mount_oregano: Let me see (Infrared)
Authors including Chaucer, Edgar Allan Poe, and Agatha Christie have used unreliable narrators: a story told by someone who can’t be trusted. That person may be lying, mentally ill, excessively playful, boastful, forgetful, immature, naive, contradictory, drunk, drugged, confused, prone to misjudgement, or motivated by a hidden agenda. This kind of story can often end with a twist.

If you need an idea for an unreliable narrator, here are a few ideas:

• This is a wannabe heroic story about someone who is convinced that aliens have landed and infiltrated society, and who wants to force them to reveal themselves and take over the Earth, since humans have messed things up so badly.

• This is a reincarnation story about a child in a very troubled family; from time to time, memories of a normal life seem to rain down on her until it becomes a storm that drenches her with what seems like strength.

• This is a story told by a computer desperately trying to pass the Turing test by recounting the events of the previous day, but in some ways it is more intelligent than a human and has difficulty hiding that fact.

And now this monthly series, Go Ahead – Write This Story, will come to an end. Since 2011 I’ve been offering short writing tips and three ideas on every third Thursday. You now have 50 tips and 150 ideas, and that should keep you busy for a while.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)
These days writers often indicate a transition simply by leaving a blank line (or in manuscripts, three asterisks) between paragraphs, but there are other techniques that can substitute for or strengthen the blank line transition.

• An expression like “today” or “the first time” or “when summer came” can indicate that time has passed.
• A word, concept, or object can appear in one scene and in the next one, but something about it has changed.
• Just a hint of foreshadowing (“I’ll meet you there”) can prepare the reader for the next scene.
•  An activity taking place in one scene can be completed at the start of the next scene.
• An evolving emotion in a character can show a change in time or place.

If you want to try out techniques, here’s a few story ideas you can use:

• This is a Hollywood blockbuster in which a terraformer plans to speed her work along by knocking a water-laden comet toward Mars, while someone else wants to aim it somewhere else as a weapon.

• This is a martial arts movie about a sorcerer who accepts the challenge to end a drought caused by a hallucinating mountain spirit.

• This is a magical realism story about someone who feels naked walking down the street while everyone else is wearing the rules of their lives for all to see.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Saber-tooth)
What makes people behave badly? Many motivations are possible. One is a desire to fulfill wants (discussed here) with disregard or even with contempt for the rights and feelings of others. But ethical, legal, moral, and social shortcuts made out of thoughtless or ruthless egocentrism have destructive consequences. The resulting conflict fuels stories. If you need a story involving bad behavior, here are a few ideas:

• This is a young adult story about a student who does not want to cheat, but the ghost of a friend who committed suicide over bad grades insists to the point of coercion on “helping avoid another tragedy” by providing correct answers.

• This is a time travel story about our buddy Bukowski, who wanted to go back five years and “get what I deserve.” We all told him it wouldn’t work, but does he ever listen?

• This is a satirical story involving a company selling love potions over the internet that might work or might not work: they don’t know and don’t care as long as sales are good.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos4)
At their most basic, stories are usually about a person or people who want something and can’t get it easily. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests five categories of wants, which are interrelated:

Physical: food, shelter, survival, sex, etc.
Safety: freedom from war or natural disaster, health, money, etc.
Love: from family, partner, social group, etc.
Esteem: respect, independence, status, etc.
Self-actualization: ability to accomplish a goal, understand the world, be creative, etc.

If you need an idea for a story where your protagonists can’t always get what they want, here are a few:

• This is a one-act comic stage play with no fourth wall that begins as a bride at the altar is waiting and hoping that someone will object.

• This is a disaster novel in which the story bifurcates at major survival decisions by the protagonist, and only one outcome is successful.

• This is a dark suspense story about someone raised in a cult preparing for the end of the world, and who, after a crisis of faith, decides to destroy the cult from within to prevent the end of the world.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
In a story, someone needs to have a problem or conflict. What causes that? Do you blame people or situations?

Conflict can be caused by moral failings, by some people being bad, and the solution is to get rid of the bad people.

Or conflict can arise because people compete for limited resources or try to achieve good outcomes in bad situations. That is, conflicts can be caused by real-world constraints, and the solution requires changing the world or our means to cope with it.

The first cause – bad people – is usually easier to write about, but the second cause – bad situations – is usually more realistic and painful.

If you need a problem for a story, here are a few:

• This is an alternate history story in which William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain failed three hundred years earlier, and now France and Britain are negotiating to unite against Holy Roman Emperor Frederic III.

