Attack of the Killer Story Ideas

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?

22 Comments

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22 Responses to Attack of the Killer Story Ideas

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  2. 1) For almost a decade my job had me flying all over SE Asia. From that came the idea for an engineer getting involuntarily involved in a terrorist attack, and needing his specialised knowledge to not only extricate himself, but to prevent an attack happening.

    2) Heard a guy being interviewed on the radio this morning who used to (and maybe still does) find people for other people. He is now selling a book explaining how to disappear off the grid. I’m now plotting the basic structure of a story about a detective hired to find a woman. Once he has, he learns that he was hired by the black-hats and now needs to help her disappear.

    3) Every day something else pops into my head. I need to live until I’m 352 to get everything written.

  3. Larry, this is terrific. I could imagine each one of the story ideas, it rocked you could tie it into a discussion of “theme.”

    ps. Be thankful you were somewhere sunny and not a blizzard in New England; that this happened today (not 20 yrs ago) and you had a cell phone that was charged; that your wife’s friends weren’t sabotaging the tires…. But, I do think you need a book like Chicken Soup for the Motorist in your glove compartment–just in case.

  4. Gill

    I watched a Nat Geo documentary the other night on the science of evil (you can see what kind of stories I write from that alone) and there was a preacher on it who discussed how he had baptized Jeffrey Dahmer, and therefore he would be able to go to heaven when he died, despite his status as serial killer. I haven’t started writing it yet, but I can’t get out of my head a story idea where a murder victim in heaven finds out that his killer just got let in, and is might pissed with God about it. Would heaven become hell for him then? Could he still be in heaven if he felt so angry and negative? Would God chuck him out for questioning him? I can’t stop thinking about it! My fingers are itching now, so I am off to start the first draft . .

  5. Many writing methodologies advise keeping a journal.

    The circumstances you gave us and the ideas which came could go right into that journal. Later, whip them out and start tweaking. Combine a couple, tweak up the concept, see if there’s a neat, worthwhile theme which pops up, and use your ideas. After all, you’ve already “invested” some creativity in them, right?

    Very small digital voice recorders are pretty cheap and easy to use. Turn on voice activation and the next time you’re inching along in the traffic (or no traffic in a white-out), start pumping out the what-ifs.

  6. Judy Migliori

    Gill – I love, love your story premise. I can imagine all kinds of scenarios especially the initial confrontation between the victim and the killer. For the past few years I have written, rewritten and am up to 50,000 words on a novel about a young widow who must confront her husband’s paroled murderer because of unexplained and escalating violence in her life. After reading Larry’s blog this morning I think I know why I am stymied and that’s because I do not know the theme. I hope you read this post because I wonder what is the theme for your story?

  7. Gill – Wicked idea! Let us know when this is done.

    Larry – Amazing post and glad you made your way off I-10 safely. I especially like that you pointed out that these were ideas, not complete stories. We all know that stories have a four part structure…

  8. Definitely good story material. I think an underused method used to think up story ideas is collaborative writing. It can be very fun and fulfilling. The hard part is finding people to write with.

  9. Deborah Lucas

    Bruce, I bought a recorder for that very reason just last week. Still getting the hang of using it. What’s great is that it will sink to my computer and when I can afford Dragon, it should translate the sound to text. My recordings from twenty years ago have been lost because technology had not yet caught up to my needs and my distractions kept me from getting them converted to text.

    Larry, thanks for the birthday present. You always make me LOL. I’m very isolated here in Northern Illinois. Farm country. It’s a 40 minute drive to connect with my community. Email can be overwhelming, a time-sucking machine that keeps me from writing. So, I pick and chose what to open and what to toss. I’m always so thrilled when I choose yours–you feed my writer’s spirit, confirm that I am not alone with my crazy swirl of ideas that circle my head day and night. And your book that I downloaded last month has given me the structure I was looking for to make my stories work! Thanks again.

