Carroll Dale Short

• Writing Tips •

Ideas? You Don't Need No Stinkin' Ideas...

From time to time, a workshop student says to me: “I want to write fiction. But I never have any really good story ideas.”

To which I reply, “Join the club. I wouldn't know a good story idea if one of them kicked me in the knee.” The good news is, you don't have to have a story “idea” to write one...any more than you need a music degree to whistle a happy tune.

Just make the story up as you go. I've found so-called “guided imagery” to be useful in this exercise. The image I find most useful, when I'm starting a new short story with no idea in mind, is to picture a large thuggish person breaking down my front door and holding a pistol to my head.

“Write me a sentence, buddy,” he barks. “And quick. Otherwise, you're history.”


“How about one more?” the large person suggests. “No, make it a paragraph instead.”


“OK, now gimme two paragraphs. No, three.”


The bigger-than-life gun-wielding intruder smiles at me, tucks the pistol into his coat pocket, and wishes me a good day as he leaves.

That wasn't so hard, was it?

Sometimes, when I look at these paragraphs the next day, they make no sense whatsoever and I'm back to Square One. Often, though, I find they're a fragment of an imaginary world that I never knew, until then, existed. Sort of like a landscape we might see reflected inside a drop of dew: compressed and distorted, but nonetheless there.

What comes next, in the story? Danged if I know. If necessary, I repeat the crazed-gunman exercise as many mornings as necessary, until the story either starts going somewhere or else puts itself out of my misery.

The strange part is, many of the stories that I'm now most proud of having written—including a goodly number in my 30-year retrospective collection “Turbo's Very Life”--originated in exactly this way.

Whenever I hear a writing teacher say, “Write what you know,” it grates on my nerves. Probably because the kind of stuff I know is not even interesting to ME, and I sure wouldn't expect anybody to pay money to read it. The beauty of writing fiction is that you can write about things you DON'T know, and sometimes they end up making sense.

You say you need to research the topic first? I say, you don't need no stinkin' research. Just tell the story. You can always fine-tune the details afterward to match “reality,” whatever that is.

Just get on with it. Write something for a short period of time every day, ideas or not.

If you have trouble getting the hang of it, my crazed gunman tells me he makes house calls.

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