WHAT WE MEAN BY “ATMOSPHERE”

When we say “atmosphere” in the context of writing we don’t mean the layer of air that surrounds the planet, but the layer of feeling that surrounds your characters. I like Dee White’s definition of “atmosphere,” in this context, from her post “Story Atmosphere—Tuesday Writing Tip”:

It’s all those things that come together to make the reader feel a certain way about the characters and what’s happening to them.

Atmosphere makes a story compelling and hard to put down. It adds another dimension for the reader. It gives them a feeling of being part of the scene.

And this is no small thing. It’s what separates—or at least it’s a big part of the things that separate—evocative fiction from informative journalism. It’s where an accurate recitation of facts gives way to an immersive experience. In his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” H.P. Lovecraft attaches enormous importance to the question of atmosphere, stating that:

Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum* of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.

In other words: show, don’t tell.

For me, the question of whether or not an author is establishing the proper atmosphere comes down to what he or she chooses to describe in that moment to “set the scene” in a way that’s the most detail-light and emotion-heavy. A few relevant details: not everything.

Don’t forget that reading is also a creative act. Allow your readers some space for themselves in there. Trust them to fill in a mental image, to act as set decorator to your production designer. You set the tone, the color pallet, the atmosphere; they put the family photos on the mantel, push an easy chair up against the wall, and decide if the coffee table is oak or maple. Try to drill down to what quickly but viscerally communicates not just the facts about the place but the feeling of being there.

The great Raymond Chandler started his short story “Red Wind” by establishing not just the setting, but how it makes our first person narrator, Philip Marlowe, feel:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Beats the shit out of “It was windy,” doesn’t it? This is not about meteorology, it’s about people, and right away we get the feeling it’s not going to be about happy people doing happy things. Oh, and it’s probably California, but that matters least of all.

In Joe M. McDermott’s soon-to-be-released science fiction novel The Fortress at the End of Time he cements the feeling of life on a space station by focusing not on the details of the place itself—the architecture and interior design—but the way the space fails to match with the idiom:

She gestured to the door ahead, nondescript and unmarked. “You will learn the way around soon. Here is the admiral’s office. Good day, Ensign.”

Day, she had said, as if there were such a thing here. We were not meant for starships and stations. Even the ghosts of language long for the summer sun.

Okay then, so how do you actually apply this to your own writing? How do you focus your thinking away from reporting to your readers on details and onto immersing them in atmosphere? Kirsty Logan offered some very good advice in her article “Five Things: Creating an Atmosphere in Your Writing”:

If you write to music, make sure it fits the tone of your story. Perhaps pin some relevant pictures to your desk, or change your desktop background to an image that creates the right feel. If it’s possible to choose your physical surroundings—for example, to walk on a deserted beach as you write about isolation, or wander in a museum as you write a historical story—then do take a day or even your lunch hour to do this. You’ll only be able to create a strong atmosphere for your reader if you can feel it yourself.

It isn’t always possible to have control of our listening or viewing material when we have to consider the choices of our family, friends or workmates, but even small things can help.

I have done all of these things, especially picking just the right TV show or movie to play in the background while I’m writing. I’ve written jungle pulp stories with Tarzan movies playing in the background, horror with horror movies on, and so on. And music—for sure. I often work, as I am just now as I’m writing this, with my iTunes library on shuffle. But if the “wrong” song comes on I skip it. If I’m writing fiction, it’s never on shuffle.

However you engineer it, the point is to create and/or maintain narrative or dramatic tension—some feeling that things are happening, might happen, will happen, hopefully won’t happen . . . all reasons to keep reading.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* Only Lovecraft would pull out this rare jewel of a word, meaning “something that is needed or wanted,” in an article about making your writing more approachable!

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TRY TO VS. TRY AND

Imagine me starting this post with my usual admission that sometimes rules of grammar and usage, as applied by me, are as often “pet peeves” and even my own ingrained colloquialisms than they are hard and fast, unbreakable commandments. Here’s another one of those cases, but as usual I think I can back this up . . . ish.

This week’s burning question: Is it try to or try and?

