2 Words That Can Help You Write a Great Story

Smiling woman writing in notepad.jpeg

When people at the proverbial (and occasionally real) cocktail parties ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”, any writer will have their go-to answer. Some of the best ones I’ve heard include Neil Gaiman’s classic response (“‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.'”) and Jim Jarmusch’s line from The Golden Rules of Filming (“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”).

I think, however, for a lot of writers, some of the best stories we can ever come up with start with 2 simple words.

What if…?

That’s all it can take. Anyone can write about their day, or tell an amusing anecdote to a group of friends, but there’s a big gulf between those ordinary experiences and the extraordinary circumstances that make someone want to pick up that book or start watching that movie.

For example, what if a farmboy on a desert planet found two droids carrying a message from a rebel princess in danger?

What if the youngest son of a powerful Mafia Don suddenly had to take over when his father was shot?

What if an American living in Morocco during World War II suddenly met up with his old flame, who was now traveling with a freedom fighter being hunted by the Nazis?

What if, in a world where talking animals coexisted alongside people, one of those animals was a horse who happened to be a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to make it big again?

Sometimes even the biggest stories come from the most unusual premises. Fantasy author Jim Butcher got the idea for his Codex Alera series when he took on a challenge from the Del Rey Online Writer’s Workshop to write a story on a lame idea. That idea? “The Lost Roman Legion meets Pokémon.” Totally bizarre, and yet just crazy enough that it worked.

Anyone can write a story that’s based on their childhood experiences or make an homage to someone else’s story. But even that goes back to the “What If?” formula. Moulin Rouge! by Baz Luhrmann is “What if we retold The Lady of the Camellias or the opera La Traviata with popular music and Nicole Kidman?” Ralph Fiennes adapted the Shakespeare play Coriolanus by asking, “What if this ancient Roman general were a modern-day soldier in a similar war-torn nation?” All these questions produced a cohesive theme to bind the entire production together.

Any writer, new or experienced, should be ready to work with this question. If you have enough ingredients bubbling inside your brain, “What if…?” can be the key you need to produce something that both you and your audience will find engaging.

Flash Fiction: “Dreams of Monaco”

Science fiction is often about looking at the future. For some folks, being in such a story means keeping one eye looking over their shoulder, still haunted by their past.

This story came about from another great session with the good folks at Write It Up! Burbank.

Dreams of Monaco, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 793

The sun was setting on the countryside, bathing a lonely farm in an orange-golden light. Sitting near the door of a rusty old barn, Jim Tennyson took in the birdcage hanging from its exterior peg. A tiny yellow canary twittered and hopped on its perch. Jim followed the flutter of its wings toward the herd of cows mulling inside their pen, and beyond them, his gardener Emilio waving goodbye from behind the hedges around his house.

As soon as the small brown man was out of sight, Jim sprang into action.

He flung open the barn door, revealing his life’s greatest achievement. A souped-up Formula One racecar sat in the middle, painted a bright shade of teal with white stripes running down the sides. But the color scheme of the car wasn’t too unusual.

The voice of the car, however, was.

“I thought he’d never leave,” said a faint electronic voice from somewhere around the dashboard.

“He did seem to take a little longer sweeping up.” Jim sauntered over. He patted the car on its chassis and grinned. “So. Who’s ready for a late-night spin?”

“I’m always ready,” said Herbert the sentient car. “I’ve been ready for the last 12 hours, 47 minutes, and 6.5 seconds—”

“Okay, okay!” Jim hopped into the driver’s seat. “Sheesh. Remind me to design a less offended AI next time.”

“You didn’t design me,” Herbert began to say.

“That’s right,” another voice added. “You stole it.”

Jim lifted his head and peered at the newcomer who now stood in the open door of the barn. At several newcomers, in fact. All of whom were flashing badges and aiming handguns at him. Meanwhile, the canary in the outdoor cage tweeted and fluttered in a panic, which his ears were finally registering.

This was hardly a time for good old Midwestern hospitality, he thought.

“Hands up, Tennyson,” said one agent in a familiar voice.

