11 Stories You Can Start Telling by Dinnertime

NOTE: This post first appeared on The Self-Publishing Podcast two months before Fiction Unboxed. It, and the rest of this week’s first-thing-in-the-morning-posts to follow are a great refresher. Enjoy!

Writing-a-LotYou should probably be writing more.

Chances are, you think the same thing. You want to write, but making excuses is easy. Make enough and you have yourself a habit. Habits are hard to break, and new ones harder to form.

We want to help you get rid of excuses, build better habits, and get more words on the page.

The three of us get a lot of that done on the podcast, but as you already know we’re all over the place. That works for our chatty informal environment. Here, we can still be focused.

We want to start out with something that should make it easy to assemble the stories that are already waiting in your head. Most writers want to be original. Many are afraid of repeating themselves or what others have done. This is as silly as thinking that all songs have been written because there are only so many chords.

The same stories have been told on repeat through history. Nineteenth century French writer Georges Polti argued that the world’s stories could be reduced to 36 master plots, or dramatic situations. And yet writers categorize plots like spices on a shelf because they are forever searching for the ultimate list.

Some claim there is one master story, others argue that plots hatch in the thousands.

The story you want to tell has most likely been told. Your characters, themes and settings will change that story’s DNA. About 99 percent of our genes have counterparts in mice. We have about 30,000 genes, but only 300 or so are different. We both have genes for a tail.

Maybe cooking is better. I love competitive cooking shows — they’re age appropriate for my children and fun to watch. My daughter, Haley, is really into cooking (and quickly learning her mother’s gift). We all like seeing how each contestant uses an identical set of ingredients to make something unique.

Like cooking, telling well told stories requires fluid distribution and the handling of many ingredients. And like cooking, there’s no one right way to do it.

Your first few attempts (especially when cooking with ingredients you’ve never used) won’t be great. The more adventurous you are, the more likely you will be to make something awful.

Keep cooking, shepherd attention to what works and what doesn’t, and eventually you’ll get most things right. Hopefully, you made something delicious before becoming reluctant to experiment. If your confidence gets the shakes early on, it can be increasingly difficult to recover.

And so it goes for many writers.

Learn to cook from basic recipes, and you’ll learn much faster. Know which tastes, spices and textures blend best, how colors can play on the plate, and observe the polite swallow as it transforms into a satisfied smile.

Master the basics, your own recipes can follow. 

Start with master plots to tell tasty stories fast. Don’t be afraid of repetition. The plot starters below are proteins and vegetables. Make whatever you’d like.

You have 11 choices. Start one by dinnertime.

1. The Monster Defeated

Monster-DefeatedA monster threatens to destroy the world. A fire-breathing dragon descends on a medieval village. A killer shark spreads panic at a posh island resort. A nuclear terrorist plots to destroy New York. Terror descends. No one knows what to do.

The hero — a knight in shining armor, a beach-bum lifeguard, or an international spy — dashes onto the scene. Through the courage of his convictions, or perhaps darker ulterior motives, the hero faces the monster and eventually finds victory at the brink of defeat. Life is restored, people celebrate, and the hero receives his reward.

I’ve had monsters in my life, so have you. Every genre has monsters: the friend who stabs you in the back, the relative who undermines your every move, the serial killer who lives two streets over. Monster stories tap into our primal fears, and when well done, encourage the reader to ask themselves excellent questions.

Ask yourself what scares you most, then write about that.

Decide on a monster and a hero. Your monster can have claws, or manicured nails, but know who they are so you can easily describe them. Understand why your monster wants to destroy the world, harm a child, or rob the innocent. Determine his weaknesses, and your hero’s motives for defeating the monster.

How (Dark Horror and Sci-Fi) Collective Inkwell Might Tell This Story
A stranger has moved into a quiet cul-de-sac where the Nelsons have lived for three generations. After a neighborhood child goes missing, Lincoln Nelson investigates the stranger’s background, and soon finds himself staring into the eyes of an evil he never imagined.

How (Children’s Author) Guy Incognito Might Tell This Story
Dylan Smith is certain that his neighbor is actually a monster. Reggie Jameson bet him $62 and his copy of NBA2K that Dylan couldn’t prove it. Dylan does, but also finds out that the monster has been multiplying itself behind closed doors. Now his copies are coming out faster. If Dylan doesn’t act fast, his monster neighbor will infect the entire town.