I am hardly the first to grapple with this conundrum. For instance, Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty wrote:

I got really frustrated while researching this topic because none of my books seemed willing to take a stand. They all said “try and” is an accepted informal idiom that means “try to.” They say to avoid “try and” in formal writing, but not to get too worked up about it otherwise. But none of them addressed what bothers me about the phrase “try and,” which is that if you use and, as in your example sentence—I’m going to try and call Grammar Girl—you are separating trying and calling. You’re describing two things: trying and calling. When you use “try to”—as in I am going to try to call Grammar Girl—you are using the preposition to to link the trying to the calling.

With all love to Grammar Girl that only got me a bit more confused. So I went to my two most trusted sources, one of which I long ago suggested you all should have at hand. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (I need to get the newer edition! the following quote is from the 1998 edition) Bryan A. Garner advises:

try and is, in AmE, a casualism for try to—e.g.: “Mr. Kemp, who seemed intent on slowing his normally rapid speaking pace, accused the Administration of ‘demagoguery’ in using ‘fear’ to try and [read try to] panic older voters with charges that Republicans endanger the health of the Medicare program.” Francis X. Clines, “Candidates Stick to the Issues, Not Ducking the Touchy Ones,” NY Times, 10 Oct. 1996, at A15. In BrE, however, try and is a standard idiom.

Puzzled by his use of the word “casualism,” (The doctrine that all things and events happen by chance), let’s assume he means that in casual conversation, we might say try and, but in formal speech or writing, try to is preferred. Reading Garner’s example from the New York Times article left me wondering if perhaps people started using try and to avoid the staccato alliteration of to try to. That could be it, and might be all the explanation necessary for why there are two forms.

But the fact that there are two options doesn’t mean both are correct, right?

My other go-to usage guide, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (mine is also an older edition—added to to do list: update your reference books!) goes into much more depth than does Garner, but still comes up a bit short of making any sort of final pronouncement on the issue. The lengthy entry there did uncover an example that might explain why I see try and in so much fantasy:

Parallel examples of try and . . . are not difficult to find: We must try and find him at once—J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954.

But then Tolkien was British, not American. There is a difference. Fowler’s goes on, though, to say:

It is only when one turns to other parts of the verb (i.e. tries, tried, trying) that a gulf between the two expressions opens up.

And that, for me, is the test: verb inflection.

If and would sound weird if you inflect the verb try into tried, trying, etc. it would indicate that and is incorrect in the original form too, as Fowler is getting at. Look at this example:

Galen tried to keep up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

That would sound weird—would be incorrect—if you wrote:

Galen tried and keep up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

Then note that this version of the sentence:

Galen tried and kept up with the fleeing fast-zombie.

. . . makes a very different point, with and indicating an order of separate events: first Galen tried to keep up with the fast-zombie and as a result he then succeeded in keeping up with the fast-zombie, as indicated by the past tense kept. He did this (tried) then he did that (kept up). The distinction similarly applies to:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying to keep up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

It just can’t be:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying and keep up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

Though I hate the way the following sentence sounds:

Bronwyn thought the sight of Galen trying and keeping up with a fast-zombie was hilarious.

. . . in this third example Bronwyn is amused by two things, in sequence (Galen’s effort to keep up with the fast-zombie, then his managing to do it) as opposed to the original intent, which is to show that Bronwyn thought Galen’s efforts to keep up with the fast-zombie was hilarious, and we still haven’t seen whether or not he managed to do it.

Likewise, you can’t use and in a negative construction:

“That’s the Gate to Hades,” Galen said, “try not to fall in.”

. . . would make no sense as:

“That’s the Gate to Hades,” Galen said, “try not and fall in.”

But then that example brings up the question of dialog. It could be, as we talked about a bit in terms of rendering accents in dialog, that this is a colloquialism (or, to Garner, a casualism) particular to Galen’s people. I would never say, for instance, “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not,” but Yoda did, in Return of the Jedi. As such, many if not most Americans in 2016 will likely say:

I’m going to try and not worry so much about my own colloquialisms.

