As a writer you get this question all the time: where do your story ideas come from?
Sometimes we have an answer – like, it’s based on my divorce experience when I wanted to kill my wife’s lawyer – sometimes we fake it because we don’t really have a clue.
And upon occasion, the universe gets all the credit. Serendipity can be very literate.
In other words, reality sucks sometimes, but, sucky or not, it can inspire some pretty cool story ideas.
Thing is, reality is virtually shouting other things at us all the while, masking the softly uttered literary gold running through tirades of being late, taxes due, spouse not getting you, kids acting out, and tires blowing up on the freeway.
You have to look for the gold in those moments. Sometimes there are manuscripts hidden in that pile of lemons.
The latter – a blown tire on the freeway – happened to me earlier this week.
An example from the sucky end of the spectrum.
And the result, in addition to an unbudgeted set of tires, was a file of stories I probably won’t live long enough to write. I’m talking Stephen King kind of ideas, where reality turns dark and whisks you away to someplace unexpected and frighteningly compelling.
Allow me to explain.
My wife kicked me out of the house last weekend. Not for reasons of domestic unrest, but because her daughters and two friends were flying in for four days of drinking, debauchery and the solving of all the world’s problems between shopping trips.
I’m lucky to have a wife that still craves occasional debauchery, but that’s another story idea altogether.
Anyhow, I drove from my home in Scottsdale over to Los Angeles to see my son, who attends a ridiculously expensive college there (props to him, he made the dean’s list last semester, but that’s another story, too).
See, even setting this up prompts concepts and premises to bubble to the surface.
On the drive home the car started pulling to the right.
I figured it was an alignment thing. Then it began to sound as if I was plowing down a railroad track on baby coaster wheels.
So I pulled over. And sure enough, the right front was completely flat, just short of shredded.
I wasn’t up to the notion of changing that tire – the spare was uninflated (this is like desperately needing water and being given powdered milk instead) though the car came with a little electric air-pump gizmo with instructions written in a foreign tongue. But there were no tools for the removal of the lug nuts. The jack looked like a prop from Hostel II.
So I called AAA and waited.
The setting is important here. It was in the middle of nowhere, unseasonably warm and bright, on I-10 halfway between Palm Springs and Phoenix. If you’ve ever been there, you know this looks like a movie set from The Book of Eli, just short of a poster from Resident Evil III. Only with convoys of traffic barreling past you at eighty miles an hour.
It quickly occurred to me that this very stretch of road inspired one of my favorite blog posts from last year, about a truck full of caskets that passed me like I was standing still.
That, too, was a treasure trove of spooky story ideas still awaiting my attention. That’s how it works: the ideas arrive, they filter, and the ones that remain become worthy of consideration.
Maybe it was that connection to the casket truck that started it.
As I looked around me, waiting there on the shoulder of the freeway next to an unending desert, eyes alert for approaching rattlesnakes, kicking through the litter of discarded truck fenders and lights, shredded tire rubber and shards of junk food wrappers, my imagination began to take over.
Being alone with my imagination is a horror story in its own right.
I started counting the story ideas this sorry state of affairs summoned forth.
I stopped counting at 22, but the idea-train kept on truckin’.
Not because I hadn’t found one that captivated me – there were about six of those – but because I was no longer in control. The Muse had taken over, and she was driving an 18-wheeler with a bottle of Jack in her hand.
That was the first of the ideas. What if an 18-wheeler suddenly veered off the road and came straight at me? What if it really was full of empty caskets?
What if a car full of young men (I’m thinking snakes tattoos on their throats) wearing dusters and Oakland Raiders hats stopped and wanted to discuss my personal financial situation?
What if a limousine pulled over to help, the open door beckoning me, and there in backseat sat a leather-clad Kate Beckensale lookalike asking if I needed a ride?
I rather liked than one, to be honest.
What if the police arrived, siren’s blaring, guns pulled, seeking to arrest my clueless ass? And when I asked why, they showed me an FBI Most Wanted poster with my mug on it. Or better, when I looked in the rearview from the backseat of the squad car, my mug had morphed into Suspect #4 from that list.
What if – and I really liked this one – all of a sudden the traffic just stopped, as if that old episode of The Twilight Zone kicked in and somebody had clicked a diabolical stopwatch from hell that stopped all time and motion?
What if nobody came to help me? What if it gets dark and my heart suddenly decided to shut down?
What if the apocalypse happened while waiting for my two truck savior, and when I got back to town all the church people had vanished, leaving behind a bunch of I-told-you-so notes of farewell?
What if a seemingly friendly old fellow stopped to take me to the next service provider (60 miles in either direction, by the way), and suddenly began talking about my life, asking me the secret questions about my guilt and regrets and dying dreams along the way, as if he already knew the answers? What if he pulled off at an exit and we were suddenly back in my old hometown, on the street where I grew up, all Ebinezer-Scrooge-on-Christmas-Eve-like?
What if the person who pulled over to help me was… a future version of me? A long forgotten version of me? Or my dead father?
What if that person was God himself – or herself, whatever – and wanted to discuss my moral balance sheet, because that 18-wheeler had connected?
What if a hungry band of coyotes happened to wander by in search of the nearest buffet, and decided that I looked pretty tasty?
What if, in my impatience, I tried to change the tire myself and the front end collapsed on my ankle? What if it was dark by now, and things in the night came to visit (hints of King’s Gerald’s game at work here)?
What if, at dusk, a massive mushroom cloud appeared in the west, right over Los Angeles?
What if my wife and her daughters and two friends appeared out of nowhere, on motorcycles… and they had fangs? (Will speak to my shrink about that one.)
The Genre of Sudden Inspiration
The situation seemed to lean toward dark science fiction and fantasy – not my favorite reading or my chosen writing niche, by the way, so go figure – with elements of thriller and existential personal reflection tossed in all Jonathan Franzen-like.
Where was this coming from? And what was I to make of it all?
Everyone has an imagination to some degree. Everyone goes off to dark places now and then. Writers, however, should pay attention to it. Because it might just be a gift waiting to be unwrapped.
Were these stories? No, not yet, not even close.
But they were ideas, notions and seeds that could easily evolve into concepts. Which from there could inspire a character and a theme and the beginning of a story worth telling.
Which means, there might be a compelling reason to tell this story. Which is the very essence of theme, the most challenging of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.
When theme arrives unannounced, the aware writer listens. Because it is a rare gift indeed. That awareness – the necessity to marry a compelling concept with a powerful theme – is a milestone in a writer’s development.
Remember that the next time a clever idea knocks on your brain.
Reality throws idea-inspiring situations at us all the time.
Some of them frustrating, some of them terrifying, many of them mundane yet riddled with thematic gold.
We writers are in a constant search for our next story. Sometimes we settle on the wrong one – the concept is a little thin on thematic resonance… yet it seemed so cool at the time – sometimes we allow the Big One to get away.
But the question today is this: are you listening? Paying attention? Are you asking what if? when reality smacks you upside the head with an opportunity?
The art of storytelling is all about turning the mundane into the profound. And, imbuing the spectacular with humanity.
That voice you hear nagging at you from the background? Next time give a listen. It just might be a worthy story begging for your attention.
What real-life situations from your life have inspired story ideas that won’t leave you alone?