2. The Underdog Wins

A downtrodden hero goes from rags-to-riches. Everyone knows the end of this story before it even starts, so it’s always the journey that matters most. Through your hero’s talents, charm, innocence and natural beauty, her life changes from nightmare to dream come true.

Cinderella meets Prince Charming. A computer nerd college drop-out invents game-changing software and becomes a multi-billionaire. A struggling writer named Pete decides to set out on a self-publishing adventure and prove he can be a successful author without all the queries. Just as every life has monsters, everyone has spent time as an underdog. These stories help us to believe that the impossible is possible for us. Every time I watch 8-Mile I want to cheer for Rabitt when he turns the room upside down, and uses super power pentameter to leave everyone speechless. By that point in the movie we’ve seen exactly how crazy terrible his life is, and how slim his prospects actually are. When he’s spitting those final verses, his words are turning his opponent purple, and we’re right there with him.

Put your character in a situation that offers little hope, and give them an impossible goal to strive for. What are your underdog’s dreams? What abilities does she have? If you as her creator could grant her anything, what would that be? How might she escape her present (impossible) situation to see her dreams come true?

How (Genre Agnostic and Fun) Realm & Sands Might Tell This Story
Jed Barley is overworked and under-appreciated. He’s slaved for the same company for 19 miserable years. Each year he receives the same required minimum incremental increase in salary, even though HIS uncredited ideas have been fueling the company. After an anonymous manifesto about the company (and his thieving boss specifically) is linked back to him, Jed is fired. Starting over with nothing, he maneuvers his way back to the top, fires his boss, and takes control of the company that Jed’s behind the scenes work has helped to build.

Guy Incognito
Gabby is always getting bested by Teena Stupidface Tanner. Teena ALWAYS does better at EVERYTHING. Things were fine, until Teena moved to Las Orillas. Ever since then her friends seem to think she’s less interesting, teachers don’t think she’s as smart, and even her parents keep saying, “What would Teena do?” After two years of Teena Stupidface Tanner, Gabby’s become a joke. Not anymore. She’s had enough, and about to show everyone at Thomas Edison Middle School exactly what a smart girl like her can really do.

3. The Chase

Someone’s on the run. Maybe a fugitive, fleeing punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. A drug lord living on borrowed time. A conman fleeing his latest double-cross.

Stories set on the run are fun because they’re constantly moving. Readers love to fly through the pages, and appreciate those authors who make them turn fast. Chase stories have a natural rhythm that’s relatively easy to accomplish. Pursuit is constant conflict.

Plot a story of someone on the run. Where are they planning to hide? Will they slip away or end up getting caught? Who or what are they running from? And why? Add weight to your story by stacking the odds against your characters. Make the consequences of capture something your reader can feel. Make them wince with near misses. If you can write a great chase book, you’ll have likely glued your reader and stirred their appetite for more.

ChaseHow (Erotica Author) Lexi Maxxwell Might Tell This Story
Leon shouldn’t have double crossed Benny, but he did. Benny’s never let anyone live after taking advantage, and considering that Leon ran off with the man’s money and wife, he expects his death to be especially painful. Leon and Francesca are living like they’re dying, globetrotting through Benny’s ill-gotten fortune before he can catch them, staying one breath ahead of every twist, turn and hidden ambush as they run to catch their happily ever after.

Realm & Sands
For more than a century Ricardo Cuaron has been on the run from Tomas Morales. Cursed to live as a chupacabra for eternity, he must remain on the run, drifting like prey from one town to the next as his eternal predator wages endless pursuit behind him.

That last one was the simple premise for the Realm & Sands title, Chupacabra Outlaw, which we’ve since changed to Cursed (at Dave’s suggestion). That simple premise has spawned five sequels, with many more coming, and a story world that is larger and deeper than we imagined.

Recipes are simple, and you can make anything with them.

4. The Adventure

In this swashbuckling story, the hero, with a disparate group of sidekicks, makes a journey through an unknown place. The focus is on the journey, rather than the destination, and the disappointments and setbacks faced along the way. By the end of the adventure, your hero has learned more about life’s purpose, and is part of a close-knit group of companions.

Adventure stories are popular because they kick your heart and keep it beating. The Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series are terrific examples of epic adventures. Unicorn Western is an adventure (Clint and Edward are on a quest to find The Realm) as is the upcoming Unicorn Apocalypse. More than a half a million words of unicorn story once finished, all from a very simple recipe.

