Finding Ideas For Horror Stories: The ‘What If’ Strategy

Sometimes, we overthink things as writers.

It goes something like this: You run across a call for submissions in some local rag, and the deadline is just far enough out there that you know you have just enough time to put together a half-decent story.

You make the decision to go for it. Now all you need to do is come up with a good story and just write the damned thing.

Already, you have a few things working against you: the pressure of a deadline and the pressure of developing a complete story line that has a chance of pulling in a cash prize.

Then it comes: Gridlock and the negative self-speak: There isn’t enough time. That’s a stupid story idea. It’s already been done a thousand times already. You’ve never published there before; what makes you think this time is any different? You suck!

Weeks pass, as do many possible story ideas. Then, suddenly, with just days before the deadline, you get a magnificent idea and draft it out, only to bitch and moan that there isn’t enough time to shine it all up before the deadline.

Next time, you think, as you stop working on the piece and start searching for a new competition.

Or worse– you post it on your blog so that your friends can tell you how much they loved it.

The final result? No submission. No reward. No cash prize. No possibility for publication.

I always look at it this way: If, in July, I read in the paper that there is a contest at the State Fair for the best home-grown tomato (and in Maryland there are a lot of great home-grown tomatoes), I don’t start planting the seeds then and hope to have a two-pounder by the time the state fair rolls around the end of August. I need to prepare the soil, nurture the seeds, provide the right environment, and when the deadline looms to submit my best tomato, find the most healthy one in the patch that is fit to win the big prize for that particular contest.

Stop using those Call for Submissions as your motivation to write or even generate ideas. Writing any kind of creative piece on deadline for contests usually produces work that is forced, contrived, and a tad too cliche. When a Call comes out, you should be looking at the pile of drafts or revisions that are a step or two away from publication. Creating your best work takes time, and finding a draft that fits a Call and polishing it up before the deadline is hard enough. Write every day, and this won’t even be a problem.

Also, stop trying to craft the beginning, middle, and end of the story all in your head. This is where most writers get stuck. They end up frustrated that they can’t plot it out perfectly between meals or on a drive out to some burger joint, and they end up throwing away a perfectly good story seed.

Instead of thinking of how a story might play out, simply open your mind to the possibilities of “What If…?” This is a game that I play while walking or driving around, and it seems so easy that I feel like I am cheating at generating story ideas. Take any character or setting and What If the hell out of it. Here is what I noticed yesterday, and here are the notes I jotted down afterward in my journal:

Old Barn with Vines. What if the barn (converted to a cute home) was built on some kind of freak Venus Fly Trap-like plant that preyed on the residents every few years? This barn that’s on the side of the road — I notice that the ivy is growing really fast around the building and up its walls. It seems to be focused on the doors and windows, like it is sealing up any possible place for a family to escape. What if the vines do seal it like some kind of cocoon, and on the 28th day of the cycle, the ivy releases millions of small poisonous insects into the barn and feeds on the inhabitants? What if the family that is in the barn is aware of the cycle that has fed on families in the past 5 generations, and is prepared to fight back? Who wins?

Ghost Rider in Barn. What if the ghost of a horse rider resides in a barn and befriends a teen girl who uses the barn as her place of refuge? What if the ghost takes over the teen, who was once a mediocre rider at best, and becomes a leading rider in the equitation circuit throughout Maryland? What if that comes at a cost, though? What is that cost? What does the ghost want out of all of this?

Use a journal to freewrite your What Ifs and take risks with where they might lead you. For the two story seeds above, this is just the beginning of any freewriting that will happen in the next few days. These stories may pan out in a dozen different directions before the right one emerges. I just have to trust the process and let it take me where it needs to go. That doesn’t mean that the ending won’t become apparent to me along the way; it just means that I’m not forcing it to happen because of some contest deadline.

Finally, set your own deadlines, and worry about those calls for submissions later. There’s always a new one just a few weeks away. They are wonderful for motivation, but they should motivate you to polish works that you planted seeds for many months ago.



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