Where Do Stories Come From?

Photo by    David Kennedy    on    Unsplash

This is the first lesson in an eight-week course I’m calling The Story Only You Can Write. My name’s Chris. I’ve been teaching creative writing to college students since 2010, and now I’m here on the good old internet to teach you.

I hope you’ll come back every Friday to write with us.

Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:

  • Identify the six places stories come from; and,
  • Take a stab at writing a story of our own.

Where Do Stories Come From?

Well, children, when two stories love each other very much…

I kid, but the truth is that many of my best stories do come from a mingling together of two ideas. Sometimes three. A ménage à trois, if you will. And I’m willing to bet that many of your best stories will arrive as a result of similar hook-ups.

But before one of your ideas can swipe right on another one, you need some ideas. And the question then becomes: where do ideas come from?

In my estimation, ideas—and therefore stories—come from just six places. And these six places are best expressed by a set of questions you probably first learned about in elementary school:

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?
  5. Why?
  6. How?

The who story is a story about character. Think of people you know, or people you want to know. Even better: think about people you never bothered to know, but maybe should have.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • I once wrote about a football player who picked on me in school to understand what made him tick.
  • I wrote about a girl I knew who hung out at the roller skating rink every Friday, but never skated.
  • I wrote a whole novella about my great-grandfather, who I never knew, because he got married 4 times and I wanted to know why.

Stories can also begin with a what question, a question of plot. Boiled down to its simplest form, that question is almost always “what’s wrong?” Stories are about some disruption of the established order. Things have been one way forever, and now they’re not, and somebody is pissed off about it.

For instance:

  • A mean person is after a magic lamp.
  • Kids who miss their parents keep driving their nannies crazy.
  • A greedy businessman is cutting down all the trees.

When a story takes place is an important question, as well. And for many writers it’s the question. In my own stories and books, the twin children of memory—Regret and Nostalgia—are powerful forces. Almost everything I write comes from some longing for the past.

Think about the past—either times you’ve lived through, or times you’ve studied with a voracious appetite—and think about what might happen if you took some “what’s wrong” problem or some character you’ve met and put them in that time instead of their own. How would their life be better? How would it be worse?

Are you beginning to see my point about bringing two ideas together? Are you already itching to play matchmaker? Hold on for just a few paragraphs more and I’ll give you your chance.

Place is powerful. We all have places that fill us with awe. We all have places that terrify us. And so, stories can begin from the question of where.

According to legend, J.K. Rowling’s parents met on a train from King’s Cross. She is also said to have come up with the idea for Harry Potter while riding a train. Is it any wonder that Harry should meet his two best friends at the train station and while riding the train?

What places hold a similar sway over you? Which of them are places you’ve never—or only rarely—seen depicted on film, or described in a book? Or places you’ve seen done a bunch, but never done right? Those are places to jot down for future use in your stories.

A why story is the story of an idea, or a theme. I used to go with my family to Pennsylvania once a year for an antique car show. We used to drive through Amish country and see people driving around in horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. I just couldn’t understand living without modern technologies. And so, one of my earliest stories (“Ezekiel and the Harvesters”) is about me trying to understand why the Amish are the way they are.

Lastly, a how story is story centered around point of view or form. These sorts of stories, more than any other, need to be paired with another idea to really sing. But they are fun to imagine, to play around with. And play is the most important part of writing. At least to me. You’ve got to have fun with it.

Think of some different forms you might use for your story:

  • A diary, where our character will be more honest because they think no one is ever going to read it.
  • Letters to a loved one.
  • A set of instructions, which the reader may or may not follow.
  • Notes from social studies set to a hip-hop beat.

Or think about how changing the point of view of a story you’ve heard a million times before can make it a whole other thing:

  • What happens if you tell The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch?
  • What happens if you tell the story about the monsters under the bed from the perspective of the monsters?
  • What happens if you tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of a non-believer?

Writing Exercise

Writing is a skill, and writers need practice. Lots of it. So, each week you visit with me, I’m going to send you away with an exercise. It might turn into a story, and it might not. All I ask is that you give it a minimum of 10 minutes, and that you really try. If nothing’s happening after 10 minutes, toss it and move on with your day. Then come back to it in a couple of days, once you’ve had the chance to recoup and regroup. It’s just like exercising your body: you don’t do two leg days in a row, right? Especially not when you tweak an ankle.

Here’s the exercise:

  1. Look at the picture below.
  2. Ask yourself which of the three you most identify with.
  3. Now, write the story of this moment from the perspective of one of the two people you didn’t pick in question 2.

Good luck! I’ll see you next Friday.