  10. Janet

    This was a terrific post Larry- lots of food for thought. I discovered your blog just recently and enjoy your ideas and writing-so thanks. As for your question about real-life situations and writing inspiration-that seems to be my main source,whether they’re new or on-going situations that resonate with me or some strange, unsummoned memory that prompts an idea- there’s generally a scrap of paper around to make a note. Then I see where (or if) it goes anywhere.

  11. Lois Hudson

    Thanks for a great post. I use the “what if” supposition a lot. There’s no limit to where it can take you, and nothing is right or wrong, just there as a question to be developed.

  12. @Larry ‘What if’ to the fore again.

    @Lake: I’ve got half a dozen scrivener templates with bare skeletons of story in them from ‘what-ifs’. A short synopsis, ideas for the plot points and thin character sketches ready to dine in to when it’s time to start the next one…

  13. *dive obviously, although dine is metaphorically close.

  14. Jill W

    Great post, Larry and HILARIOUS! I need to implement the “what if’s” in my life, like what if… I quit surfing the net and do some writing. Well done!

  15. Patrick Sullivan

    It’s funny, the more you find story ideas in the wild, the more obvious they become in future situations. It seems like any time something outside the ordinary happens these days, I see an idea or two float by. Throw in all the ideas I’m getting when I try to just relax with music these days and I already feel like I have too much material to complete in this lifetime… and I’m only 31!

  16. Scary stuff losing a tire like that. I had a front passenger side tire on my Ford F-150 blow on the freeway doing 70 mph. That was… frightening! I rode the rim until I could get the beast slowed down and wrestled off the side of the road. Yeah, I could come up with LOTS of ideas while thinking of that as well. Thanks for this thought provoking post. 🙂

  17. Monica Rodriguez

    Great post, Larry. The “what if” question drives many of my story ideas and sometimes overwhelms me. I think I cut off the muse too soon, though, and let reality and responsibility grab my attention again. I need to let my muse have his way with me. 😉

    Your story reminded me of an incident some 20 years ago, long before I dreamed of writing, when I was riding with a friend down I-95 S from Boston and her car LOST THE WHEEL! That time the “what ifs” we thought of were more in the line of ‘what if the car behind us had been closer’ or ‘what if she hadn’t been able to control the car so well.’ Not fun. And don’t ever do that on a Sunday. No mechanics to speak of. 🙁

  18. I’ve always said that “ideas are everywhere” – and they are. Writers on the watch find dozens of ideas every day. The key is finding the second or third idea that builds off that first, until it grows beyond a mere kernel to a puffy, multi-faceted piece of delicious popcorn. I had fun with a post last year titled “15 Degrees of Inspiration,” in which I shared all the steps of inspiration that had led to my current work-in-progress. Many readers borrowed the idea and shared their own “15 Degrees.” I found it fascinating to see the disparate factors that combined to produce a single story idea.

  19. Wow, this is terrific! So many WHAT IFs out of a single situation. This reminds me of a post on my blog about how an alligator attack shattered my writer’s block. The name of the post is OVERCOMING WRITER’S BLOCK: A DANCE WITH HUNGRY ALLIGATORS

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  21. Damn, I wish I had your kind of imagination, Larry. I might be on that same stretch of road in about a month. Maybe I’ll get some of that inspiration–without the flat tire!

  22. Kristin

    This article is probably at the top of my favorites that I’ve found on this website. I loved reading about the plethora of story ideas born out of one unfortunate event. Makes me glad to know that I’m not alone in deriving a number of ideas from the little hiccups of life!

    Speaking of little “hiccups,” I don’t know if anyone’s spotted this typo or if everyone’s too polite to point it out but there is a typo of sorts… If you were to search this whole page for the letters “pen” on the third result you’d find a space is needed between two words to avoid spelling a less contextually appropriate word.

    With that cleared up, thank you so much for running this website, Larry. Your articles have given me a new outlook on my writing and I want to share your posts with every writer I meet! 🙂