My own stories start—as most stories do, I’m sure—with a voice, or an image, or a normal annoyance extrapolated into something severe and outlandish. Lately, though, I’ve found myself drawn to story starters, which I give to students as writing exercises. Most of these I’ve pulled from THE AMAZING STORY GENERATOR, a flip-book that offers three story elements with which to start a story. They’re often ridiculous and rarely produce workable stories. For example: 1) Upon winning the lottery, 2) a reformed hit man, 3) meets the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.
As ludicrous as the prompts might be, they make for good writing exercises, though, forcing the students to write something new every week and giving them constraints, which are good for writers. Whenever possible, I like to hem writers in with constraints.
I am refreshed, too, by the expansive variance that comes out of these exercises. It is less that no two stories are alike and more that there is such a wide gulf between each writer’s crack at the prompt that time and again my faith in the wicked, cruel, sorrowful, and hilarious minds of new writers is renewed. And every so often, a writer will tackle a prompt and something compelling—to the readers, but most importantly to the writer—will emerge and a true story will have been started.
The prompts so far, however, have involved impending alien invasions, the tallest woman on earth, fallen angels, and World War III. It’s difficult to imagine anyone creating a story out of these, and so I thought it might be interesting and more useful to take some of the stories from THE MINIATURE WIFE AND OTHER STORIES and reverse-engineer them into story-starters. I’m secure in the knowledge that any other writer could take these and weave out of them something magically their own and entirely unlike the stories I’ve written that generated them, and that these starters might offer more realistic jumping-off points for a writer, no matter their experience level:
Suffering a midlife crisis, a shiftless father and husband decides to steal his friend’s unicorn.
Unable to declare his love for a beautiful woman, a futuristic soldier discovers he exists inside a video game.
Bitten by a dog, a kind father turns into a monster.
Uncertain of his future, a businessman boards a plane that never lands.
Good writing, my friends!
Manuel Gonzales is a graduate of the Columbia University creative writing program. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and the Believer. He is the executive director of Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit creative writing center for students aged six to eighteen. His collection of short stories THE MINIATURE WIFE is available from Riverhead Books. Connect with Manuel at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Seattle this week–you can find out more about his reading celebrating twenty years of Riverhead fiction here. You can also follow Manuel on Twitter and Goodreads.
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