. . . even if the copy editor in me wants them not just to replace and with to but to move stuff around to write:

I’m going to try not to worry so much about my own colloquialisms.

In fact, what we’re doing there is switching the word order simply to make and sound better, just as, maybe, we say try and to avoid that to try to alliteration.

People are weird and talk funny. If you want your characters to sound like people, and you should, let them talk funny sometimes, within some reasonable boundaries so your readers aren’t left wondering what the hell these people are talking about. But like all these other “rules” the quotes around that word is me saying:

Try to follow the rule until the time comes for you to try and bend it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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THE SNAPPER, THE PUNCH LINE TO END 2016

This is the last Fantasy Author’s Handbook post of 2016, which got me thinking about some of my past year-end wrap ups and New Years resolutions, and so on. I won’t belabor the general crappiness of this past year, when actually just as much good happened as bad, and so on. But I’ve started working through another run of my online Pulp Fiction Workshop—and those classes, by the way, always tend to renew my faith in humanity as I read some amazing stuff and learn as much from the students as they might pick up from me—and that got me thinking about endings.

This will be a bit of a spoiler for this class’s students, who will see this as part of the daily additional material for the course in week four, but . . .

I’ve spent some time here and elsewhere talking about how to start a story, but not so much about how to end one. That’s a big discussion—a satisfying ending is vital to the success of any story, of any length—but let’s start by dipping into Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. Dent’s final bit of advice reads:

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line?

The MENACE held out to the last?

Everything been explained? It all happen logically?

Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?

Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

For today, let’s look at the very end, the very last line, or what Dent calls “the snapper, the punch line to end it” from some actual pulp stories:

 

Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales (October 1927)

Well—that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using—and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!

“Unexpected Bridegroom” by Adelaide Humphries, Sweetheart Stories (August 1942)

Carson’s arms tightened about her. “If you’re notorious, then that’s the only kind of girl this mayor wants,” he said, and the ardor and tenderness of his kiss gave her the deep thrill of the happiness she had never expected to know again.

Islands in the Air” by Lowell Howard Morrow, Air Wonder Stories (July 1929, edited by SF legend Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Award was named)

Somewhere off in the far reaches of space it still pursues its solitary way.

airwonder_1929_07_frpaul

“Dr. Grimshaw’s Sanitarium” by Fletcher Pratt, Amazing Stories (May 1934)

Winter is coming; we dare not hunt for fear of the animal, and our food is running short.

“Death’s Old Sweet Song” by George William Rae, Dime Mystery Magazine (September 1946)

“It was on the gun, Manton, when you wiped the prints off. Just that little blue thread caught on the sight. Just a little blue thread to tie you up for Hell…”

“The Marshal of Goldfork” by Walter A. Tompkins, Exciting Western (September 1947)

“It ain’t every gun-boss who gets planted in a two-hundred-dollar coffin, eh Malone?”

“Red Rogue Killer” by Day Keene, Jungle Stories (Spring 1946)

Behind him Nylabo grinned, white-toothed. He understood. And Bwana Juju would understand. All that really remained to be said was for the maiden’s father to make known how many cows he would take for his golden haired daughter.

jungle-stories-spring-1946-cover-001

“Consignment” by Alan E. Nourse, Science Fiction Adventures (December 1953)

The last thing he saw below, rushing up, was the glowing, blistering, white-hot maw of the blast furnace.

“Jerry the Hawk” by Arthur J. Burke, Air Stories (August 1927)

I was the only one who carried out orders—and I darned near forgot to pull the ripcord!

See you in 2017!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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ANOTHER POST ABOUT THE HOLIDAYS

I know . . . why do we put ourselves through this?

I won’t get into the whole War on Christmas thing or what that day does or doesn’t mean to me. Who cares, right? If you’re a Christian, well, then Merry Christmas! If you aren’t, then Happy Holidays. If you aren’t interested in holidays at all then I wish you a safe and happy day . . . today!

We should probably wish each other a Merry Every Day, shouldn’t we?