• This is a story in which a school decides to eliminate bullying by monitoring every minute of its students’ lives, and how the bullies, as usual the more popular students, try to foil that plan.

• This is a thriller in which aliens land in Russia – satellites and on-site observers have confirmed this and even uploaded videos to YouTube – but the government blocks all further information.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Most stories use some sort of compressed time: a story takes place over hours or days or years. Others take place without breaks or lapses. Slice of life stories are one example: Dorothy Parker’s “But the One on My Right” is an interior monologue during a boring dinner party. Some real-time stories consist of a single scene involving a revealing moment, or a series of scenes that occur in immediate succession. The technique can create compelling scenes, theater, short stories, and flash fiction.

If you need an idea for a real-time narrative, here are a few:

• This is a one-act stage play about a group of soldiers preparing for battle, trying to convince themselves they’ll defeat an army rumored to include dragons among its weapons.

• This is the first chapter of a mistaken identity romance novel in which the future lovers first meet but they don’t speak the same language or correctly figure out who each other is – and yet a spark ignites.

• This is a magical realism story in which a case of spontaneous human combustion is confused with political protest.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Suppose you want to write a story about a big subject, say the destruction of Earth, but it’s too daunting. Try taking a minimal approach. Write about one person, perhaps not an important one, stuffing her future into a single suitcase as fast as she can. Use small details to illustrate big things, like the tree in the back yard that died so fast its leaves remain attached, green, freeze-dried, being shredded by the relentless gale. Pick moments that evoke epic events in miniature, like a bank’s front doors banging wide open in the wind, ignored, since money means nothing anymore. If you need an idea for a little big story, here are a few:

• This is a story set during a regional water shortage so severe that the local economy is failing and the population must decide whether to stay, go, or seek some sort of solution or accommodation.

• This is a story in which a miracle cure for obesity is discovered, and people rush to try it despite the complications.

• This is a historical novel about the witch hunts in Renaissance Europe when tens of thousands of women were killed.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
It’s so frustrating! How can you show you character's frustration when you're writing a story? Lots of ways, since people react differently. Your character might drink heavily, give up, work harder, work smarter, get angry, blame fate, blame someone else, complain, get depressed, pretend it doesn’t matter, or seek revenge. Emotions may vary widely and be mixed. The point is, your character reacts, and this moves the plot forward.

If you need a story to frustrate a character with, here are a few ideas:

• This is a retold fairy tale in which the fairy godmother’s promises do not come true as expected, and the godchild’s life spirals down into debt and failure.

• This is a horrific family drama about Take Your Child to Work Day, and the child soon realizes that what the parent does is repugnant – and may be evil.

• This is an experimental stage play that re-enacts a computer game, and the characters, aware that it is a game, do everything in their power to subvert and ridicule it, but rules are rules.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos2)
Listen to people in a mall or at an airport, for example. Take notes. Then analyze them. What is the relationship between speakers? How do you know? What information do they pass? What surprises you? What’s the rhythm? Catchphrases? Persuasion? Conflict? How does each person speak differently? With any luck, you’ll hear ways to make your dialogue more natural and productive for your writing.

You’ll probably get story ideas by eavesdropping, but if not, here are a few. Remember the dialogue.

• This is a dark fantasy story in which a husband asks a friend to seduce his wife so he can have an excuse to divorce her, and the friend suggests conjuring up an incubus instead.

• This is a technological thriller that begins when a researcher reports that a greater number than average of redheads are being born.

• This is a chronicle of the cut-throat competition in the pet business after dogs have been artificially bred to be able to speak.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Seedlings3)
In the third and final discussion of change, what stories involve change? There are three main kinds.

1. Many stories, especially television series, movies, and adventure novels, involve situational change: James Bond has a new adventure, or Bart Simpson overcomes a school bully.

2. In most novels and stories, characters change in small or large ways (or stalwartly resist change), such as Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol. This change must be permanent, and it must be dramatized.

3. Fiction sometimes tries to change the reader, the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized anti-slavery sentiment. Today, literary fiction often attempts this, usually a bit more subtly and directed at individuals rather than at society as a whole.

If you want to write about change, here are a few story ideas:

• This is an ecological thriller about a university microbiology student who decides to poke around the local Superfund pollution site to see what’s there – and gets lucky, if you could call it that.

• This a story about someone who seems to develop multiple personality disorder but in fact the new personality is a refugee from another space, time, and reality.

