by Henry Lien
Unique story concepts are some of the rarest and most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. As an author, I’ve focused my career on unique concepts. For example, my Peasprout Chen series is an Asian middle grade fantasy about a boarding school that teaches a sport combining figure skating with kung fu. The New York Times described Peasprout Chen as “Hermione Granger meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets the Ice Capades meets Mean Girls.”
Below are seven exercises that I use in my own writing, as well as in courses I teach for the UCLA Extension Writers Program and Clarion West Writers Workshop, to generate original story concepts. These exercises are intended to shock your subconscious out of learned behaviors, lead you into unmapped territories of your own creativity, and help you generate story concepts that only you could have come up with.
I’d love for you to try some of these exercises on your own, preferably with a group of other writers. Spend no more than 10 minutes on each exercise.
Exercise 1 — Hybrids
Write a one- to two-line description of up to five story concepts that you have wanted to write or wrote but weren’t satisfied with/couldn’t sell. Combine two or more of these concepts until you have at least one hybrid concept.
Exercise 2 — Negation
Choose a type of story that you want to write. Come up with a concept that eliminates the primary feature of that genre. E.g., fantasy story that contains no magic, science fiction story with no advanced technology, mystery with no murder.
Exercise 3 — Dadaist Poem (best done with other writers)
Have each writer write three nouns (common or proper) on pieces of paper. Randomly trade your scraps of paper with each other. Come up with a story concept incorporating these three words.
Exercise 4 — Being Boring (best done with other writers)
Have everyone write the most boring topic they can think of on a slip of paper and place it in a hat. Have everyone randomly pick a slip from the hat and come up with the most interesting angle they can think of to treat the topic they picked.
Exercise 5 — Least Favorite Attribute
Write down on a piece of paper your least favorite thing about yourself. Introduce this into whichever of the above concepts it would wreak most havoc on.
Exercise 6 — Interrogation (best done with other writers)
Have each writer assume the identity of a main character from their story. Other writers then take turns asking the character the first question that comes to mind, lightning-round style. Reply with the first answer that comes to mind. Warning: this exercise often becomes emotionally intense very quickly. Proceed with caution.
Exercise 7 — Bad Formats
Choose one of the story concepts you have generated so far. What is the worst format through which to tell this story? E.g., Twitter feed, shopping list, legal document, query letter, voicemail message, etc. Story formats that fight with story concepts can create interesting ballast, pressure, or tension.
Join me and SCBWI-Los Angeles on Twitter on Friday, September 27, from 1 pm – 2 pm Pacific Time. I’d love to read what you come up with using the exercises, answer your questions, help you work through some of the exercises in real time, or even grill you with the dread Interrogation exercise. Let’s play!
To chat with us: log into your Twitter account anytime during our chat hour and use the hashtag #KTChat or @mention Henry (@henrylienauthor)! If you aren’t on Twitter, leave your questions in the comments below before the chat begins. Find SCBWI-LA on Twitter here: @SCBWISOCALLA
And if you’d like to learn more about writing an article for #KTChat, find info here.
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Henry Lien is an author from Taiwan, now living in Hollywood, CA. He is the author of the acclaimed Peasprout Chen middle grade fantasy series. Henry also teaches writing in the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a three-time Nebula Award finalist and won the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Instructor of the Year award. www.henrylien.com
Book cover from Macmillan. Artwork provided by author and published with permission of artists Alexandra Manukyan (first image) and Caroline Sirounian (final two images).