I've been thinking of putting together this list for awhile, not only so it serves as a helpful tool for me when I'm grasping at straws for ideas, but also for any other writers out there who are looking for a challenge or for a way to mix things up in the storytelling realm. There are many things I love about my job as an author, but I think one of my favorites is doing my own twist on well-established yarns. It's much the same way a chef feels when he or she comes up with a new spin on quiche or cassoulet or barbecue sauce. No, your story (or your dish) won't be the first of its kind, but it could be a whole new twist that gives that genre or concept a fresh face.
From the whodunnits to space operas to romances and classic Greek tragedies, stories have taken many forms over the millennia, but they've also taken on certain formulas and traditions that have been repeated time and again. This bothers some people, but to me they're all fish in the giant sea of the collective unconscious. It's particularly fun, I think, to experiment with some of these in the short form. Nearly every short story I have written has been an attempt to express myself in one of the themes or story types I'm about to list below. Maybe you can add to this list. Maybe you can come up with some story ideas of your own based on these concepts. Either way, I advise everyone reading this now to have fun and go forth and create!
1. Man vs Nature/Survival
From Robinson Crusoe to Call of the Wild to Castaway, the story of a person facing the elements has endured for a long time. Not only is it a great way to exercise your ingenuity and use of internal voice, but there is something appealing about making nature itself a character or a foe. One of the most memorable short stories in this genre is a sick short story by Stephen King called "Survivor Type," where a man stranded on a desert island goes to very...um... extreme measures to feed himself. Go all out with it. Nature is a real SOB. Don't limit yourself.
2. The Heist/Caper
I love a good bank robbery. I can't help myself. Same goes for casinos, jewels, and valuable art. It's almost sexy, the sneaking around, the devising of elaborate security systems and ways to break through them. Nobody has to get hurt in the commission of this crime, though that's not completely off-limits either. It's not just about the break-in. It's about the team, and how each of them have different abilities and weaknesses and conflicts among themselves. The balancing of internal and external factors all work together to drive up the tension. The key to a great heist is this: while the break-in should be memorable, the thieves should be even more so.
3. The Interrogation Room/Single Room
My desire to write my story "The Shiva Apparatus" was born out of the desire to set a story in a single room. A lot of authors have done this and you see it a lot in television dramas too. In the latter, it's done to conserve money by limiting the number of sets and locations. In writing, it forces an author to create a gourmet meal out of scraps. You don't have a whole lot of external factors influencing the story, so you have to really get into your character's mind and make the reader feel like they're part of something enormous.
4. The Great Escape
Maybe they're in prison and someone gets out "Shawshank" or "Escape from Alcatraz" style. Maybe your character is in a POW camp or being held for hostage by some Colombian drug cartel. Oooor maybe it's on another planet entirely and a colony of Gorpsplerchers is being imprisoned by a gang of Purglesnerps from a neighboring moon. Whatever the case, the time-honored tradition of captive characters breaking free is always a fun arena to explore, for much the same reason heists are. Whether breaking out or breaking in, there is a lot of story and conflict at your disposal for your characters. The actual escape in "Shawshank" was very much secondary to the things that happened with the characters behind the walls, which was what made it so good.
5. Time Travel
Yes, dammit. Time travel. You don't have to be a science fiction author to go there, either. Anyone read The Time Traveler's Wife? It's a device, to be sure, but there is soooo much fun you can have with it. A lot of people are intimidated and confused by the paradoxes any time travel scenario presents, but I encourage all writers to stop getting entangled so much in logic and realism and embrace the fairytale-making vehicle of wish fulfillment the ability to travel back and forth through time actually is. Thumb your nose at the standard questions. Let them work to your advantage. Confuse the shit out of readers while at the same time giving them characters and story so compelling they'll spend hours arguing with their friends about what you REALLY meant. Whether you're telling a thriller like the movie Looper or a pulpy adventure like Back to the Future or a love story like the aforementioned Time Traveler's Wife, make time your bitch. It's crazy but it's also fun, dammit.
