Old-fashioned fuzzy dice hanging from car mirror.

Worth a Thousand Words: Using Pictures to Inspire Fiction

I’m primarily a novel writer. I don’t really write short

But, Lin, didn’t you just put out a book of short stories?

…All right, I’ll rephrase that.

For me, the process of writing short stories is much harder
than the same for novel-length fiction, largely because I have no sense of
self-restraint when it comes to a draft. If I’m writing something interesting,
I want to keep going with the story, with the worldbuilding, with the
characters, and obviously that’s far easier to get away with in something that
goes past the 5,000- to 7,000-word mark. And when I hit a wall in a novel, I
can just change scenes, or switch character POVs. That’s not as much of an
option with short fiction.

So I’m always on the lookout for any trick or technique that
will help me build a cohesive short story draft with an actual beginning,
middle, and end.

Right now, the technique that’s working for me is using Story Cubes. All these dice with little pictures on them? Those are Story Cubes.

A number of dice rolled out on a table, showing pictures instead of the traditional numbers.

Technically, Story Cubes is meant to be played as a game. I’ve never used them that way, myself. I bought them to use for what I’m doing here: as ways to randomly generate elements of short fiction. There are many different themed sets, like Fantasy, Science Fiction, Medical, and Prehistoric.

It’s very simple: I pop all the dice into a bag, pick five dice at random, roll them, and write down what pictures I get.

Five Story Cube dice in a row, showing an eye, a piece of paper being lit by a match, an ambulance, someone giving or receiving a gift, and a stick being broken.
  • Eye
  • Lighting something on fire
  • Ambulance
  • Giving/receiving a gift
  • Breaking something

Then I sit down and write a rough draft of a short story
that incorporates all of these elements. You can read what
I made out of the above for free at my Patreon, if you’re interested.

It’s by no means finished, but it’s a whole draft of something and that’s what counts!

If you’re not able to purchase Story Cubes but you still
want some way of randomly generating a series of story elements, another great
tool is the “Random File” function at Wikimedia Commons.

The Commons is where all the images and sound files used on
Wikipedia are stored. Clicking “Random File” in the left-hand menu will…do
exactly what it says on the tin: it will take you to a random media file. It
might be a photo of an elephant, a baroque painting, a sound file of Winston
Churchill—the possibilities are nearly endless.

Here’s what I got for my five files:

I know, it looks like a mess of word salad, but don’t panic
just yet. Go ahead and simplify these down to the very generalized objects,
people, or places that the images represent, like the pictures on the Story Cubes.

  • Clouds
  • A bus
  • Baseball
  • Race cars
  • A bird

You can add details or signifiers back in (storm clouds, a tour bus, a black bird, etc.) but the important thing is to whittle your elements down to the barest essentials. Once you start building your story, you can layer details back in. There’s a story in everything, if you know how to look for it and work with it. Good luck!

Did you try Story Cubes and get something interesting out of it? Do you have any tricks for how to generate random story ideas? Let us know on our forum!

The Important Bits: Dreams and Writing

I have two burningly vivid memories of my
college writing professor. One is his insistence on making his students repeat
the same lesson on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” every single
semester. The other is when he called bullshit on Toni Morrison.

Specifically, he was calling into
question her assertion that one of her novels (probably Sula, which was the only
Toni Morrison novel I ever got to read in school) had “come to her in a dream.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume
that this is an actual thing that Toni Morrison said. In which case, yeah, it
is a certain level of ridiculous. Entire novels do not simply fall from one’s
subconscious fully formed and without any input from the author.

But that’s not to say that you can’t
dream up a story. Just not in the way that’s presented here.

Let’s take another example: Robert Louis
Stevenson is reputed to have written The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
after receiving the idea in a fever
dream, but what’s not often included in that story is that all of the elements
of the story had been in Stevenson’s brain for years. The tale of Deacon
Brodie, Edinburgh cabinetmaker by day and burglar by night, was one that Stevenson
had grown up with. He was educated alongside Joseph Bell, the doctor who
inspired Sherlock Holmes, and sat in the court galleries while an acquaintance
of his, a French man by the name of Eugene Marie Chantrelle, was convicted of
the brutal murder of his wife, having fooled everyone into thinking he was a
respectable family man.

So I do firmly believe that Jekyll & Hyde could have come to
Stevenson in a dream. But the story wasn’t created out of thin air. It was all
already there, in Stevenson’s head. He just needed his subconscious to turn it
into an unpredictable mélange before he could write the story he wanted to

The most tired writing advice of all time
is “Write what you know.” I would like to propose a modification to that. Rather,
“Writer, know thyself.”

There’s value in writers listening to
their subconscious and mining those bizarre jumbled-up ideas for all they’re
worth. The first short story I ever wrote came from a dream. (I may even be
working on a short story collection right now that was largely inspired by
dreams.) I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, which was, um…A while ago. And
one morning I woke up from a dream about a walled garden hidden behind a bunch
of ivy and went, "Huh. That was kinda…cool. And like, story-ish." So
I made a story out of it.

That dream gave me a complete, if simple,

  • Girl meets Guy
  • Guy tries to convince
    Girl to magically stay with him for eternity
  • Girl turns Guy down

It’s not much, but it was made up of
things that were important to a lonely, dreamy, melodramatic preteen who read a
lot of fairy tales and had memorized a huge chunk of The Secret Garden.

And that’s the critical thing: the
recognition of what aspects of the writer’s life created that particular dream
in the first place.

The story isn’t going to come to you all
in one complete lump. Honestly, if it did, dreams being the slippery bastards that
they are, you’d be lucky to remember half of it long enough to wake up, grope
for your phone or bedside notebook, and start sleepily scribbling and/or
typing. But it doesn’t have to come
to you as a complete narrative.

The things that matter are what I’m told
board game designers call “bits.” The bits are the parts of the game that make
the game fun to play.

Stories—narratives with plots and
characters, and events that propel those plots and characters forward—are
easier to come by than the bits that make the story fun to read. And I have found that the best way to do that, and
make the story resonate with the reader, is to make it resonate with the author
during the writing process.

You don’t necessarily have to pour your
soul into your fiction, but you absolutely do have to put something of yourself
into the story to make it resonate with you, and dreams, which have an
unnerving way of rummaging around in our darkest thoughts and most private and
closely held hopes and then running those bits through a blender, can sometimes
provide the best way of finding that resonance.