Story Prompts

Some people ask me how I come up with ideas for my stories. The answer is: I don’t. the ideas come to me, frequently when I’m not expecting it or looking for an idea.

I know that some writers struggle a bit more with the initial idea for a story. And even the most abundantly creative person can hit a dry spell (which has happened to me before). Some people just want to try their hand at something new – a new idea, a new genre, a new style of writing.

Enter the story prompt. A picture, a word, a phrase – all of these can prompt an idea. My intent with this post is to give a boost to a fellow writer, to get you over that hump if your creative juices have run dry. A story prompt can also be very useful if you’re new at writing, if you want to tell a story but you don’t know what to write about or where to begin.

A note: most of these story prompts have a fantasy slant, because that what I write. A prompt, though, is just that – the seed of an idea, intended to prompt you to think on it and develop it. A picture of a dragon does not have to prompt a fantasy tale, just as a picture of a happy modern couple in a sports car does not have to prompt a contemporary romance.

Here are some ideas:

The famous artist who says that his pet dragon actually does the art

A lonely basilisk

A boy and his best friend, a cloud

Demons swim in all the sacred places

It was two days before Christmas when the spaceships landed outside of town.

As the choke of midnight comes, the trees grow and the darkness begins to cry.

In that silent future after the world has ended, a child is born.

Where is this place? What happened here?

Where is this place? What happened here?

Now go write!

Advertisements

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Main Plot versus Sub-Plot

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Plot is essential for any story, and most stories feature sub-plots or side threads that run along with the main plot. This is especially true of epics, as this format is defined by its length and complexity.

There are no hard and fast rules about how many sub-plots a story should have, how long each one lasts, etc. But in general, what I have found is that the best way to handle sub-plots is to: a) make sure they relate to the main plot in some way, and b) make sure they don’t detract from the main plot.

Main Plot

When you sit down to write a story, you should have at least some idea of what your main plot is going to be. Even if you’re a pantser, and you have to write two-thirds of the book to discover your main plot, that’s okay – when it’s all over, there’s still one main plot.

The main plot of Babylon 5 is war encroaching on peace. The very first episode begins with an assassination attempt and a surprise attack. Even as the series winds down in “Objects at Rest” – the last episode before the finale – there is conflict. War is the main plot of Babylon 5’s epic story.

The main plot should be introduced fairly early on. Even in an epic story, where things can be expected to take longer to develop, the main plot should be apparent within the first few scenes. You don’t have to begin with a bang the way Babylon 5 does, but if you’re a third of the way into your tale and are still in intro mode, some revising might be in order.

Sub-Plot

Most every story has a sub-plot or a semi-related side plot. Epic fantasy – because of the length and the conventions of the genre – is a great place to explore multiple plot threads. Babylon 5, being a five-book series, after a fashion (each season was like a complete book, with the episodes as chapters), was filled with sub-plots.

Each season (or “book”) had its own plot. Season 2 – called The Coming of Shadows – focused on the approach of war, with its rumors and threats and darkening mystery. And by season 5 – The Wheel of Fire – two wars had been fought and won, yet the struggle for peace and unity proved to be a war of a different sort. All of these individual plots fall under the series’ main plot of war.

And of course, within each season’s sub-plots were smaller plots: the Mars rebellion, Byron’s telepaths, the madness of the Centauri emperor Cartagia, Dr. Franklin’s struggle with addiction, and on and on.

The key here is that all of these sub-plots are related to and are influenced by the season (or book’s) main story, and the overall series story. It is also important to note that a sub-plot – even an important one – should never completely take over the story. If you’re writing and you discover that your sub-plot is becoming the main plot, there’s nothing wrong with that as part of the writing and discovering process. Just make sure that you eventually figure out what your main plot actually is – even if it turns out to be that storyline formerly known as the sub-plot.