Jim squinted at the shadow who’d spoken. “Emilio? Is that you?”

“Close. It’s Special Agent Emilio Suarez. And you, James Tennyson, are under arrest for theft of government property.”

“Uh, liberation, if you please? You can’t steal a sentient creature.”

“Actually,” Herbert the car interrupted, “you can. It’s called abduction.”

“Gee. Thanks, Herb.”

“I am here to help.”

“Both of you, shut up.” Emilio waved his gun toward Jim. His face was an unreadable shadow, silhouetted by the intense orange sunset. “Now, out of the car, please.”

Jim stayed where he was. He couldn’t quite believe what was happening. And after he’d been so careful, too.

But maybe the time for caution was over.

As he stood, his left foot surreptitiously kicked the brake pedal, followed by the accelerator. The line of federal agents drew back. Jim then made a show of falling into his seat, throwing his arms up in confusion.

“Whoa, hey!” he shouted. “Herb, are you doing?

“I am not doing anything,” Herb answered. “You are—”

“Yeah, okay. Just play along, will ya?” Before either Herbert or the agents could react, Jim thumbed the ignition button. At once, the racecar’s engine roared out of its slumber. Headlights switched on, blinding the agents. The automatic seat belt snapped into place across Jim’s waist while they staggered back.

Then Jim floored the accelerator. Herbert the car shot out of the barn at an impressive speed, scattering armed agents in all directions. Its speed left a shockwave that nearly dropped the canary in its cage from its perch. Magnificent clouds of dust bordered the dirt road behind Herbert, like massive pillars rising toward the sky. It was only thanks to a last minute crank of the wheel that Jim avoided slamming straight into the cow pen and unleashing a terrified herd onto the FBI.

As Jim fumbled for his helmet and put it on, he glanced at the odometer. What he saw set his heart fluttering.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Look at that! You beat your old record!”

“But now we’re fugitives,” Herbert buzzed.

“Fugitives who are gonna change the world!”

The racecar blazed ahead onto the open road, leaving behind the farm until it was only a mere speck on the horizon. As the sun’s light vanished and the skies turned an inky blue overhead, Herbert was oddly silent for most of the drive.

It wasn’t until the first light of the moon appeared that Jim heard the AI say, “James?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“What you told me before. About Monaco? Will I get to drive in the Grand Prix?”

Jim stared ahead at the empty country road. His hands gripped the wheel a little tighter.

“I told you I’d get us there,” he answered. “I don’t know how yet, but I will.”

The car let out a happy beep and raced on into the night.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.

The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys: Dwelling in Darkness and a Mother’s Love

Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams. “The Litany of Earth” copyright © 2014 by Ruthanna Emrys.
Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams.

Lately, I’ve been reading a little more in the way of H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve always found the cosmic horror genre interesting, having heard a lot of great material from games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Reqiuem and podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale. But I haven’t read all that much, apart from a single novella by Ruthanna Emrys.

Based on the Lovecraft story The Shadow over Innsmouth, “Litany” tells the story of Aphra Marsh, a young woman living in exile in San Francisco after her family and all the other Deep One worshippers were forced out of Innsmouth. Now living in the aftermath of World War II, Aphra deals with the world after her family was separated and brutalized in relocation camps, much like her Japanese-American neighbors. When approached by a federal agent, she gains an opportunity to reconnect with people who also practice “the old ways,” but what she finds may not be the eldritch faith that she recognizes from her childhood.

It should go without saying (yet here I go anyway) that Emrys did her homework on drawing all the appropriate parallels to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. She makes homage to characters like Obed Marsh and Abdul al-Hazred, as well as to the extensive mythology and menagerie of the Old Gods and what lies in store for humanity eons from now.

What stands out, though, is how sympathetic Aphra is. To most human beings, her background is terrifying and foreign. And yet, she has an earnest need for faith and prayers to the Old Ones, as much as anyone persecuted by the US government might feel after years of forced relocation and experimentation. This could have easily been a story about a young Japanese woman dealing with life after internment, trying to reconnect to her Shinto roots, and it would still be compelling.

