Pros: Will get you thinking; nifty “story starters”; decent “how to write a story” guide
Cons: Lacks context in places; babbles a bit; some starters seem a bit hackneyed
Rating: 3 (4 for just the starters) out of 5
First published 1/12/2005
I admit it, I have a fondness for writers’ books with “prompts” and exercises and similar gimmicks. They’re fun. It’s an enjoyable way to get yourself going when you’re sleepy or feeling uninspired. Writing from such prompts can teach you valuable things about being able to write when you want, where you want, and how you want.
Given that, it’s surprising to me that I didn’t like Lou Willett Stanek’s “Story Starters” more than I did. The book cover declares it to contain “hundreds of ‘what-ifs’ to get you off and running,” and that’s just my kind of thing! So what kept this book from being wonderful?
First, I should explain that the book isn’t just a book of story starters. Really it’s a book on how to write stories, with a bunch of story starters finishing off each chapter (and plenty of suggestions worked into the material). The topics covered range from developing your character to stock characters and archetypes, conflict to using current events to inspire your stories, naming your character to using animals as minor characters, and more. Some of the material gets approached from the point of view of how you can use it to inspire ideas for stories (which fits the theme of the book perfectly), while other bits seem like they’re meant to be part of a more generic book on writing. But that leads me to my next point…
Babbling and lack of context
I found that in places, particularly the chapters that seemed more generic and less particularly appropriate to the topic at hand, the writing babbled and wandered a bit. There seemed to be a distinct lack of context for some things. The author threw out references all over the place without explanation, and although they all referred to well-known works, not all of her readers will have read all of those well-known works (or remember the details necessary to make heads or tails of what she’s trying to say).
Sometimes this book made perfect sense to me and was a joy to read; at others I felt rather lost and confused. Occasionally I felt like I was reading one book that had bits of another book woven into it, or a book that the author had just kind of plopped down onto paper in a semi-stream-of-consciousness manner, without necessarily going back to make sure everything fit in its proper place.
Now, I do have to note that in one way this almost makes sense for the book. Part of what you’re trying to do here is “loosen up” your thinking, encouraging yourself to make interesting new mental connections and leaps. This is how you spark your creativity and get that flow of ideas going. The writing does, in part, give a sense of that process. However, I think it does get carried a little too far, occasionally resulting in confusion rather than creativity.
The Story Starters
For the most part I really like the story starters themselves. Dr. Stanek provides a goodly number of them at the end of each chapter, and I’m sure that somewhere in there you could find something to inspire you. She also includes plenty of throw-away ideas within the text itself. Some of the starters are wild and crazy, which nicely fits into the idea of loose associations and flights of creativity. Others are more normal. Some seem rather hackneyed, but then I suppose most of the originality of a story comes from the trappings you dress it up in, so you could make the argument that even this makes a point about how you need to approach your ideas.
All in all I think this book serves as a good source of prompts. The story-writing material is a little less amazing, but since that isn’t the focus of the book I see it as being a little less important. If you’re buying the book just for the story starters and can buy it at an appropriate price for that, consider my rating to be a 4; otherwise, on the whole I’d give it a 3.