Side Threads

A side thread, as I call it, is smaller and less important than a sub-plot, but it’s an element that adds richness and dimension to the fantasy world of a long epic. Babylon 5’s story is rich with side threads: Garibaldi and Lennier building the old-fashioned motorcycle, Sheridan and Delenn’s multiple dinner dates and adventures with eating flarn, Rebo and Zootie’s periodic visits to the station, and so many more.

The scene involving Sheridan’s less-than-perfect attempt to cook flarn for Delenn had nothing to do with the main plot of the episode, the season, or even the entire series. The Shadow War coming to a head – the main plot of season three Point of No Return – could have been told without Delenn politely choking down Sheridan’s cooking. But that little side thread added another layer to those two characters, and provided a moment of humor in a high-tension story.

Think of side threads as a form of world-building and character development. The little things are the foundations of life – in reality and in fantasy. You can help your readers (or viewers) buy into your world and your story by adding in those little side threads.

What are some of your favorite main plots, sub-plots, or side threads in stories?

Writing as Therapy

I wrote a guest post for the amazing Ashley over on her blog Journey out of the Abyss. Her blog is different from many that I follow, as it’s about her personal journey out of a life of abuse, addiction, and mental illness. She’s a great writer and has a phenomenal story to tell, so check out other posts on her blog if you feel led to. I’m honored to have a guest spot on her blog here!

Story Ideas – Some Writing Prompts

One might consider this week’s post lazy on the part of yours truly, but you could also look at it as a chance to get creative and share.

Here are a few random pictures. Does one of them spark an idea? Bring back a memory? Take you on a flight of fancy? Please share your stories! Jot down an idea in the comments, or even put a link to your blog if one of these images prompted a story!

Let me know where your story ideas come from!

a busy street

a busy street

An old gun

An old gun

Everybody likes a good crystal skull story

Everybody likes a good crystal skull story

Music

Music

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: World-Building

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I wrote a two-part post some time ago about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi. Like any good epic, Babylon 5 has a complex fantasy world to build—so here are some more tips for building the world for fantasy.

1.       Don’t build the world all at once. Introduce information at a natural pace.

In other words, avoid an info dump. If you’re writing something long and epic, there is plenty of time to introduce important information. Even with a shorter work, no reader wants to spend pages of exposition reading a textbook entry about your amazing fantasy world.

Babylon 5 begins with a bare-bones intro to the world. The audience learns that the setting is a space station in the future. Through action and dialogue, the main characters are introduced, and the main alien races of the series all make a brief appearance. Emphasis on brief. The story—and the setting—begins in the middle of the action (see the post about how to begin an epic.)

During this five-year-long epic, the world is developed, personal back-stories are revealed, alien cultures, languages, and technologies are explored. In real life you don’t learn all about a person or a place or a new situation in thirty seconds, so don’t make your audience try to learn this way, either.

2.       The little details can enrich the world and make things more believable.

As you’re building your world at a natural pace, and putting in the big points, don’t neglect the small, easily-overlooked details.

For example, in Babylon 5 it is vastly important to the plot and the environment of the fantasy world that humans and Minbari used to be at war. This fact is introduced right away to set the tone of cultural tension and shaky peace. However, it’s the little details that are tossed in throughout the series that shape the Minbari into something much more than just “the aliens who used to be at war with Earth.”

Details add flavor, like adding spices to food. Details like Minbari beds being at a forty-five degree angle instead of flat, or a throw-away line by a supporting character about a Minbari city that is carved entirely out of crystal.

How about other world-building details? Like the detail about cities on the Drazi homeworld having streets too narrow for any vehicle to travel on. And Narns are apparently marsupials (or something similar), because they refer to their children as “pouchlings.” And the colonists on Mars have their own baseball team, which competes in a futuristic World Series.

Are any of these details vital to the overall plot (or even supporting plot threads?) No. But they add depth and character to the fantasy setting. Just like real life, the best things are often found in the minutia.

3.       Be consistent!

This is the most important thing. All of the good pacing, character development, enticing details, and general creativity falls flat if you’re not consistent.

