Story Starters are everywhere. I enjoy creating stories out of little experiences. Alert writers can see a great deal in one simple incident.
Some tips for writing a story include, not surprisingly:
WHO – Your protagonist or main character; could be an animal too
WHY – Why did the incident happen – why did it spark your interest
WHAT – What happened that created the idea for a story
WHEN – The hour, or time of day or night
WHERE – Setting of the story
And of all the sure story starters, let’s not forget…
HOW – How does an incident come together and finish to make it worth telling
All of the above, together or individually as story starters, formulate your plot. Story starters can actually be only one of these points, around which your Muse builds the rest.
Tips for writing a story and story starters don’t always come at you in a rush, as if you see something happening and a strobe light flashes and your Muse dances. Ideas for stories can come from your notes. Anytime you see something of interest, even if it doesn’t spark a plot, if it’s interesting, journal it.
Story starters are everywhere you happen to be.
The following is a story I wrote from a most innocent occurrence, or set of occurrences. The gecko was the story starter. Anyone else might have turned on the wipers and knocked the creepy-crawler off the car. I’m really happy about the way this story came together.
When finished reading, answer the questions that follow and think how many occurrences in the story could qualify as story starters. Particularly notice the Who, Why, What, When, Where, and How of this or any piece of prose. This will help you greatly with your own story starters.
The Post Office was crowded as usual around noon. Muggy weather made the air stuffy to breathe and made air in the room stale and repulsive to breathe. Someone coughed wretchedly. I just wanted to be out of there.
I cleared my mailbox with one grab and headed for the door, only waving to a couple of people with whom I might normally stop and chat. Besides, my young Hawaiian neighbor Noelani waited in the car. Outside again, I could almost taste the tainted but usually fresh salty sea air.
After entering the main highway that skirts the beaches, the mile-long line of traffic again came to a standstill.
“What happened to the sleepy little Kapa`a beach town that I used to know?” Noelani asked.
She was fourteen and I was just old enough to be her grandmother, but we always enjoyed each other’s company. She had a healthy curiosity and thirst for her culture and the old Hawaiian ways. She had grown into a special young woman with manners and poise and a touch of class. Not only that, her curiosity made her unusually intelligent.
I could only shrug and shake my head. I had lived on the island of Kauai in Hawaii since about the time Noelani was born. I, too, had seen the recent drastic changes.
While sitting in traffic, I reached over on Noelani’s lap for the stack of mail to peruse the senders. Just as I reached, something moved on the windshield. I dropped the mail back onto her lap as traffic began to crawl.
When traffic stopped again, a sleek, bright green chameleon jumped up onto my windshield wiper. Then it jumped back into the vented well at the base of the windshield.
“Did you see its beautiful tail?” Noelani asked. “It had to be six or seven inches long.”
“And that was only the tail,” I said. The Hawaiian chameleon looks like a large sized gecko and is much smaller than the more popular chameleons known worldwide. This one had to be ten inches long from mouth to tail tip. Chameleons, geckos, skinks, and all their cousins abound in the tropics.
Young Noelani curiously picked through my mail, putting it in order by size. I had to smile to myself. She probably looked to see who had sent each piece as well. Not that she was being nosey. It’s her innocent curiosity.
I reached to retrieve a few pieces but the chameleon jumped back up to perch itself on the wiper again. We remained still and studied it. It turned and stared at me right through the windshield.
“It’s looking at you,” Noelani said, whispering.
Traffic started and stopped. I glanced at the temperature gauge occasionally to assure that the engine wasn’t overheating.
The sticky feet those little creatures have allowed this one to perch itself in plain sight without being swept off by the wind as I drove. Its grip was always firm and never wavered, but it swallowed hard a couple of times and made us both smile. I found the situation most curious and forgot about my mail.
Only when the chameleon jumped back down into the well did Noelani dared speak again.
“Hawaiian mythology teaches that when you have trouble solving a problem, your departed relatives may come to you in the form of an animal to offer guidance. The creature is your Aumakua.”
I had heard that myth sometime ago. I began to wonder about what this little green chameleon might be trying to tell us with his leaps back and forth in front of the windshield. I already knew that if that myth were true, then my Aumakua was the green sea turtle that once helped me survive a rip current up in the perilous winter tides on the North Shore.
“What could he have come to us for?” I asked. “Do you have a problem you need solved?”
“Not me,” Noelani said. “It’s you. He stares straight at you.”
“But I already have an Aumakua.”
That little, long-tailed reptile returned and stayed on my wipers, occasionally jumping down into the vent well and then coming back up. Each time, it spent a few moments looking at me and nodding its head.