6. Monsters/Cryptids/Creature Feature
It doesn't end with giant fire-breathing lizards, Cthulhu, or Big Foot. Or vampires and werewolves, for that matter (though there is a lot of ground still to explore there if you're inventive enough). Whether your havoc-wreaking monsters are terrorizing big cities or quietly stalking campgrounds, making a monster from the ground up, or changing the rules on an established creature, is a lot of fun. Not only do you get to theorize on its origins and explore its strengths and weaknesses, you get to devise the right sorts of heroes who can stand up to it (or be eaten by it). Even if your creature is more standard, playing with locations and time periods and mashing up different genres can make even the staid Count Dracula seem fresh. Sometimes keeping old standards alive is the challenge in itself, and I think it's good to embrace that, but one thing is for sure, as much as folks like to complain about the ubiquity of certain creatures, people love their freaks of nature. Exploit that shit.
7. Technology Run Amok
Yes, it's been done. A lot. I have two stories in my repertoire ("Aria" and "Singularity" in particular) that deal with just this sort of thing, and you could even say that a few of my other stories also dabble in the idea of science gone wrong ("Dust" and "Under the Scotch Broom"). But you know what? They're also my top-selling stories, and I think that's for a good reason. As time moves on, they become more and more plausible. Plausibility scares the shit out of people. How many iterations of the Terminator franchise will it take to convince you that our own creations coming back to bite us in the ass is a genuine fear among us humans? Go there.
8. The Renaissance Man/Woman
Not precisely in how you usually hear this term (referring to someone who is a polymath, or good at many things), but more literally. We're talking the rebirth of a character. Taking a person who truly is villainous and unsympathetic and somehow making us root for him or her in the end is a great challenge to character building. If you need a good example, watch Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. The guy is a bitter old dick, but somehow he manages to become the hero in the end. And his transition wasn't really forced either. And I think that's key. It's very easy to turn a story like this into something contrived and sappy. You don't want that. It takes a subtle hand to guide a reader or viewer along on a journey of making an unlikable person likable, but I think it all starts when you realize that ALL characters have things about them that are good and bad. Just like regular people. But it doesn't always have to end this way. Try it in reverse. The good man being reborn as a villain is very hot right now. See: Breaking Bad.
There is a lot of power in ridicule, and it isn't always funny. I put comedy in this category because the two often bridge together, but satire can be (and I think should be) scathing. It can also be heavily unfunny. Just ask George Orwell or any number of political cartoonists. Bittersweet is an artform. The genre is designed to mock the status quo and test our assumptions. It's designed for the more abstract mind. But it can also make us laugh at ourselves if we're open to it. It takes a pretty deft wit and a sizable amount of genius and bravery to pull off a satire or a comedy, or to make people laugh. Whether this is the avenue you choose or if you decide to go with something closer to regular comedy, dark comedy, or slapstick, exercising the cleverness muscle is never a bad thing. We all need to take ourselves a little less seriously now and then. Or sometimes, we need that humor filter to make us feel a little less crazy.
10. The Large-Scale Rebellion/David & Goliath
I suppose you could say a lot of the ideas I've listed already have this thread of rebellion running through them. Stealing, escaping, messing willy-nilly with space and time all seem to run against the status quo. Why not add a good old-fashioned war or uprising to the mix? I'm a rebel at heart, I guess. There are countless stories about groups, big or small, running big odds against a seemingly insurmountable foe. My novel coming out soon, The Last Supper, deals with this on a few different levels, and that book was at least somewhat inspired by Robert Heinlein's book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which details the way in which a Lunar penal colony moves to assert its independence from Earth. They quite literally have the whole world against them, and yet... watching how they ultimately prevail is very exciting. But you don't have to do it on a large scale. There are normal everyday people fighting against large and powerful corporations. Kids vs big bullies. Teenagers fighting a small city council for the right to DANCE! Er... We come to these stories time and time again because I think they most mirror life, or how we want to see it. We like triumph. Our culture seems to value the little guy standing up to the big one. It's how this country was founded, after all, but we're not the only ones.
Do you have any other story formulas or concepts you'd like to add to the list? Feel free to add them here, or discuss how you've tackled the ones already listed. What's your favorite?