Story ideas are everywhere. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you his idea service.
Today, as I was leaving the grocery store, I pulled up next to a nice black car at the stoplight. The driver was a young blonde woman, her hair pulled back in a professional-style ponytail. It was about 6:00 PM, and she looked as if she had just gotten off work. She was very pretty, and her face was scrunched in worry. That, in itself, is enough to spark a story. What would make a young, successful businesswoman worry so? What is happening in her life?
As she waited for the light, she got a small box out of one of the grocery bags and opened it. She pulled a sheet of paper out of the box and unfolded it. The sheet had a pink border; it was instructions for a home pregnancy test. She was still waiting at the stoplight when I drove into the intersection.
You can’t tell me there’s not a story there. I guarantee it’s a very important story for the young lady. I couldn’t see if she had a ring on her left hand; depending on whether she did or didn’t, the story could go in vastly different directions.
On another occasion, I was walking with my wife in downtown Denver one frigid night. We were on our way to an Eric Johnson concert at the Ogden Theatre. As we walked, a couple about a block in front of us stopped short, dropped their bags, and faced each other, yelling. We slowed, not sure what was going to happen or if we would have room to get by. They sparred verbally, and then the man suddenly picked up his shopping bag, turned, and walked briskly up the street, away from us. The woman stood still. She called after him a couple of times, but he didn’t turn around or stop. She started crying. Gathering her things, she began to shuffle up the street in the direction he had gone, still sobbing in the cold air.
I have no idea what they were arguing about, or whether it was right for him to strand her on Colfax Avenue on a winter night. Perhaps he had some justification, or perhaps he was just a jerk. But the scene could translate almost directly into a story or even a movie script. I’ve often thought it would be a good exercise to write that scene from different perspectives: one that paints the man’s actions in a positive light, one that paints his actions in a negative light, and one that explains what’s happened in a way that neither person looks like the villain.
Observation is really all it takes to come up with the spark for a story. The writer doesn’t have to record the events perfectly for an idea to start burning; in fact, it might keep the idea from growing if the writer sticks too closely to the details. Stories that are based in reality may sometimes benefit from tension-inducing details that were not in the inspirational scene.
Tonight, I played Morrowind for the first time in weeks. I didn’t get very far; in fact, I stopped playing it in favor of reading Word Work. I should be able to finish the book at lunch tomorrow.