Emrys also conjures up some fascinating imagery, drawing a connection between the fog and rain of San Francisco to the dreary ocean waves at Devil’s Reef and Innsmouth. In true Lovecraftian fashion, she does more to evoke a sense of horror and ancient rites through limited descriptions from Aphra’s point of view, favoring the poetic over the objective.

I’m pleased to hear that Tor got such a good response from the novella that they’re setting up to publish two novels by Ruthanna Emrys that will continue to follow the journey of Aphra Marsh during the Cold War era. I would definitely give those books a read when they come out, with Winter’s Tide due out next April. If you love reading about man’s cosmic insignificance in an uncaring universe, or perhaps one woman’s search for meaning in an equally uncaring America, this story and the ones to follow are definitely for you.

“The Litany of Earth” is available to read on Tor.com.

Bibliography: Emrys, Ruthanna. “The Litany of Earth.” Tor.com. New York: Macmillian Publishers, 2014.

4 Pieces of Advice for First-Time Storytellers

Congratulations. You’ve done it. You’ve decided that it’s time to fire up the old laptop and write an honest-to-God story. Not just another fanfic like you did back in high school, but a story that you’ll put your name on and get published.

And then you find you’re struggling to get past Page One. Or that you’re not satisfied with your story premise. And then we get to the round of second-guessing ourselves and wondering why this was even a good idea in the first place.

I get that feeling. All writers do. And if you’re starting out for the first time, here are some guidelines that can help you avoid some simple mistakes in your plot and your pacing.

1. Find out what’s going on behind each scene.

Picture this classic setup. Person A sits in a room. Person B enters the room and begins a conversation. Something is revealed in this conversation, and the story moves forward from there.

That’s a basic scene, and while it moves the plot forward, it doesn’t tell us much about the characters and how their conversation went. Is Person A working on something, only to be interrupted by Person B? Is Person B concerned for Person A’s feelings when something important is about to be revealed? Now we’ve moved from text to subtext. We’re going into what each character has behind their actions and their dialogue.

Subtext isn’t something you state out loud. It’s something you keep in mind when you’re writing out the action of each character and the progress of each scene.

2. Set a sequence, not a scene.

It’s easy to write scenes that do nothing but deliver exposition or feature a kickass action burst. However, the trick is to ask yourself this: What’s the story here?

Think of each scene as a sequence, as a miniature story in and of itself. It might be the scene where the Hero meets their Love Interest for the first time, but think of how we get to that point. If you know that they’re going to have a “Meet Cute” in a shopping mall, then set up the encounter. Show us the Hero trying to get to the store before it closes, his mind resolved on everything but romance, and how that plan falls to pieces the moment he has an awkward bump down the escalator with the cute girl in the college sweater.

Not only does this process help you avoid writing unnecessary scenes, but you’ll also get better at seeing how your plot and your characters develop overall.

3. Look at your work like you’re a first-time reader.

I know how hard it is to stay objective about your own work. But here’s a handy idea. If you’re reading as much as you’re writing (and you should be), then how would you react if someone else handed you this exact manuscript to read?

Imagine that some version of you from a parallel universe breached the walls of reality and delivered this exact story to read and review. They’d ask you to be honest, to help them point out mistakes and tell them what they’re doing right. And so you must. When you’ve written a new scene or actually finished your story, put it away for a day or two. Then come back and read it with a fresh point of view. Does every line of dialogue fit? Did you follow up on your characters’ initial goals or motivations?

This is where you get to be your own editor. Your future readers will thank you for the effort.

4. Publish a good story rather than a perfect one.

By the same token, as much as you should reread and edit your work before publishing it, you’ll also have to avoid the risks of perfectionism.  Some artists will keep their work locked away from the world, obsessing over the tiniest details because their self-esteem will suffer if they don’t put out a “flawless” product. Quality matters, but not at the expense of your sanity.

In any case, talk to any major author or screenwriter today. They’ll tell you about negative reviews and disappointing sales, even when they’re the hottest names in town. They’ll chuckle and shake their heads over what they first got published and how far they’ve come since then.

