Inkpop Blog

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inktip #2: Develop a good story idea

Posted by inkpop on October 9, 2009

Same Difference author Siobhan Vivian says, ‘draw from experience’

Siobhan Vivian’s writing is fueled by what she knows best: her life experiences. Her latest book, Same Difference, about a 16-year-old girl trying to figure out who she is during a summer away from home, was inspired by the fiction author’s experience of attending a summer art program in high school. SameDifference

In the thick of penning her third book, which examines teen sexuality, friendship, and girl power via “three very different high school girlfriends,” Vivian also teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Vivian’s prior credits include writing for the Disney Channel and working as a teen fiction editor for Alloy Entertainment.

As a teenager, a short story she wrote about losing a Scrabble game against her high-school boyfriend marked Vivian’s ascent to the accomplished author that she is today. “I pushed myself to really explore my true feelings: embarrassment, competitiveness, and the fact that I thought I was smarter than him, because he went to a technical high school and didn’t plan to go to college like me,” she says of the story she submitted as part of a college writing program application. “Tapping into that emotion definitely elevated my piece — and I was accepted into my dream college!”

Every writer has to start somewhere, and so do story ideas. Vivian breaks down her tips for developing good ones:

Make the story matter

Vivian says good stories should “feel big,” and recommends that writers start by reflecting on life’s defining moments. Answering the following questions, she says, can lead to a true, honest, and engaging story:

• What changed you into the kind of person you are today?

Siobhan Vivian photo by Matthew Salacuse

Siobhan Vivian photo by Matthew Salacuse

• What hurt you more than anything?

• What would you change about yourself if you could?

Nail three critical components

Vivian believes every good story contains these elements:

  1. original characters that readers care about
  2. a problem that needs to be solved
  3. the fear that everything might not work out in the end

Get to know your characters

Think about what your characters want out of life — for instance, to be popular, to get a boyfriend or girlfriend, to find the mother who gave them up for adoption, etc. Answering this gives characters something to do in your story. “Once I’ve got that straight in my head, I imagine where I want my character to be at the end of the story: understanding that being popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; that love can’t be found … it has to happen on its own; that knowing your real parents won’t really change who you are,” she says. Once she’s accomplished those feats, Vivian writes out a bridge that links the two ideas together.

Get to the point

Write a general synopsis of your story in a sentence or two. “It’s about a boy who wants to get a prom date. It’s about a girl who wants to stop her dad from getting remarried. It’s about friends who fight over a boy,” Vivian says. “If you can explain a story in that kind of simple language, there’s a very good chance that you won’t get too terribly stuck in the middle with no idea what should happen next.”

Assemble a “test audience”

Vivian shares story ideas with creative, communicative friends — the ones she considers to be good storytellers. “Find the friends who are good at gossiping, who like to write you long notes during Physics, or who send you a million text messages a day,” she says. “Those are the friends who will likely be able to help you brainstorm ideas.”

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