Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I want to write a short story about claustrophobia. How do I develop this idea?

Some writers find inspiration for fiction in an intriguing character, an unexpected bit of dialogue, or a compelling image. Some stories grow from more vague territory—an idea, concept, or notion. Yet all stories—if they aspire to be good—must be about specific characters in particular circumstances. Resist the urge to write about claustrophobia (or whatever idea you’re focused on) in any abstract way. Instead, start thinking about a character who is experiencing claustrophobia or one who is in contact with someone suffering this phobia. As soon as you give this ailment an individual face and personality, you’re working toward a full, dimensional story.

Once you settle on a character, begin developing that unique individual the way you would any other character. Get to know him by considering his background, beliefs, occupation, relationships, day-to-day life, and so forth. Pay particular attention to his claustrophobia. When did he first experience it? What is it like for him? How does he respond when unexpectedly feeling closed in? But remember not to limit your exploration to this single aspect of his personality. You want to develop the character’s other facets as well to create an authentic individual.

Consider your character’s conflict, too. Be careful of skewing too general in terms of the idea itself as you risk loosing all the individuality you’ve created in developing the character. It’s not enough, for instance, that your character is coping with claustrophobia. Stories that start with ideas have the tendency to linger only on “day-in-the-life” details. This might make an interesting anecdote, but not a very compelling story.

Start by making the conflict specific. Pay particular attention to the inciting incident, that moment in the story that sets the action of the story into motion. What makes this day different than any other? Your character has probably been claustrophobic for a while. Why tell the story now? Perhaps you character is faced with an impending situation—like his mother’s declining health—that might soon require air travel. Or perhaps his sensitivity to tight spaces is increasing so much that he’s not able to participate in his regular routine and his boss is beginning to notice.

As you write, be deliberate about thinking of your story in terms of the specific character and circumstance. As you burrow into each particular moment, the original concept will shine through.