But how about this, in terms of worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction: Holidays both religious and secular can give us a sense of community, and sometimes, as with Thanksgiving or Independence Day, allow us to extend that community to all fellow citizens, regardless of religion. All I can ask is: What holidays do the people of your world celebrate and how do they celebrate them, but most of all, why?

The “why” behind Christmas might have gotten fuzzy for some of us, but that says something about the world we’ve built for ourselves here, doesn’t it? So then why would the people of your fantasy world celebrate the Feast of Zornak? The Ascension of the Black Goat? Imperial Bathtub Day?

Bathtub Day, you may ask?

Though Christmas does have a tendency to eclipse all else, how about a quick list, which I pulled from the web site Holidays Calendar, of thirty-five holidays, Christmas included, that we might encounter this month:

  1. Thursday, December 1: Eat a Red Apple Day
  2. Friday, December 2: National Fritters Day
  3. Sunday, December 4: National Cookie Day
  4. Monday, December 5: St. Nicholas Eve (Belgium)
  5. Monday, December 5: Bathtub Day
  6. Monday, December 5: Day of the Ninja
  7. Tuesday, December 6: St. Nicholas Day
  8. Tuesday, December 6: Feast of St. Nicholas (Italy)
  9. Tuesday, December 6: National Gazpacho Day
  10. Wednesday, December 7: Feast of St. Ambrose (Milan, Italy)
  11. Wednesday, December 7: National Cotton Candy Day
  12. Thursday, December 8: Immaculate Conception (Austria)
  13. Thursday, December 8: Feast of the Immaculate Conception
  14. Sunday, December 11:  Anniversary of the Statute of Westminster (Canada)
  15. Monday, December 12: Day of the Virgin Guadalupe (Mexico)
  16. Monday, December 12: Poinsettia Day
  17. Friday, December 16: Day of Reconciliation (South Africa)
  18. Friday, December 16: National Chocolate Covered Anything Day
  19. Saturday, December 17: National Maple Syrup Day
  20. Wednesday, December 21: Winter Solstice (China)
  21. Friday, December 23: Emperor’s Birthday (Japan)
  22. Friday, December 23: Festivus
  23. Saturday, December 24: Christmas Eve
  24. Sunday, December 25: Christmas
  25. Sunday, December 25: Hanukkah
  26. Monday, December 26: St. Stephan’s Day (Austria)
  27. Monday, December 26: Boxing Day (Canada)
  28. Monday, December 26: Second Christmas (Germany)
  29. Monday, December 26: Synaxis of the Mother of God (Greece)
  30. Monday, December 26: Public Holiday (South Africa)
  31. Wednesday, December 28: Day of the Innocents (Mexico)
  32. Friday, December 30: Rizal Day (Philippines)
  33. Saturday, December 31: New Year’s Eve
  34. Saturday, December 31: St. Sylvester’s Day (Austria)
  35. Saturday, December 31: Make Up Your Mind Day

At least according to this list, today is no holiday at all. In an attempt to rectify that I want to officially declare December 20 as This Blog Post Day. Today, we shall come together as a community to honor this particular blog post.

All joking aside, imagine my horror at finding out I totally missed Day of the Ninja!

Okay, kinda hard to put that on the same footing as Christmas or the Synaxis of the Mother of God, but I guess Ninjas need love too.

What am I even talking about?

 

—Philip Athans

 

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NEXT EXERCISE: THE RANDOM PROMPT

Last August I made the promise that I would actually go off and do some of the writing exercises I’ve suggested here and in my online courses. I had a little success with some—wrote a maybe okay rough draft of a story inspired by a picture—a lot of success with some—writing longhand is working for me—and not at all successful—I couldn’t eavesdrop on someone to study dialog because I could neither hear clearly enough nor write fast enough. But the trying is the thing, right?

A couple weeks ago I suggested trying writing prompts and random plot ideas to get your creative juices floating. Rather than wait some unknown number of months to follow up on that, I’m going to go ahead and dive right in and try writing a very short story based on a random prompt.

