Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Triggers: A Writer's Tool for Story Ideas

Stonecoast MFA at USM
Since graduating from Stonecoast, I’ve had the privilege of being in a wonderful and supportive critique group. Our members have changed over the years, but we have a core group and are always welcoming old members back. One of the great things about this group is our monthly Skype chat. If you’ve had any contact with writers, at conventions or workshops or wherever, you know the experience of bouncing ideas off people, that exciting flow and exchange when everyone is adding something of creative value. That’s one of the great things about these talks. The other is when you feel like giving up, or are in that dreadful place where writing is your most hated and loved thing, you have others who sympathize and can talk you off the edge.

Anyway, last Skype one of our members, Alison McMahan, mentioned that she was taking an online class taught by Dean Wesley Smith. From him she had learned about story “triggers.” Triggers are basically anything in a newspaper article, television, documentaries, or events in everyday life that spark a set of questions that might lead to a creative idea.
Alison McMahan

Triggers Aren’t Story Ideas

"sometimes we might be driving along, or in the shower, and a story idea will come to us, complete with a character, a beginning, middle, and end. Most often it doesn't work like that. Often we get part of an idea, or we use a trick to give us part of an idea. Then we take that idea and develop it." Alison McMahan

So triggers aren’t specifically an idea for a story, but questions sparked by an event or story that could one day lead you to a story idea. Triggers are the source of nourishment for writers.

"Sometimes triggers just come out of daily life. For example people watching on a plane or in an airport is a great place to find a triggers for a character: a way of dressing, of walking, of talking, a gesture. Stuff jumps out at me from news stories. Stuff jumps out at me from TV." Alison McMahan

We all know writers can’t stop asking, What if. They’re people who want to know backstory and who have a tendency to want to fill in the blanks or who mull over questions related to events. Like, “I wonder what that guy had for breakfast before he was shot through the window of his kitchen.” Knowing this about writers, and myself in particular, this trigger idea was and wasn’t new to me. I was aware that ideas for stories can come from all different places, but I had never disciplined myself enough to begin to actively search, create, and take note of triggers. Alison’s suggestion changed all that.

Write Down Your Triggers in a Notebook

"You can do tricks like open the dictionary three different places and let your finger fall on three random words. Then build a story around those three words. The words don't have to appear in the story, they can just be the starting off point." Alison McMahan

Training your mind not just to latch onto fully-grown ideas and wheedle the details out of them, but to recognize a circumstance in which a trigger has presented itself or create that situation is key. For example, years ago my kids had a book about castles. The book dissected castles and showed how things worked. In one colorfully drawn image, it clearly showed a man climbing up the plumbing
system of the castle—basically a stone poop shoot. The book noted that often these sieging men would be unable to move forward or back because of the tight space. They would become lodged inside these openings and die. When I thought of the man in that space, stuck in there, thirsty, starving, while people defecated over him, I felt horror. I couldn’t let it go. Now the man caught in that opening is mentally scarring, but it isn’t a story. It is a trigger. The questions that arise from this detail or that may arise are what could lead to a story.

When I became more cognizant of triggers, I searched for one, and remembered looking at the castle picture book—not sure how I thought that was appropriate reading material for my kids. I never would've considered that a place where a story idea could be teased from. But knowing of this exercise, I allowed my mind the freedom to roam all over the horrible and compelling details, to hopefully find a story.

Triggers Don’t Guarantee a Story

"The point is when we are new, starting out writers, we think we need inspiration to strike, but we don't. We can keep a list of triggers and when someone call us and says, "I need a 4K word story because one of my writers dropped out and we are going to press with this anthology, and the story has to be set in New Mexico and feature petroglyphs," you collide those triggers with one or two others from your own list and sit down and start writing, outline or no outline, and see what happens." Alison McMahan

Writers often have story ideas come to them in dreams or showers and that’s great. If you’ve got a fully formed idea, run with it. But don’t assume that that is the way the best ideas will always come to you. Though triggers don’t guarantee you a story, spending time delving into the unknown details invoked by triggers isn’t a waste of time. Writing, like with any craft, requires honing skills. Recognizing triggers is a skill. Disciplining yourself to write them down is a skill. Allowing yourself to tease these ideas out, to question things, to imagine and wonder, even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to a story, is a valuable skill. The more you permit your mind to do this, the easier it will be to find your way to an
idea sparked by a trigger and to recognize when you have a really good trigger.

And that poor fellow trapped inside the castle poop shoot? Not to worry, he got out. Turns out his girlfriend had some latent magical powers--stone altering elemental stuff--that saved him from a gruesome death. Phew.


  1. This is fabulous. I have always written "triggers" down. I keep a notebook in my purse for the purpose. Beyond the Gate started with a trigger, and a single line. A scene in it was another trigger moment captured and incorporated.
    I still get my best ideas in the shower though. :)

    1. I must get myself a purse notebook! Can you share the single line trigger? I'm curious! When will BtG be available? Any cover art?