Becoming a Storyteller: Building Initial Ideas, or, Get Thee to a Nunnery!

I’m one of Those people. Yep. I’m the guy that’ll open a blast email from, say, Writer’s Digest, and buy something they’re advertising–thus ensuring another blast will clutter any number of inboxes. The item in question this time is a writing book (yes, another writing book) entitled: The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates.

The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates
The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates

This book grabbed my attention for two reasons: 1.) The subtitle is “Finish your Novel in Your Spare Time”, which essentially what I have to do–you know, since I can’t quit my job; and 2.) It was on sale for $7.99.

The timing of blast email from Writer’s Digest Books was fortuitous as well, since I needed some new reading material for Spring Break. It helps that James Scott Bell, an excellent suspense writer and writing coach, recommended the book, too. Any while many books on the craft of writing can be hit or miss, I have found that this one has been right on target so far.

I confess to only having read through the first third or so of the book, but I’ve already found quite a bit of useful information–from thoughtful quotes to insightful exercises. Just this morning, the book helped spark the flash of a potential short story, one that had me scrambling out of the shower to jot down some notes wrapped in a towel. This last action began a number of concerned questions from my five year-old daughter.

“What are you doing, daddy?” she asked.

“Writing something down, honey,” I answered, water dripping to the notepad nestled on my lap.

She lingered, clearly processing the strange scene. “Why are you writing letters?”

“Because I had an idea.”

“Why is your hair wet?”

“I’m going back into the shower in a sec,” I said, flipping the pad closed with the pen marking the page.

“Don’t forget to use shampoo, daddy,” she said, sauntering from the room satisfied in delivering instructions normally reserved for her shower trips.

See, The Nighttime Novelist suggested an exercise that sparked a new idea. I’m planning on a new short story to submit to the Florida Writers Association’s upcoming publication. The collection’s focus this time is “It’s a crime”, and while in the shower, a character popped into my head. I then proceeded to ply the character using the exercise I just read in The Nighttime Novelist.

Here’s the exercise:

Building Initial Ideas

Directions: Choose an attribute from Column A and pair it with a character type from Column B. What does a given combination automatically suggest to you about character and conflict? What about plot, voice, tome, approach, possible scenes, and images?

Column A                                   Column B

talentless                                    surgeon

suicidal                                        nun

kindhearted                               circus clown

neuortic                                      suicide-hotline volunteer

unfulfilled                                   celebrity impersonator

scheming                                    department store Santa

racist                                            sports mascot

vain                                               supermodel

depressed                                   hitman

self-conscious                           relationship counselor

jealous                                         serial killer

In the chapter, the author, Joseph Bates, discussed at length how his creative writing students would craft interesting or compelling combinations. He said a “racist suicide-hotline volunteer” once prompted a 45-minute discussion. He went on to talk about how, when the obvious pairing were made (like a “kindhearted nun” or “vain supermodel”) the other students would chime in on why the pair wouldn’t work. Those uninteresting combinations brought nothing surprising.

We’d be writing caricature instead of character.

The chapter went on to create a “jealous nun” character. And the process was intriguing. A jealous nun. Jealous of whom? Jealous over what, exactly, and what might this jealousy lead her to do? The discussion leads to an interesting bit of character development. She’s jealous of a younger nun in her convent and her closeness to God. The pretty, young nun takes the role of the “other woman”, in some twisted sense.

Bates leads the reader to a set of questions that help form a story by addressing four basic problems:

  1. What does the combination really suggest in terms of what might happen?
  2. What would be motivation or driving our main character in such a situation?
  3. What would be opposing the character in the situation? (This could, and probably should, prompt many different answers, some of them small and personal in scope, others large.)
  4. What are the emotions evoked by or from the premise that we might consider universal? In other words, what could any reader identify with, regardless of whether or not she’s ever been in this exact situation?

And there you have it: plot, character, conflict, and theme.

This process strikes me like a more focused form of brainstorming. Something that’ll help you really dredge the riverbed of this idea. And who knows, maybe you’ll drag up something that is really valuable to the potential story.

The combination that struck me was a “depressed relationship counselor”.

Here’s what I scribbled on my notepad after jumping from the shower: (This may, or may not, be the opening to a new story story.)

Jeffery Tarragon hated his name. There were any number of reputable spices he’d gladly don as a moniker. Sage–sounding old and wise, inducing visions of Gandalf or Dumbledore, even Merlin. Maybe Basil, because with just the right pronunciation, it’d be exotic, provoking images of James Bond. Perhaps even something faintly religious, like, Rosemary.

But no, his name was Jeff Tarragon, so it was something of a surprise when he’d been informed his identity had been stolen.

His two sisters, Judy and Alice, couldn’t wait to get married to drop the Tarragon name, and Jeff himself had even considered legally changing his name. But he never did anything so adventurous. On his deathbed, Jeff’s father made him promise never to change the name.

Perhaps Fate was intervening.

We’ll see where it goes.

What combination would you make?

10 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: Building Initial Ideas, or, Get Thee to a Nunnery!

    • It’s an interesting exercise, and one that could be molded to whatever you’re working on. I’ve been stuck recently, so this little exercise has helped spark a new piece. We’ll see. Thanks for reading!


  1. Thanks for the link.

    I was drawn to talentless serial killer; I do not usually write comedy so I am curious where having a bumbling protagonist with competent opposition would go.

    Not that I have time to write it at the moment. Deadlines are like buses.


    • No problem! I’ve tried my hand at comedy from time to time, and I find the key is voice. I haven’t necessarily written with a bumbling protagonist, but that challenge sounds like fun.
      Don’t get run over by those buses!


      • It is more a need to re-plan after someone expressed interest in me working up one of my ideas than an actual problem. I technically have enough time to do all the writing I need; I just need to avoid too much project switching on the same day, and to fit in gaps to recharge my inspiration.

        Both of the external deadlines might get me a publishing credit so as a best case I will not only avoid getting run over but actually catch a bus. As a worst case I will have to put off finishing the first draft of my current novel again.

        Trying to learn a comedy voice might be a great way to unwind after it all without stopping writing.


  2. Cool post thanks for sharing! I found the thought of a talentless hitman quite appealing…it could be fun though he’d be in danger of metamorphing into the kind hearted hitman I suspect 🙂 Could be fun to work with! It’s a very interesting exercise actually.


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