I’m reading very short horror stories today as my online Horror Intensive wraps up for this run of the course, and inspired by that I feel like writing a horror story. Following one of the links from that post, I ended up at springhole.net’s Creepypasta & Supernatural Horror Story Prompt Generator, hit the button and, without rejecting, editing, or even thinking at all—like an improv student is taught to say, “Yes, and . . .”—I just hit the “Give me the jibblies!” button and ended up with . . . drum roll please . . .

At midnight, a strange woman, a biologist, and a young witch explore an asylum haunted by the spirit of a serial killer while searching for a disturbing teddy bear.

And I’m going to write it in longhand first then type it in here for all to read. To the notebook!

***

Okay, then, after writing by hand without pause for (coincidentally—I didn’t set a timer or anything) exactly half an hour, here’s what I came up with:

 

Lala in the Basement

 

The scream hit Maria like a wave of boiling water, washing over her face, burning her—then she realized she was the source of the sound.

It was the way it walked that ripped the sound out of her. Skin crawling around the sound, twitching at each echo pinging off the close-in concrete walls. Even in the privacy of her own thoughts she couldn’t call it a teddy bear. Teddy bears were cute, cuddly, innocent, harmless, infantile, and inanimate. This creature hadn’t been any of those things in a while.

Maria screamed again when it turned to look at her. Its eyes, just blank black buttons, glassy and cold, fell in on themselves. The buttons gave out onto a darkness that Maria knew in that moment—requiring no further evidence—opened onto the black pits of Hell itself.

A hand on her elbow—skin hot and rough—and she spun so fast she lost her footing and dropped to the damp concrete floor.

“Is it here?” the professor asked, his normally deep voice shrill. “Did you see it?”

Maria wanted to hit him for touching her like that—kill him, even, like she had with her husband when he tried to leave her. But she let him help her back to her feet.

“It’s—” she started, forcing herself to turn back to the hideous thing.

Nothing.

Dark. Empty. The smell of stagnant water on old concrete. The echoing drip of water from somewhere within and a metallic clank from the steam pipes that covered the ceiling.

“Did you see it?” the professor asked again—more calm now, his voice closer to its normal register, then, “Behind you!”

Maria spun again and fell again and it was there. A scream lodged in her throat when the creature bit deeply into Professor Karel’s inner thigh. The tear of his scrubs accompanied by the pop of teeth penetrating skin. The blood spread into the fabric fast and Maria pushed away with one foot and sobbed and her throat tightened again.

The professor screamed—Maria had never heard a man scream like that. He reached down with both hands and pushed back on the creature’s blood-drenched fur. The little half-circle ears gave no resistance.

It came off him and Maria screamed again, this time managing to call, “Lala!” Her own voice as shrill as the professor’s.

Professor Karel fell back, eyes wide and wet and seeming about to explode. Maria whimpered knowing he was looking into the thing’s eyes—its dead black eyes that led to the Pits. And she screamed again at the blood.

It came out of him in waves, absorbing into his clothes, draining out of him so he bathed in it. He already seemed pale.

“No,” Maria coughed out then rolled onto her stomach to push at the floor with both hands to try to get away—get on her feet and run.

“It killed him,” she whimpered, though she didn’t know if that was quite true yet. Still, if it killed the professor—the man who’d created it—maybe that would be enough for it. Maybe then it would stop, go back to sleep, go back to being a toy.

Lala hadn’t said as much.

Lala seemed to know.

Lala, who Maria used to call “creepy” and even “Little Miss Satanist” when she first came to the institution.

Lala, who had warned Professor Karel, told him not to read any more of the book the dying patient, the man with the seventeen people inside him, gave him—warned him not to say the words out loud, not to follow its alchemical recipes or to bleed on it or sleep with it in his arms, cradled in bed with him.

Lala, who had warned them all then watched them die, one by one.

Lala, the patient.

Lala, the schizophrenic.

Lala, the inmate.

Lala, host for the spirit of a child murderer.

“Lala,” Maria begged when she felt the teddy bear touch her. “Lala—”

“Enough,” Lala said from above her. She sounded tired.

Maria sobbed and closed her eyes.

“This one is mine,” Lala said, and Maria screamed as Lala, the witch, started to eat her.