No writer is perfect, and the longer the story, the more details there are to keep track of. Even in Babylon 5, there are a few inconsistencies—like the slight changes in some of the alien make-up during the early episodes.

But overall, the world of Babylon 5 is consistent, and that is part of what makes the story so engaging. If a character dies, they are not forgotten about two episodes later. Each alien race has a distinctive and unique look to their space ships, so the audience always knows who is who in a space battle. The Narn language is written from right to left, and every time G’Kar is seen with a pen in hand (which is frequent, since the character is a writer), he is making his notes from right to left. Even the Minbari’s slanted beds make the periodic appearance right up until the very end of the show.

What are some other world-building do’s or don’ts that you have seen in your favorite fantasy or sci-fi epic? Comments are welcome!

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Foreshadowing

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Foreshadowing can be used in any sort of story—not just epic fantasy or sci-fi. Foreshadowing means to show or suggest something in advance, to leave hints and clues for something coming later. Here are three aspects of foreshadowing that are used in Babylon 5, and that can be used in a saga or series that you may be writing, too.

1.       Foreshadowing can be subtle and easily forgotten.

In a long saga or a series, foreshadowing can be taken to an extreme—something mentioned on page three may not prove important for another 800 pages. While this can be exciting for the reader, if they catch or remember that detail, the foreshadowing can easily be lost if too much time passes.

In the first season of Babylon 5, a Centauri seeress comes to the station. She gives several prophecies, including a prediction that the space station will be destroyed in fire. When the station doesn’t blow up immediately, everyone relaxes and scoffs at her prediction. The character never appears again, her prediction is not mentioned again, and the whole thing is quickly forgotten by the audience and the characters.

Until the final episode of the series. The story of the last episode takes place twenty years later, and Babylon 5 is destroyed in fire—but not in the way that everyone expected years before when the moment was foreshadowed.

2.       Foreshadowing can be emphasized by repetition.

An example of repetitive foreshadowing is the telepathic character Lyta Alexander. Periodically during the course of the series, references are made to the fact that Lyta is a P5 telepath, meaning she ranks with just average strength and skill. This emphasis on her “average” ranking foreshadows the ending of the series, when Lyta has changed into a telepath stronger than a P12 (the highest ranking of strength and skill).

It’s important to note with this repetition technique, it still must be subtle. Characters comment on Lyta’s “average” P5 ranking only a handful of times—both before and after her powers start to change and increase. This is just enough to remind the audience that Lyta is either a) normal at the time, or b) ceasing to be normal. It serves to get the audience’s curiosity up about Lyta without making her the focal point of every episode and without beating the audience senseless with obvious clues.

3.       Foreshadowing is not the same thing as prophecy.

Destinies, prophecies, visions, and time-travel are often staples of sci-fi and fantasy. And while these story elements can be used with foreshadowing, it is not the same thing always. My first example did involve a character giving a prophetic vision; however, it served as effective foreshadowing because neither the character nor the vision appeared to be important at the time.

If the main plot of your epic fantasy is about an old wizard who tells a vision to the young farm boy and says that the gods have chosen him to be king and it’s his destiny, that’s not foreshadowing. In that example, prophecy and destiny are the plot, not a clue or hint leading to one specific element of the plot.

In Babylon 5, the storyline involving the Babylon 4 space station relied heavily on not only time-travel, but prophecy and destiny, as well. Both Captain Sheridan and Delenn are told by the alien Zathras that they have great destinies, and Commander Sinclair’s great destiny (which had been foreshadowed earlier in the series) is revealed. But that storyline is not foreshadowing, because destiny, prophecy, and time-travel is the plot.

Foreshadowing can sometimes be tricky, especially in a long tale. Hopefully these guidelines can help you if you’re wanting to utilize the technique. Read some of your favorite stories over again, paying attention to the little details that turn up later.

What are some other good stories that use foreshadowing without it being either too subtle or too obvious?

“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us; we know only that it is always born in pain.”
-G’Kar, “Z’Ha’Dum”