In the past two weeks, I’ve spent every spare moment judging the hundreds of entries submitted for the Summer 2008 24-Hour Short Story Contest. In case you’re not familiar with our quarterly contest, this is how it works. On the date of the contest, at start-time, we send out the topic for that specific contest to all registered entrants. We also post it online. Entrants have 24 hours to write and submit their stories. The stories “must deal with the topic in some way to qualify” and they must not exceed the pre-assigned word count.
It’s obvious, after reading the entries for each contest, how difficult it is to come up with a unique plot when working with an assigned topic.
Here was the topic for the Summer ’08 contest:
The bells on the door were still echoing as she stepped further into the old toy store. The owner winked at her and turned back to his black and white television set. She reached under the rack on the back wall and pulled it out. It was just where she’d left it last week. She approached the counter and put the item down.
He turned to her, grabbed the item with surprise, and said, “This is NOT for sale…”
Take a moment to consider where you would take that story…
I printed all the entries (several hundred single-spaced, 8.5 x 11 pages) and, while I’m not quite finished with the judging yet, I’m pretty far along. While judging, I’ve been making notes about common themes that are emerging in the stories. I thought I’d share these with you today so you can see how difficult it is for some writers to come up with completely original variations of a common theme.
Here are my notes:
* Several stories have the characters Gepetto and/or Pinocchio
* Five stories so far have the owner watching I Love Lucy reruns
* Many writers thought the winking proprietor was a pervert and this occasionally led to child abuse themes
* In numerous stories, the owner and customer are long-lost relatives or friends who are reunited at the store through the sought-after toy
* A few writers said the hidden item had drugs in it; a couple had the toy store being a false front for a drug dealing operation with the “customer” being an undercover officer
* A few writers changed the toy store to a bookstore
* A handful of entrants said the elderly owner had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia and that he/she didn’t remember the customer (who was usually their adult child)
* Three had the customer being an adult child who was kidnapped when they were young…with the owner not wanting to sell an old toy that had belonged to their kidnapped child; many refused to sell the toy because it previously belonged to someone very close to them
* Many had the owner refusing to sell the toy because they’d promised it to another customer
* A few stories end with the toy store catching on fire
* Many had the customer return to steal the toy instead of purchase it
* A few stories have the proprietor pulling a gun out from behind the counter and shooting the customer
* Several writers had the story ending with the proprietor being Santa Claus
* In each contest we always have a few entries where the main character is dead (a ghost) and also a few where the main character is an animal
* And, the most common theme, by far, for this contest has the owner saying the item isn’t for sale…because they’re giving it to the customer for free (for one reason or another).
So, the lesson today is, when writing fiction, come up with several different ideas for your story…and then discard those and come up with even more original ideas. Never use the first story idea that comes to mind, or even the second or third, because somebody else is very likely thinking the very same thing you are.