Story-starters are the key to a writer’s long-term success, but what are story starters and how can you turn them into actual stories? Essentially, story starters are the notebooks writers keep about the things they observe in the world. These journals don’t gaze at the writer’s navel. They’re other-centered, outward looking, and curious about all the multitudinous ways people live their lives.
If you haven’t discovered the power of recording your regular observations of life, then give it a try. Notebooks help you write from your highest and best self.
Following In An Old Tradition
Famous writers like Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain kept writing notebooks. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James provide insight into how he trained himself to observe the world. However, even among these literary treasures, Dostoievsky’s voluminous A Writer’s Diary stands out. Here’s what the boxed-set’s cover says:
The Diary of Dostoievsky…is on of the major works of the nineteenth century, the intimate self-revelation of a man of genius, a treasure-house of anecdote, reminiscence, criticism, short stories and sketches by a master. This enormous chronicle was begun in 1873 as a series of articles for The Citizen and later continued as a separate publication. It covers the year 1873; there is then a gap of two years and the Diary is resumed throughout 1876 and 1877, when it was interrupted by work on The Brothers Karamazov. It is resumed once more for the month of August, 1880, and again for the month of January, 1881, a few weeks before Dostoievsky’s death.
The Diary is an extraordinary conglomeration of Dostoievskiana. Accounts of court trials, suicides, spiritualism, and conditions of factory children jostle ideas on social, political, and religious questions, interspersed with literary reminiscences and criticism, autobiographical confessions, anecdotes, essays, and short stories. Here will be found some of Dostoievsky’s best and most characteristic writing, some of his profoundest thinking. Of special interest is his conception of Russia and the Russian people, and of the future relationship between the Eastern and Western worlds. Dostoievsky’s political thought is amazingly intuitive and events have borne out many of his conclusions. In this colossal book you look deep into the heart and mind of a great human being.
Makes you feel like a slacker, does it not? What an amazing record he left, a record of his times as well as his own intellectual development.
Writing Notebooks Save You From Cliches
Many writers–most, I am tempted to say–rely on writing notebooks as a means of capturing the fleeting impressions of life: a snippet of dialogue overheard at the airport; or, a yeasty aroma wafting from a grocery store.
Think of your notebooks as your bakery. Your bakery will provide an infinite number of delicious loaves of sourdough bread, but you must make sure someone delivers yeast, sugar, and bags of flour. That someone is you.
The contents of your notebooks are the story starters. Bakery chefs know how valuable it is to have the right starter mix. They keep the dough covered and moist. That way, the starter is ready the next time they want to make a loaf of bread. They add flour and yeast, and voila, they have a new loaf ready to pop in the over.
How Do Story-Starters Turn Into Stories?
Frequently, nothing happens in notebook excerpts. There’s no point and no climax. Read any of the notebook-keepers above, and you’ll see they’re just trying to “get it down before it slips away.”
Dialogue sounds disembodied. Interesting faces at the train station disappear into the crowd. But if you’re training yourself to become an observer of life, then you don’t care.
Don’t take time to write full character descriptions. Get down what’s new and different. What strikes you as possible story material, way off some time in the future. Do not worry about trying to develop these story starters into a full story. Do not cross out words or edit your work. Just write and have fun.
Story-Starters Begin With A Moment You Don’t Expect
Many writing sites stress the big actions of a story. By that I mean the car chase scenes and the moments when the protagonist is ready to throw herself off the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’ll just state my bias here and say that most of us do not have moments like that in our lived lives. Perhaps we like to be distracted or entertained by such happenings when we’re at the movies, but in fiction these big actions can take the readers’ attention away from what’s most rewarding about living inside the reality of a book, or for what can potentially be rewarding about writing one.
An Example from One of My Stories
Tension often arises for the small moments, not the big ones. Here’s an example from my short story, “Almost Paradise.” The story’s in my short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD.
“That was a brutal ride,” I said.
“It’ll be worth it,” Nico said. “the place we’re going is paradise.”
“Bangkok was a shit hole.”
“Besides the people, the trash, and the food, what didn’t you like?”
“Pollution,” I said.
Heading for a long wooden pier, we passed a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of tiny, silver fish, and when we got to the waterfront, the air smelled like anchovies and rotten eggs. The tide had gone out. Beneath the slimy posts, blue-green mud bubbled like a fart machine.
All the details above–the wheelbarrow of fish, the rotten egg smell, and the blue-green mud–came from my writing notebook. I made notes when I was traveling in Thailand with a friend. Maybe I complained, but probably not.
The two people speaking in this story are guys. They’re cousins from Chicago. They are totally imagined, but my writing notebook yielded up the details that made the story a prize-winner for New Delta Review’s Matt Clark Prize.
That’s how I use my writing notebooks. My powers of observation become acute when I’m in an unfamiliar place.
Play the “What If” Game
Here’s an idea. Get out of your comfort zone. Abandon your office or the couch. Take yourself to a small, ethnic restaurant between 3:00 and 3:30. Find a family place where the owners take a few moments to eat their own lunches. Can you eavesdrop? Who sits down and who hops up to serve you? How does the place smell and what sounds come from the kitchen? Can you imagine yourself into the lives of those people, or can you imagine someone besides yourself sitting where you’re sitting right now?
Play the “what if” game. What if your imaginary person had just come from the hospital? What if that person had just been fired? What if that person had just learned her daughter was pregnant?
What could happen between the people in the restaurant and the lonely diner? Would whatever happens make the guest more miserable, or would the presence of others make her or him feel comforted?
Use writing notebooks to bring freshness to your stories and to make your imaginary people real. So what if this isn’t the big story you’re burning to tell? You’re training yourself to think like a writer. When you do get around to working on your keeper-book, you’ll have the skills you need.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.