Write about a character setting out on a quest. What is she seeking? What is she leaving behind? How does she inspire or coerce others to go with her? Is she timid to start, and must learn to be brave? Or is she eager and naive? Be careful when you start out with a seed of adventure, you never know how quickly it can grow.

Collective Inkwell
The world has been dead for over 1,000 years. It’s taken a millennia for the few survivors on the green side of Partition (the miles of wall that split City from Forest) to multiply into a group large enough to threaten City. The only thing keeping Forest from waging war is a three-month trek across unmapped lands, lurking with dangers, shadows, and legends that can’t be true.

AdventureGuy Incognito
Tanakko needs medicine for his mother or she will die. But he can only get it by crossing the Desert of a Million Mirages at the edge of The Known Lands. Tanakko cannot gather the strongest warriors from the village, but does manage to rally the few who are willing to die. Tanakko must face his fears and brave the desert to save his mother.

5. The Princess Rescued

A beauty has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner for the villain’s nefarious ends: ransom, revenge, whatever. A reward is offered for her rescue, but all who attempt to recover the princess are thwarted — until the hero finally arrives to save her.

Your hero will succeed where all others have failed. And even though your reader will see the rescue coming, she will have been waiting for it to happen. Because many women want to be rescued, and many men want to do the rescuing, this basic recipe will remain popular through the foreseeable forever.

This classic fairytale structure works well in other contexts. Taken with Liam Neeson is an excellent example of “The Princess Rescued.” We use this device all the time at CI, and call it “children in jeopardy.”

Describe your villain, and the villain who kidnaps her. What is his motive for keeping her prisoner? Why would a hero want to save her? Is your story larger than life, with empires or planets in the balance, or is it small, like the narratives that unfold around us each day?

Collective Inkwell
On the second day of their honeymoon, Steve’s bride Madison has gone missing. She’s nowhere in the hotel, and Steve can’t remember anything after noon or so from the day before, when they were on the beach lying under the sun. Steve gets a call from a stranger, a man who assumes that Steve knows more than he does: who his wife works for, who she is, and where the “Burning Folders” can be found. The man says that Madison is dead if Steve doesn’t give him answers. Steve must save his bride, and find out who he married.

Guy Incognito
Jason and his sister have been split up for too long. When their mom and dad got a divorce, the stupid court decided it would prove it was stupid and divide the family up even more than it already was — which was so totally the stupidest thing ever. Jason lives with his mom and stepfather. Megan is with their dad and their new evil stepmother. After Jason realizes that his father’s new wife has too many secrets, he does everything he can to free his sister from her grasp.

6. The Prisoner Escapes

Now, the hero is held captive, and he’s going to escape, whatever it takes, or die trying. Whether he succeeds or fails, something (many things) will go wrong along the way.

Prison isn’t literal. School, work, a terrible marriage, crushing debt. Anything that keeps your character in concrete will work for a prison story. The Great Escape is an obvious prisoner story, but Office Space is also a prison story in its own way. Every reader has felt trapped, or has been forced to watch someone they love struggle from behind (often self-imposed) bars.

Where is your hero being held prisoner? Why does he want to escape? How might he get away? What will go wrong, and how will he overcome the setback? Write something on a prison asteroid, or something as close as your heart, but make your reader long for escape along with your characters.

Lexi Maxxwell
Sarah is trapped. She hates her life but cannot leave. Her husband no longer loves her, if he ever did, but won’t grant a divorce without making things ugly. Every day makes Sarah more miserable. She longs for love, and feels desperate for adventure, or for any kind of life. Sarah must escape her matrimonial hell without losing the secrets she wants her husband to keep.

EscapeRealm & Sands
Charlie never expected to find himself in prison, but due to a glitch (he was already overdue for release) that occurred as the world started to crumble, and no one to appeal to in the aftermath of its fall, he’s been shuffled from one prison to the next for a decade. Now he’s been permanently stuffed in a Flat — a state of the art prison facility run by The Beam. Charlie must seize his final shot and break out of the one prison no one’s ever left.

7. Betrayal and Revenge

The hero is knifed in the back by someone she trusts. Vengeance is sought. A business deal sours, a cheating lover, a backstabbing friend who snitches her darkest secret.

