I don’t care what the object is, if you stare at it long enough and then force yourself to write, a story will probably emerge. In one class the teacher had us walk around the Visual Arts Center and pick an object to write about. Two quite hideous chairs prompted “Making Space,” a short story about empty nesters dealing with transition. The chairs became a metaphor for childhood, family, adaptation, and even, ironically, comfort - since the chairs themselves are very uncomfortable to sit on.
Look around your home, office, or friend’s house (just don’t get caught snooping!) and choose an object to spend a little time contemplating.
Vist a museum. Browse through your local art center or gallery. Go back adn revisit a favortie painting and examine it closer. What is happening in the piece? What mood does it evoke?
Although I already had the germ of the idea for “Daily Ration,” my short story based in a near-future dystopia, Susie Ganch’s art exhibit “TIED” at Visual Arts Center added the specific setting and characters. She uses discarded plastic junk, such as coffee lids, forks, bottles, and small toys to create larger art. The exhibit included a photograph of a “hayfield” with bundles of white plastic items rolled up to create “hay” bales. It was the perfect storm of creative trigger between her art and my original idea of a world where the inhabitants must drink a daily ration of plastic.
While “Daily Ration” is fiction triggered by art, Ekphrastic poetry focuses on a work of art as its subject and muse. Examine a painting or sculpture and describe the scene and how it makes you feel.
Put a twist on a fairy tale. Give a super hero a flaw. Modernize a myth. Poke fun at a traditional icon. I have a set of three prose poems about the mythic Andromeda and Perseus in The Strangeness of Men. In “Andromeda Looks at Fifty” I’ve not only brought the couple into the twenty-first century, I’ve made them lower middle-class and middle aged. The juxtaposition of this mythic grandeur set against the ho hum drudgery of mid-life brings instant tension and humor and makes them relatable. In “Wonder Woman in Suburbia” Wonder Woman is an obnoxious houseguest who doesn’t understand the struggles of motherhood.
Pick a point of view or a topic and exaggerate it. In “Sundaes and Apple Pie” McDonald the clown gets arrested for crimes against humanity. “Dog Tired” pokes fun at a well-known theme park and “American Holiday” takes a jab at Black Friday. Don’t be afraid to have fun.
4. Given elements
A story can quickly develop around a certain character, specific situation, or particular subject. I wrote “The Ice Swimmer” during the NYC Midnight short story contest where writers from around the world compete to pen a story within a certain time and word restraint. You are put in heats and each heat is given a random genre, subject, and character. The stories are judged and the top five move on to the next round. For “The Ice Simmer” the genre was Rom Com, subject – sleepwalking, and character – ice skater. Even though Romantic comedy is not my genre this story took on a life of its own and branching away from my comfort zone turned out enjoyable. It’s amazing how a group of people can receive the same prompt and each story turn out completely different.
Given elements can be found in a class, certain contests, or on many websites like the ones below. An instructor gave the element “bleeding madras” for a story and “Helluvaguy” developed. “King of the Heap” came from the prompt of Victorian times where everyone talks about death (plus an awesome Spanish Flu documentary for research).
schoology.com - click on photo prompt link – most slides give elements or additional comments
According to T.S. Eliot “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” He didn’t mean commit plagiarism, only that great writers learn from the writers before them and use the techniques that work to their own advantage.
One of the first pieces I wrote after deciding to dedicate the remainder of my life to learning craft was an emulation piece. When I sent it off to editors (submitting for the first time) it got snatched up twice within a week, which never happens and caused me considerable anguish as a newly hatched submitter. It wasn’t actually beginner’s luck, there’s a reason why it worked for editors – because it had qualities that had already been tried and found to be true. My teacher had introduced us to the Dorianne Laux poem “What My Father Told Me” with its casual insertion of molestation listed among a daily task of chores. During the same period we read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” which also had this list format interspersed with her mother’s reproach. Rick Moody’s “Boys” contains repetition of boys entering a house throughout boyhood on their way to becoming men. It includes both the small, petty things of childhood juxtaposed with major, yet universal, tragedies. All three of these pieces are masterful. My “How My Day Went” tries to emulate these (albeit poorly by comparison, yet editors wanted to snatch it up and I’ve had readers respond strongly to it).
I encourage you to read profusely. The first two links below are wonderful resources for poetry. The third links to my post about five short stories you should read to improve your fiction writing.
Don’t be afraid to just sit down and write. Time yourself for 15 minutes and keep your pen moving no matter how absurd what comes out of your mind. Do not judge. Just write. It’s amazing what our subconscious selves are capable of. Get the inky juices flowing and come back to it later to see if it sparks any additional plotlines or characters.