When I arrived home and slowed in my driveway, the chameleon jumped off the car and into my flowerbeds. It now had a new home.
Being preoccupied at my desk helped to dispel the frustration of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Noelani, whom I allow free reign in my house, went to the refrigerator and poured us fresh guava juice.
I finally had a chance to look at my mail. In the stack was one of my return envelopes from a writing submission to a print magazine. I so wanted to be published under their illustrious name. I didn’t feel I had a chance with that publication but had to try. In spite of originally putting my hopelessness aside and mailing my story submissions, I now feared the all too usual rejection.
Sometimes we writers spend too much time alone and fall into various degrees of self-deprecation. I constantly had to pull myself out of believing I would never be published in a major magazine.
I slit the envelope open and withdrew the contents as Noelani sat the glasses down on coasters on the desktop. I read and gasped. The magazine editor had loved two of my three stories. They would be published in their seasonal editions at the end of the year. I read the letter again, this time to Noelani.
“The chameleon,” she said. “It was your Aumakua!”
I held the letter in the air with my elbow on the armrest of my chair. “But I thought my Aumakua was the green sea turtle that saved my life.”
“But turtles can’t come to you when you’re driving.”
I began to feel giddy. Chameleons, geckos, and their cousins usually come out to hunt at night. They hide from bright light. Could it be that beautiful chameleon was on my car at high noon as a harbinger of the good news that had just arrived?
In creating prose, whether fiction or nonfiction, try to include ALL or as many of the five senses as possible. These, in themselves are the greatest story starters:
SMELL – Did an odor remind you of your grandmother’s perfume?
TASTE – Remind you of a person’s failed cooking?
HEARING – Someone’s voice from the past?
TOUCH – Does your skin feel like sandpaper when compared to a baby's bottom?
Clarifying each of the five senses listed above, all of us could insert our own memories, interpretations, or story starters.
As long as your character lives and breathes and has no sense impediments, he or she uses five senses, sometimes a sixth. Doesn’t matter if your character is trapped somewhere under water, or locked as a prisoner in a vault, or even dreaming – as long as they breathe, they use most of their senses. These predicaments themselves are story starters.
Answer these questions about the story:
~ Were the settings established each time the characters moved through the story?
~ What was the weather like?
~ What was the time of day?
~ What did they see?
~ What did they hear?
~ What did they smell?
~ Did they touch anything?
~ Did they taste anything or was taste suggested?
~ Did they feel anything emotionally?
~ Did they make decisions?
~ Was each character’s dialog natural and to the point?
~ What about each character’s emotions? Were they happy, sad, or ....?
~ Could you relate to each character?
~ Was the action clear and did it advance the story? Put another way, were there any parts of the story that didn’t really contribute to the plot or meaning? If any, would the story be stronger without these parts?
~ How did the characters relate in the parts they played?
~ Was this story entertaining and/or informative?
~ Did the beginning lead you to read further?
~ Did this story provide any information you hadn’t yet known?
~ Did the story have a beginning, middle, and ending?
~ Did the middle sag? Getting from the beginning to the ending, was the middle still interesting?
~ Was the ending satisfying?
~ Did the story leave you with something to think about?
~ As to the writing, were the beats and speaker attributes correct? (If unclear about beats and attributes, see my article “Let the Dialog Speak,” also posted on this site in the Articles section.)
About the story itself:
~ Do you get the sense that Noelani (name has been changed) is at times not only company for this solitary writer, but also a source of unusual information about the Hawaiian culture?
~ Was it necessary to describe any other physical attributes of the “I” character (me)? Could a writer really do that in 1st Person?
~ Beside the description already given, would it necessary to describe the secondary character, Noelani, further as to features and appearance, other than to say she was Hawaiian?
~ Do you get the sense that I am a careful driver, or that my car may have a tendency to overheat in sticky, humid, bumper-to-bumper traffic?
Once having learned the meanings behind the questions pertaining to the above story, make additional notes about story starters, or what to look for as tips to writing a story in your own life. Maybe you found more story starters in this story than mentioned here. This list and your notes will help you develop your prose.
One crucial point I should make about story starters is that you must know your motivation for writing the story. Story starters are fine, but when inspired by a person or incident, ask yourself what it is you wish to say by writing that bit of prose, about that particular story starter.
Are you writing for entertainment? Do you wish to make a point of something critical? These are crucial clues in tips for writing a story.
After you begin to identify story starters in your life and surroundings, you’ll be able to create an interesting bit of prose out of the simplest incident.