• This picaresque novel follows a young man who moves from job to job, such as Walmart clerking, Amazon warehouse order preparation, interstellar passenger ship cleaning, and zombie reburial, illustrating the brutal life of service workers.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Bottle of Oregano)

People hate change. Consider how people howl when Facebook or LiveJournal make even a minor change in their user interface. Now think of the people you know who should shape up: drink less, eat better, dump a bad job or spouse, abandon ridiculous political opinions, or get anger management therapy. Will they? Not until they have no other choice. Fictional characters are like that, too. They fear and hate change in their environment and themselves and will resist as hard and as long as they can.

If you need a story about change – or aversion to it – here are a few ideas:

• This is a comedy about a family that lives in a haunted house and refuses to believe in ghosts.

• This is a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a medical team that cannot ethically flee an epidemic.

• This is thriller about an employee of a technology company that begins to operate in increasingly illegal activities, but the change is so slow and the money is so good that one of the engineers can’t afford to quit.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (statue)

You get a great idea, sit down to write, and it doesn’t turn out as expected. Don’t be surprised. Writing makes nebulous ideas concrete, in the process shutting out various possibilities. In the nebulous state, everything was possible, and now it’s not. Yet, new ideas might have been discovered, leading to another set of possibilities. The written version might even be better than the original idea, and only your (understandable) disappointment keeps you from seeing that. This is why writers drink.

If you need some ideas to make concrete, here are a few story possibilities (BYOB):

• This is a revenge story about a woman who learns she is a clone and is surprised by whom her parents chose to copy and how different this was from most choices.

• This is a story about an engineer whose design for a lunar habitat won a major prize but who is terrified to go to the Moon, yet must go live there anyway as an obligation of the prize.

• This is a first contact story in which two civilizations initiate a series of gift exchanges to begin their relationship, and the gifts tell more about the givers than they thought they would.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Weather vane)
Barry Malzberg said in Breakfast in the Ruins, a collection of essays about writing science fiction, that lasting, significant change “is uncontrollable and coming in uncontrollably: … we have lost control of our lives.” If aliens come or as new technologies gallop ahead, we’re all at their mercy. In contrast, he says, middle-class assumptions include the idea that “increased self-realization is increased control,” an idea that shapes non-genre novels and drama – and, he says, is behind the hostility to science fiction.

Do your characters truly control their fates? Here are some story ideas, in case you need some:

• In this memoir-like story, an octogenarian imagines how life could have been if a series of worldwide changes had gone differently.

• This first contact story begins with the realization that in its cultural exchange with Earth, Aldebaran B has sent its malcontents as a form of exile.

• This is a suspense story about a medical treatment that can rehabilitate stroke victims or create false memories, and a patient who had the therapy isn't sure why.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Weather vane)

Some writers imagine a story perfectly from the start. Others (like me) fumble around before they find their footing. I learned a good way to deal with that: the zero draft. The first try at a story is only an experiment or discovery, and since nothing counts, mistakes don’t matter. For example, I finished a zero draft for a story and at the final sentence realized that I had the point-of-view character’s motivation all wrong. But I’ll get it right on the first draft. This technique works best for people like me who believe rewriting is the key to good writing, so we don’t mind redoing our work.

Whether you use the zero draft method or another means to create your masterpieces, here are a few ideas for stories:

• This is a choose-your-own-adventure story about the discovery of a doorway to the multiverse, and some universes are terrifying or compellingly weird.

• This is a sibling rivalry story in which one travels to the future and sends back sound advice, dire warnings, and lucrative stock tips, but have childhood betrayals really been set aside?

• This is a day in the life of a hobgoblin, which like all its kind is easily annoyed, and the story recounts the practical jokes it considers inflicting before making a final decision.

— Sue Burke

P.S. You can find an expanded version of the post on how to write stories in the form of lists here:

mount_oregano: Let me see (Leafy Oregano)
A good story or novel needs a good title. You might be able to take it from famous works in the public domain, like The Undiscovered Country (taken from Shakespeare) or For Whom the Bell Tolls (taken from John Donne). You might find a suitable phrase or expression inside the story, like “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” or The Color Purple. Or you can take key words from your work like names or themes and play with them, like Pride and Prejudice or “Sonny’s Blues.” (You can find an expanded discussion of how to find the perfect title here.)

If you need an idea for a story to title, here are a few:

• This is a young adult story (but not a dystopia) about a child whose IQ has been artificially accelerated and who can now memorize anything, but understands little – for example, the child can memorize mathematical theorems but cannot solve a math word problem.