***

That’s almost 700 words of rough, semi-coherent fiction in thirty minutes. Maybe you actually can write 1000 words a day, especially if you take that advice about writing a short, bad book—or short, bad story—then give yourself the time and space to think about it, play with it, revise it, and make something out of it later.

This exercise . . . a success!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

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CAN I CALL THIS A “QUALIFIED WIN”?

I didn’t get to the 50,000-word mark at the end of November, and you know what? I feel no guilt at all, no sense of failure, no feeling of inadequacy.

And if you also started NaNoWriMo this year and didn’t get to the finish line, I would like to take this opportunity, by the power vested in me by no one in particular, to absolve you of all guilt, sense of failure, and feelings of inadequacy.

I might feel this way because though I didn’t get to the end of a 50,000 word rough draft of The Book of True Names, I got a start on it, and that’s huge.

This is a book that’s been percolating in my head, has existed as handwritten notes in a composition book, for, quite literally, years. Not a single word of actual story was written. I did some serious worldbuilding, I wrote a few outlines, I jotted down ideas for scenes, and I went through some of my own exercises for the creation of characters, making lists of groups and so on.

All that’s great. I have a feeling I will use the vast majority of it.

But I had not actually started writing the book itself. It wasn’t a story, but a collection of ideas pointed more or less in the direction of a story.

Until November, that is. Now it’s actually a work in progress. It is actually progressing. I am actually writing.

I think I might leave my 2017 writing goals for a bit later this month. This past, not terribly happy year, feels like the right time for a revisit of my old New Years Resolutions posts in another effort to change myself for the better in the coming year—and there are some essential changes that need to be made on my part, friends.

Writing is a huge part of that. I love what I do. I am an editor. But I don’t want to be one thing. I want to be an author/editor, and I am. But for the past couple years, really, the author part has taken too far a backseat to the editor part. I’m not going to slow down on the editing, but I will speed up on the writing—no, wait . . .

I actually really have started speeding up on the writing.

I’ve found it again—a voice absent for a period of time now so long that looking back on it freaks me out—and I mean: Freaks. Me. Out.

But now I’m writing again, and damn it, I’m going to keep going in 2017. A novel will be finished, so will short stories, more poetry, and of course, our little Tuesday get togethers. After all, if I can be religious about this blog, every Tuesday for this many years, surely I can establish a new Phil-only religion around writing The Book of True Names, of writing short stories, of continuing to write poetry, and . . . what else?

We’ll see!

Oh, and by the way, if you have finished your 50,000 words of NaNoWriMo, think about sending it to me for a review and advice on where to take it from there.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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RANDOM PLOTS & WRITING PROMPTS

This morning I ran across the article “Plot Devices: Help for Writing Your Yarn” by Edward J. Wood, which looks at, primarily, three sources for plot ideas: George Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, Plotto by William Wallace Cook, and Wycliffe A. Hill’s Plot Genie series. Though I’ve sung the praises of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and even teach a four-week online Pulp Fiction workshop based on it, I’ve also warned away from formula, from too much “structure,” and so on. So what can we get out of randomly generated story ideas? Edward J. Wood asked the same question and offered an interesting answer from Wycliffe Hill:

You ask: Why use random numbers and prewritten lists? Why not fill in the blanks using your own imagination? Because your imagination will suggest the same tired old ideas that have already been done to death by countless other writers, Hill proposes. Picking elements at random lifts you out of your limited imagination, giving you directions and combinations that otherwise would never occur to you.

I bristle at the idea that my imagination is in any way “limited,” and I hope you do too. But once we get through that I think we can agree that there might . . . just might . . . be something to that. After all, I’m the sum total of my experiences, built on a foundation of genetic predispositions. That doesn’t mean there is a finite boundary to my imagination, but it could lead one to believe that I’ll have some list of “go to” ideas. Even if that’s a long list it’s still a finite one, and I’d rather stretch that than wallow in it.

If these random plot generators can add a few concepts and combinations to that list . . . why not?

