Write a story every day, part 7: Triggers revisited

Writing a story every day can seem like a tremendous challenge before you get the hang of it—just like dancing the tango, speaking a foreign language, or changing a diaper. I mean, I’ve never, ever changed anybody’s diaper in my life. If I had to do it without instruction or supervision or the right tools, I’d probably try to convince the freaking baby just to do it herself. It’d be easier for everyone involved.

Let’s say you’ve decided you want to dance the tango, speak German, and change diapers. And you want to write a new short story every day. Problem is, you have no ideas for a story. None. Zilch. You want the freaking story just to write itself. It’d be easier for everyone involved.

Here are a few suggestions. They don’t involve Q-tips or safety pins or anything smelly. Take my word for it: writing a story is easier than doing the other thing.

  1. Give yourself just a few words to start the story with, and open the spigot. Or ask someone else to say something. My wife proposed the following: “Nobody could control him.” I wrote a story about a Hollywood producer who has gone berserk.
  2. Write something involving a historical figure or situation. Judas selling Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—as told from the point of view of a Roman soldier who acts as a broker. Winnie Mandela pondering her divorce from Nelson. You meet Jack Nicholson at a party in Los Angeles, and to your surprise he has somehow heard perverse rumors about you. It’s 1957, and you’re riding an elevator by yourself in New York City. It stops on the way to the lobby, and Marilyn Monroe enters it, her hair disheveled, her mascara running. You smell alcohol in her breath. “Could you please help me?” she asks.
  3. Find inspiration in something that happened to you earlier today, or that you witnessed. You watched an old woman slip on the icy sidewalk and fall. You received a phone call from a stranger who had dialed the wrong number. You started brushing your teeth, only to realize you had put shaving foam on your toothbrush. Any one thing that has ever happened lends itself to a dramatic invention. It all depends on the connections you create between the event and the psychology of people involved. Conflict is the name of the game.
  4. Use a traditional trigger. “X, Y, and Z walk into a bar.” Give yourself a strange set of participants: A peacock, a chicken, and an eagle. A carrot, an eggplant, and a zucchini. A lesbian, a transsexual, and a priest. You get the idea: use a square formula and un-square variables, and your creativity is likely to be tickled. Formulas abound, and it’d be a fine exercise by itself for you to make a list of them. “Once upon a time…”
  5. Use stereotypes, archetypes, age-old characters: the wizard, the fool, the rebel, the maverick, Santa Claus, Captain Hook, Donald Duck, Prince Charming, Superman. Put one of them in a difficult situation: Santa Claus gets stuck in a chimney, and, well, it’s cold in the house, and the family starts a fire. Superman hates his name, hates the Nietzschean connotations, hates the sound of it. He decides to call himself… actually, you’ll know what exactly once you enter his mind and heart.

In short, all you need is conflict and a character’s voice. “Goo goo ga ga ouch ouch OUCH!” (Guess what this conflict is about, and who's in conflcit with whom.)