I’ve had people I thought of as family steal straight from my pockets, I’ve had a woman I was faithful to cheat on me. I’ve tasted the thirst for revenge. You too have probably been betrayed, and chances are, you plotted revenge, even if it never went further than that. Three out of the four Self-Publishing Podcast lines have revenge stories. CI has Monstrous, Namaste for R&S, and Lexi with Cheated.

Help your hero plot her revenge. How will she make her friend-turned-enemy regret the day she was born? How will she cover her tracks? Will she get away with it, and do you want her to? Add a twist — make your hero believe a loyal friend has betrayed her, when in fact she’s simply misread the situation. What happens when she seeks revenge? Does she discover her mistake before it’s too late? Can the friendship be salvaged?

Guy Incognito
Arnie Pritchett is the fourth generation to grow up on Canterbury and Clark, the intersection where his great grandfather first bought an acre of land and built their three-story house. A hundred years later, Morgan Haas, Las Orilla’s largest developer, has bought all the land surrounding around the Pritchett’s single acre, and squeezed the family out after Arnie’s dad agreed to trust him. Arnie must gather his friends and exact the perfect revenge on Morgan Haas, making sure the man regrets ever trying to take what wasn’t his.

Collective Inkwell
Since the death of his young daughter, Frank Grimm’s life has completely unraveled. Barely connected with his wife, he now sits in his home office, watching his neighbors live their lives. When nobody’s looking, he sometimes breaks into their homes. There’s only one house on his street he hasn’t broken into. One day he sees someone in the window of that house … watching him. Frank must find out what lies behind the closed door, avenge his daughter’s death, and make certain that the same atrocities don’t happen to anyone else.

8. The Mystery

Mysteries unearth what’s been buried, whether that means murder, a family secret, or a terrorist’s master plan. As you tell this story, your hero gradually uncovers clues without giving away the game to his reader.

Done well, mysteries are fun — puzzles for you while you’re writing, and then for the reader to come. Choose an event or action that a character might cover up, then very slowly explain to your reader how it was all done. The longer your mystery, the more twists, turns and clues you’ll require, so you might want to keep things tight in the beginning.

A mystery doesn’t have to be L.A. Confidential complicated. No joke — Lexi is working on a series now called The Slutty Detective. She thought it would be funny to write “slutty little mysteries.” She decided on a main character, gave her girl a reason for solving mysteries, and is right now leaving a neat but blurry trail of clues for her readers.

Realm & Sands
Two old friends from college, one just divorced and the other just fired, open a P.I. agency in an old, rundown strip mall because it seems like a good idea at the time. The unqualified detectives get off to a shaky start and are forced to deal with one absurdly mundane case after another, until Giovanni, the man who owns the pizza parlor next door, shows up dead and they’re simultaneously hired by a client with too many secrets of his own.

Guy Incognito
Timmy Fitz would do anything to know how Basil the friendly neighborhood greyhound ended up dead. His owner Rupert swears that his dog died of natural causes, and the neighborhood seems to be buying it. But Timmy’s not dim, and he smells something rotten. As he follows one clue to the next, and slowly discovers that Basil’s just the first dog (and domino) to fall, Timmy must uncover the truth, not just about what happened to the greyhound, but why. 

9. Forbidden Fruit

MysteryYour hero couldn’t resist temptation. She took the forbidden fruit, hoping no one would notice. But actions have consequences, and now she must face them. Maybe she’s betrayed someone she loves, or her deepest held beliefs. Either way, life will never be the same.

We’ve all longed for something. If you’re willing to let yourself go as a writer, and be honest (even if only through character) about those things you want most, there are readers out there who feel exactly like you do and will deeply connect with your perspective. The best temptation stories make the reader want to risk it all along with the hero, so that they may taste the sweet fruit, too. Harness your deepest desires to find the best temptation tale inside you.

Give your character something to long for, then give him a way to get it, along with a cost he cannot see coming (but probably should). What has he done? What have his actions cost? What has he learned about himself? What has he gained by letting temptation claim him?

Collective Inkwell
Terry has been told his entire life that no matter what, he can never open the box. It was gospel that he didn’t question. His father never opened the box, nor his father’s father before him. No one even knew what was inside. Dad said it was evil, and that was enough. It couldn’t be destroyed or hidden, it couldn’t be given away. The box had to be kept, and passed on. But Terry has no kin, and now his dad died. Seconds after his final breath, the box began to whisper. Terry can only fight its call for so long — once it starts to show him what’s inside, Terry can’t help but break the lock and lift the lid.

