb

Most people have Rules of Thumb that they live by–consciously or not. A rule might be something personal like, “If the chance of rain is 30% or greater, I’ll carry an umbrella.” Or, “More than 5 years age difference, don’t date there.” ¬†Or, “If I limit myself to one drink an hour, I can drink all night.”

Some Rules of Thumb have entered the popular vernacular. For example, “If you want something done, ask the busiest person you know.” Or, “Assume every gun is a loaded gun, and behave accordingly.”

For this exercise, identify three to five Rules of Thumb you live by. Choose one or more and make it/them central to your character’s functioning. What happens when the rules of thumb don’t hold up? Write the story–and have fun!

Writing Tip: Road Trip Notes

When you travel by car, note the names of roads, churches, businesses, schools–whatever–that strike you as especially colorful.These often add vivid specificity to a story or scene. You are more likely to find compelling names along state or county roads than along interstates, in small towns rather than in cities.

Sometimes just the name is sufficient to start a story. Consider Bone Yard Road or Fresh Fire Church of God as possible settings.

Story Starter: Reunion

Write the story of attending your 30th high school reunion. For some this could be–but does not have to be–memoir. Think tragedy, comedy, romance. Think fantasy, sci fi, or memoir based fiction. Use as much imagination as you want or need. The only important restrictions are that it be the 30th reunion (regardless of your actual age or experience with such reunions) and that you people your story with actual characters from your high school class.

Writing Tip: Know Your Preferred Method

There are two basic types of writers: those who begin already knowing how the story ends and those who don’t.

Writers who start off knowing how the story ends say things like, “Knowing where I’m going guides the whole process and keeps me focused: every scene, every character, every description is tested against the question, ‘How does this move the story toward its climax?'” This camp includes many fine writers, including (but not limited to) John Barth, Katherine Anne Porter, and Toni Morrison.

The other camp sees writing as a process of discovery. These writers include Donald Barthelme, and E. L. Doctorow. Perhaps the epitome of this approach would be Steven King, who reputedly starts by asking, “What if . . . ?” As in, “What if vampires invaded a small New England town?” And then he writes until he discovers the answer.

My point is not these particular authors or their purity as exemplars of my assertion. The point is that there is no one right or effective way to write. Either style can take you many places. Your task is to find the method that works for you.

Writing Tip: Choose Your Body Language Carefully

Writers often insert body language or actions to break up paragraphs of dialogue or narrative. What theater people call business creates a beat and helps establish the rhythm of the scene.

But it should do more. Think beyond nodding, smiling, nose-scratching, and coffee sipping. Everyone does these things and inserting them tells the reader nothing of the character who performs the action. To remedy the situation, think of less common, more character-driven actions AND/OR embed the action in a series that makes it telling. For example, if someone absentmindedly scratches–head, elbow, neck, crotch–scratching his nose would fit, maybe adding something about digging for skin flakes and looking at the results. The point is to make it memorable. Go for it.