When I taught creative writing I would often bring my box of clippings into class. Little newspaper stories that caught my eye because of their wider potential. If you go to the old weblog and search, you’ll find some examples (probably the story about the woman who left all her money to Charles Bronson was the most memorable, if you want to look for that one).
Then the class would brainstorm ideas. Was this the beginning of a story, or the end? Who were the main characters, and which main characters were off-stage? What were the possible underlying conflicts and motivations?
Those were also the most lively class discussions, because they really engaged the imagination.
Paperback Writer put something similar on her weblog yesterday, a post about an experience she had when she was waiting in line to mail a lot of packages. It’s a short account of her interaction with an elderly farmer, and how that encounter stayed with her while she tried to come up with a context (a backstory, if you will) that would make her feel more comfortable about what had happened. She lists some of these, many of them quite inventive and excellent material for a short story or a scene in a novel.
Her post is the on-line version of what I used to do in class. I haven’t read the replies, because I want to think about the story on my own terms for a while.
But I will give you one of my clippings, to see what you make of it:
At the border between United States and Canada, an irate father slugged a customs officer who was trying to pry excess Beanie Babies from his daughter. The Economist 12/5/98
Of course the Beanie Babies date this story, but it could be updated with any currently hot toy. It’s such a short story, but it evokes a hundred questions. Was there a history between the border guard and the father? Did they go to high school together? Does the border guard simply remind the father of his ex-wife — who ran off with the pimply poetry loving clerk at Kinko’s, leaving him to care for a sullen, desperately unhappy kid? Or is the border guard the main character? What is going through his head when he sees a nine year old girl clutching a bag of Beanie Babies that makes him lose it?
Maybe (just consider this possibility) he just got a package from his own father, a farmer in Florida. A package that breaks about a dozen laws, because it’s filled with the only present his father has ever given him: mutant grapefruit, the size of cantelopes.