• This is a gritty urban fantasy about a person whose mere presence makes people happy: a curse, perhaps, considering what happens when this syndrome and its cause become widely known.

• This is a space opera thriller about secret agreements meant to prevent another interplanetary war, but of course they only make things worse.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (MeAtWork)

We love lists. That's the secret of success for the Cracked website. You can tell stories with lists, too.

1. You need a clear plot with rising tension, like any other story.

2. The items need not be numbered, but they must clearly be a list.

3. You must have enough items to tell a satisfying story, and each item on the list must be strong, not a filler to get enough items. Items can be lengthy or brief. With the right tweaks, the result can be a short-short story, a novel, or anything in between.

4. The ending should re-emphasize the story, such as a list of things in a suitcase that become more frightening and the final one is a killer. Or a list of reasons to get married, and the last one or two show that the marriage would be a disaster or unbridled joy. Or a list of imaginary holidays that become significantly specific or broad at the end.

If you need an idea for a story, here are a few:

• This is a story of love and possible betrayal about a woman who planned her husband’s funeral for years, each year with a different cause of death and a different ghost.

• This is an autobiographical story about a space traveler remembering the best and/or worst planets he/she/it had ever visited.

• This is a detective story in which the clues add up to solve the mystery of the missing moon.

— Sue Burke

For an expanded version, visit

mount_oregano: Let me see (Toddler)
Children’s names go in and out of fashion, so the names you give your characters can show their age. Mildred was popular in the United States 100 years ago, but Sophia is big now. In Britain today, Harry tops the charts, but 100 years ago Albert made the top ten. And different ethnic groups and foreign countries have their own preferences and trends. A little research can yield names for a story that say a lot about the characters — or about their parents.

For the United States, check and or and

For Britain, and or even

And since I live in Spain, here’s a look at names there: and

If you need an idea for a story, here are a few:

• This is a gritty novella about a centuries-old family-run pawn shop specializing in magical objects, and the item that changed their business forever.

• This is a touching tragicomedy about a small town in Florida that must relocate due to rising sea levels from climate change.

• This is a culture clash story in which a superstition has been passed down among Lunar colonists that Earth-born humans bring bad luck to water storage units.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (window)

You don’t have to write one story at a time, even in the same story. You can write a story that cuts from one story line to another with thematic or narrative connections. Usually each story line progresses chronologically, but they may be taking place in different locations, in different time periods, or to different people. If you need a story idea, here are a few:

• This is a story about people trying to prevent a war whose causes have deep roots.

• This is a story about a disaster that depopulates Earth, and about a village that is founded later on to repopulate it.

• This is a children’s story about three young people who each meet the same talking dog.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (statue)

Behind every stereotype, there’s a grain of truth. Men and women tend to talk differently, and you can bear that in mind to create a routine, exceptional, or gender-bending character.

Men tend not to ask rhetorical questions or seek validation, while women are more likely to ask approval-seeking questions. Men generally answer questions with specific information, even when women who ask questions may only be seeking sympathy or understanding. Men usually do not volunteer emotions and are unlikely to show any emotion besides anger, while women may show a range of emotions but avoid anger. Men lean toward being direct and avoiding euphemisms, while women may be indirect and carefully consider the effect of what they say before they say it.

Be aware of differences in dialog, and if you need a story idea, here are a few:

• This is a story about a smart house ( that decides it needs a ghost.

• This is a murder mystery set at a 12-step meeting where a detective discovers an apparent telepath who drank to blot out other people's thoughts.

• This is a thriller about a woman on a multi-species space station who manages a black market to buy and sell illegal pets, including humans.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (statue)

Tragedy began as a drama form in Ancient Greece, a story about a good person who makes an error or has a flaw that causes unforeseen ruinous or sorrowful results. The tragic hero should be good, even great and admirable, so his or her downfall will evoke sympathy in the spectators or readers. The cause of the downfall should come from within the character, or the story is a misfortune but not a tragedy: the hero should do something ignorant, mistaken, deliberate, or accidental, or fail to act. Tragedy has withstood a long test of time with many variations, and modern horror stories sometimes follow its pattern.

If you’d like to write a tragedy, here are a few ideas:

• This is a story about a woman who recovers an object she had hidden in a past life, but she can't remember why she had hidden it.

• This is a military SF story about a noble warrior from another planet who arrives during Earth's Cold War and is confused by the Berlin Wall.

• This is high fantasy quest set in several successive centuries about a wizard who attempts to rescue the last unicorn, told from the point of view of the unicorn.

— Sue Burke

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