Lexi Maxxwell
Malcolm Sims is happy. He loves his wife and two sons, runs a successful business with his best friend, and has a life full of contentment. But for 25 years, Malcolm’s thought of Molly Pfeiffer, his high school crush. Now with his high school reunion right around the corner will Malcolm risk it all to gain the one memory he wishes he had?

10. Romance 

Two people fall in love, after a series of mishaps and misunderstandings. Everything must go wrong before it can go right. A romance is a romance when your lovers get together against all odds.

This is tug-o-war storytelling. Romances work, not just because your reader longs to see love blossom, but because these stories are filled with reversals, and our brains are wired to like them. Back and forth, back and forth, we always know approximately where the story will land, but we read because we love the volley.

Describe two characters that fall in love. Why are they made for each other? What mishaps and misunderstandings will get in their way? How can you make your reader love your characters so much that they want them together as much as you do?

RomanceLexi Maxxwell
Drew Diamond has never failed at anything, except for his three marriages, to blood sucking gold diggers. As the CEO of Diamond Ventures, Drew has more than enough to keep him busy, and is certain he’ll never repeat his old, stupid mistakes. He has a beautiful girlfriend that he treats like a toy, she’s fits easily into his neatly organized world. Addison Clark was climbing the ladder at Diamond Ventures, on her way to the top before Drew called her out and made her his own. She’s been looking for love her entire life and believes she’s finally found it. But she must make Drew believe she only cares about him, and not his money.

Realm & Sands
Amos has lived across the hall from Mrs. Bledsow for 26 years, 3 months, and two days, ever since he first smelled her in the elevator beside him and heard the birdsong of her kind voice. Like a gentleman, Amos waited for her husband to die. For 26 years, 3 months, and two days, his affections have deepened. Now Amos, blind as the day he was born, will prove his love to Mrs. Bledsow, and work to earn her heart.

11. Buried Treasure

A diamond, bars of gold, a wad of cash, locked away or buried.

Dave admits to not caring for the movie Goonies all that much. I cite this as further proof that he’s dead inside. Indiana Jones and Goonies — both awesome, as are many adventures in search of buried treasure. We all want to believe that X marks the spot, or at least that it might. A coder seeking a string of numbers, or someone following whispers in search for a messiah. Your hero must learn of the treasure, then run for the X as fast as he can.

Solo, or with a team of helpers, send your hero on his quest to unearth treasure. Describe something valuable. Lock it away, securely, in a vault or a tomb or a firewall. How might someone retrieve it? Don’t make it easy. Create as many obstacles as you can.

Realm & Sands
Tom’s best friend RJ will fall for anything — a total victim of his own optimism. When RJ buys into an online auction, bidding his savings for one of just 417 maps promising directions to The Fountain of Youth, Tom is sure that his friend has been swindled. But because of RJ’s enthusiasm and a seed inside Tom that’s desperate to believe in something, the pair set out to find The Fountain, pondering friendship, youth and eternity on their way.

Guy Incognito
Everyone in Ryan’s family swears that Dad’s map isn’t real. They say it was a gift, from they can’t remember who, from before Ryan was born. It always seemed fishy, and he thought so every time he saw the frame glinting from his father’s study. Sometimes Ryan thought the map screamed his name. One day, after he could no longer take it, Ryan shattered the glass, turned the map to the back, and saw the promise of unfathomable riches. Of course, he had to follow.

These story starters are designed to get you going, telling tales that you already know based on your experiences, quirks and the sorts of stories you enjoy yourself. They’re footprints for you to follow. Any of these prompts could bloom into a full book, or even a series. But there’s no reason you couldn’t take five to 10 minutes, jot some notes and ideas, and free write the first bit of a small story.

Let your subconscious speak. Write whatever comes to mind, without stopping to critique your writing or edit for grammar. Start writing now.

Be here tomorrow for, “How to Write Fast (Sean’s 3-Step Flow).

About Sean Platt

Sean Platt is an author entrepreneur, founder of Sterling & Stone, and co-founder of the Collective Inkwell and Realm & Sands imprints. Follow him on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


  1. I loved this post when I read it the first time, and it’s just as wonderful now. One day I’ll have to try these.

    Great starters 🙂
    And the examples are great!

  2. J'aime Wells says:

    Back when this originally posted, I read the first prompt, and thought to myself, I’d never write a monster story.

    Then I said: Self, challenge accepted. And I wrote 1K of monster-fighting comedy.


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