You’ll only get better if you open yourself up and put your stories out into the world. Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, and you’ll get a better understanding of who’s reading your work and who appreciates it.

Are there any fellow writers or editors in the audience? If so, feel free to share your thoughts or advice for new storytellers in the comments below.

Flash Fiction: “Charlotte the Savior”

Many thanks to the awesome crew at Write It Up! Burbank for helping me come up with this little tale of sci-fi San Francisco and unfortunate birthdays.

Charlotte the Savior, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 676

Overhead, the skies were thick and gray with an oppressive fog. Flying cars mingled with high-res camera drones in the skies of Neo-San Francisco. And hiding out in Aisle Twenty-Three of a drug store on Fremont was Lance Martin, whose life was more or less over.

He was roused from his nervous breakdown by a sultry voice, which asked, “Sorry to bother you, but can you give me a ride? My car’s—”

Lance looked up at the stunning redhead standing behind him. She tugged at the hem of her little black dress and gave him a surprised frown.

“Oh, hey,” she exclaimed. “I recognize you. You’re tonight’s birthday boy.”

“God help me,” said Lance, “I am.”

His colleagues at Fields Insurance had arranged it all—without his consent. After discovering that his twenty-first birthday was imminent, they’d slapped him with a friendly ultimatum: to join them at the Bow and Arrow, a prestigious bar in South of Market, and drink no less than twenty-one shots. Their boss Davy had even chosen the most expensive tequila that he could afford for the occasion: Alma de Perrito.

“Well now,” the redhead continued, “shouldn’t you be on your way? You’re the bar’s guest of honor.” Her green eyes sparkled. “I’ll be singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you, lucky boy.”

“I can’t…” Lance quivered. “I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

He swallowed. “’Cause I’ll get sick. I’ll embarrass myself. And everyone there can smell blood in the water. You know Carl Jackson wants my cubicle? After tonight, he’ll get it for sure…”

Lance continued to ramble on in this way, totally oblivious to what the jazz singer was doing. Not until he found a bottle of ice-cold, ionized water being dumped on his head.

Coughing and sputtering, Lance glared at the woman. She grinned back sheepishly.

“Sorry, but I didn’t think you’d ever stop.” She then flashed her wrist chrono at him. “Also, if we don’t hurry, we’re gonna be late.”

“But there’s no way I can—”

“Hey. Listen to me.” The redhead crouched beside him. “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Lance.”

“Well, Lance, I’m Charlotte. And if you help me make one quick purchase here—and you pay for our airtaxi fare to the Bow and Arrow—I’ll get you through this ordeal.” A mischievous light gleamed in those soft green eyes of hers. “Sound good?”

Half an hour later, Lance stood at the head of a long table. It was dark inside the Bow and Arrow, with only flickering white lamp globes to illuminate the eager faces of his coworkers and the handful of regular patrons behind them. From the nearby stage, Charlotte winked at him. Then, as she adjusted her floating microphone, she began to croon, “Happy birthday… to you….

Lance stared down the row of tequila shots arrayed before him. The team from Fields Insurance held their breath in anticipation.

He let out a long breath and then took a shot.

And then another. And another.

Soon, he tore along the table at a frightening pace. Alcohol flooded his veins, and yet he chugged without pause. His coworkers, as well as some of the other bar patrons, cheered and whooped for joy.

As he flipped over the last shot glass, the entire bar burst into applause. At almost the same time, the jazz singer finished her performance on a lingering final note. Lance grinned and took a bow.

Then, while everyone was still cheering, he slipped over to the stage and caught Charlotte’s eye.

“Thank you,” Lance shouted over the din.

She laughed and leaned over to him. “Don’t thank me just yet. That antiemetic pill you took should be wearing off any second now.”

As she spoke, her words became real. Lance smiled openly, which in no way reflected the sudden lurching somersault that his stomach had just performed.

“Then remind me to buy you a drink,” Lance replied. Fighting back a gurgle in his throat, he was barely able to add, “And tell the bar staff I’m truly sorry for what I’m about to do to their men’s room.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.