Of course, now we live in the Internet Age, so though I would never stop you buying a book—and all three of the books described in that article are now on my Amazon Wish List—I went out in search of some faster, easier sources for random plot/story ideas. I found a crap-ton of them. Here are a few that might be worth a gander:

Springhole.net has a list of “Genre, Plot, & Story Prompt Generators” that get into some very specific categories like a plot generator specifically for Arabian Nights-like stories and a handy Prophecy Generator: “The kingdom of the south is taken from the man of the west. The goddess of deceit foretells peace. The palace of the plain is invaded by the army of the empire.”

There are all sorts of handy online tools at WritingExercises.co.uk, including a Random Plot Generator that presents as a log line, though I found it had little variety, especially in the way it describes characters. Still, these prompts give you a lot of room to move, leaving you to explore some basic concepts like:

A woman in her eighties, who is very decisive.

A woman in her late twenties, who is very timid.

The story begins in a desert.

Someone is lost.

It’s a story about stubbornness.

Your character has to resort to underhand methods to achieve results in whatever way you choose.

I’ll be honest, “a woman in her eighties” is not one of my go to protagonists. But why couldn’t she be? That’s what I meant by adding to that go to list!

I had some fun with another UK-based Plot Generator that lets you get genre specific. This one also suffers from some lack of variety, but here’s a random science fiction story it built for me, including a title:

Galactic Sunny Spoon Wars

A Science Fiction Plot

by John Doe

A long, long time ago in a sunny, sunny galaxy…

After leaving the wide planet Dune, a group of aliens fly toward a distant speck. The speck gradually resolves into a squidgy, space towers.

Civil war strikes the galaxy, which is ruled by Jack Williams, a false robot capable of burglary and even violence.

Terrified, a chilly ogre known as Sally Gobble flees the Empire, with her protector, Sally Jolie.

They head for Amsterdam on the planet Jupiter. When they finally arrive, a fight breaks out. Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.

Jolie and Ogre Sally decide it’s time to leave Jupiter and steal a space rocket to shoot their way out.

They encounter a tribe of goblins. Jolie is attacked and the ogre is captured by the goblins and taken back to Amsterdam.

Jolie must fight to save Ogre Sally but when she accidentally unearths a brown teapot, the entire future of the sunny, wide galaxy is at stake.

All of their science fiction plots seem to start with that Star Wars homage, and really this is less a story generator than a sort of online Mad Libs (Jolie uses her sunny spoon to defend Sally.). Still, could it be of any use? I’m not going to write a story set on a planet called Dune. That’s somebody else’s playground. If I were to pursue this whacked out idea my first step would be to change all the specific names. This: false robot capable of burglary and even violence, actually got me thinking, though it didn’t add anything to the sort of stuff I’ve already written. Well . . . they can’t all be winners.

The Story Generator at Seventh Sanctum is also fun and easy to use. It keeps things rather more vague, also formatted more like a log line. Using the “Free-For-All” category can get you some genre recombinations that might be a real challenge to pull off like:

This is a drama/horror with a strong theme of hate and things man was not meant to know. The story is about a healthy corporate official who was once married to a cyborg. It starts in a village. The story ends with an engagement. A conflict between magical races plays an important role.

But then the challenge is the thing, right?

A wealth of one-sentence story prompts like: “A talking cat accidentally eats poisoned food in Cuba” can be found at Big Huge Thesaurus’s story plot generator. They boast “Over 5.1 million possible story plots!”

The Plot Generator at apolitical does much the same thing, but with genre-specific filters. What I like about this one is you can choose combinations of filters, so, for instance “cyberpunk” and “western” can get you to: “The heroes must assist a smuggler on the moon, but have to contend with war, and opposition from clones trying to build the railroad.”

And finally, Poets & Writers has its own section on writing prompts, which they put into perspective in a way I think is helpful and positive:

The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn’t normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.

This isn’t about actually trying to make “A bumbling woman steals a clown suit by finding a monster from under the bed” (courtesy of Really Random Plot-o-Tron) into the next runaway international best-seller, but then . . . who’s to say? It’s not so much the idea as it is the execution.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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