“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”
—The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
In the beginning is an idea. Ideas are seeds from which the mimosa tree or watermelon or delphinium of a story will arise. There are no rules about what constitutes a proper seed. It can be a character, a name, a situation, structure, overheard dialogue, a setting, a theme, even a vague feeling.
While passing through an obscure nook of Notre Dame Cathedral, Victor Hugo noticed the Greek word for fate carved in the stone. He imagined a tormented soul driven to engrave this word. From this seed sprang his monumental novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Ideas are everywhere. The writer of fiction must learn to search the world for these seeds.
Probably the most fertile place to look for ideas is right inside the backyard of your own life. Herman Melville drew on his whaling adventures for Moby-Dick and Philip Roth has drawn endless inspiration from his crazy Jewish family. You’ve got stuff to draw on too. If you don’t think so, look a little harder. There are probably hundreds of things in your seemingly mundane existence that, if looked at with a little insight and whimsy, could be turned into good material. Your home life, relationships, work, hobbies, chance encounters. Sure, the eccentric and exotic make for good stories, but so does the ordinary, especially in contemporary fiction, where the ordinary flourishes like a spider plant in ample sunlight. (See, I drew that image from my very own window.)
Even the little things in your life can spark a story. Let’s say you’re having technical problems with your computer, so, horror of horrors, you have to call Tech Support. Telephone hell––pushing buttons, eternal waiting, trying to reason with computerized voices, trying to explain to computer people, contemplating throwing your computer out the window. But you know what? This very situation could prove useful in a story. Perhaps a character must send a life-or-death message that can be received only by e-mail but the tech problem is making this impossible. Or perhaps the frustration of dealing with Tech Support triggers all the other frustrations in a character’s life, causing a major emotional crisis, perhaps poured out to the puzzled person on the other end of the line. You see, even the tiniest seed can sprout multiple story ideas.
Flannery O’Connor said, “Anyone who has lived to the age of eighteen has enough stories to last a lifetime.” Zoom in for a close look at some of the events and people in your past, things that have haunted you, things you thought you had forgotten. Remember that girl from the other side of the tracks in your third-grade class whom you and your friends made fun of, until you caught a poignant glimpse of her eating alone in the lunchroom, after which you bought her a bracelet? Good seed.
Search your thoughts. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s changing philosophical views led him to write Crime and Punishment (and he was lucky enough to have spent time in a Siberian prison to help with the last section of the book). What are the things you most love? What are the things you most hate? If you were to make a list of answers to either of these questions, you would have a collection of ideas that are of passionate interest to yourself.
But the fictional version of You doesn’t have to be the whole story, or even any part of the story. Indeed, if you’re too egocentric with your ideas, your work may take on the yawning indulgence of that person who is always trying to give elaborate descriptions of her dreams (though dreams can certainly be a rich source for stories). A good writer must keenly observe things outside of himself or, as Henry James said, develop “the power to guess the unseen from the seen.” Look around at other people and imagine who they really are and what it would be like to walk around in their shoes, whether the footwear is designer heels or clunky orthopedics.
One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the way it gives a secret peek into the lives of others––those people in the passing cars or at the cash registers or on the television screens––people we may never meet. This is a bit like stealing a glimpse of a person in the nude through a window or overhearing an argument between lovers in a restaurant. Whether these glimpses are enticing or unsettling, they usually provide a certain voyeuristic thrill. On a deeper level, it’s actually very comforting to see that other people are just as lost and flawed as we are. In a way, fiction is firm affirmation that We Are Not Alone.
Learn to see, and then reveal, those secret peeks, be they about someone like yourself or someone entirely different. This is another fringe benefit of being a writer. As you search for ideas, your powers of observation (and other senses as well) will intensify. The world around you will become more alive, vibrant, multidimensional, entertaining, meaningful.
Feel free to search for seeds far from home too. You can look in a newspaper any day of the week and chances are you’ll find a multitude of seeds for stories. I’ll do it myself, right now. Granted my local paper happens to be The New York Times, but I’ll bet you could do this with most any newspaper.
Let’s see, on the front page there’s an article about the fellow who painted those dog pictures, the most famous of which shows a poker-playing pug slipping a pawed ace to a pal. This man has won very little respect or reputation, but his art is probably better known to many people than that of Cezanne or Van Gogh. Certainly there’s a story in there somewhere.
Here’s an article in the sports section about a pitcher who is semi-expected by his team to bean (hit) a batter in an upcoming game because this player beaned a player from the pitcher’s team two seasons ago. But the pitcher seems reluctant. To bean or not to bean? That’s a story.
Elsewhere. A faulty carnival ride left seventeen people hanging upside down for a period of time. A substitute teacher attacked his class with a broom. The obituaries report the passing of a gentleman who belonged to five country clubs.
Story, story, story.
To read Part II, click here.
This passage appears as part of Chapter 1 in Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s book Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Writing School.