Here’s a story prompt:
A middle-aged man is sitting at a stoplight. An attractive young woman pulls alongside him.
“Is your bumper sticker for Star Trek?” she asks.
“No, Trek bicycles,” he stammers.
“That’s lame,” she says, holding up an arm bearing a tattoo with the serial numbers of the Starship Enterprise. Before he can come up with a clever reply, she speeds away…
As a writer, there are about a million different directions you could go with that story, but I didn’t come up with that prompt on my own. It’s an anecdote a friend posted on Facebook.
A lot of people have come to regard Facebook and its social media ilk as monumental time sucks – and they can be. I’ve personally lost too much time cruising Facebook when I could have been writing.
There is, however, an upside for writers hanging out on social media, even when they’re not promoting their work. When used properly, social media can be a terrific source of creative inspiration.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t think there’s any honor in warming over someone else’s reality and calling it fiction. I get mildly annoyed when people ask me if Character X in my stories is Person Y in real life.
It just doesn’t work that way, at least for me. There’s no doubt that real people and real life experiences inform my fiction writing. I don’t believe most authors pull their ideas out of thin air. We’ve all got bits and pieces of writing material floating around in our heads that hopefully we can weave together in original ways to produce bestselling books.
To get what we need to create our stories, we have to find out what’s going on in the world around us. In olden times, aspiring authors might have done this by hanging out at shopping malls or movie theaters to watch people interact with each other.
The trouble is that with the advent of Amazon and Netflix, nobody goes to shopping malls or movie theaters any more.
So what’s a good way to find out what real people are doing, thinking and feeling? Go to where they are – the Land of Political Rants and Cat Videos.
Let’s face it: Social media have helped us learn things about our friends, acquaintances and third cousins of our elementary school classmates that we would have never learned in a lifetime of normal interactions with them.
We find out that the worker across the hall is coping with the terminal illness of a relative. Or the neighbor down the street is a ballroom dancing champion. Or a childhood crush has that one awful habit that you absolutely cannot stand.
There’s a lot of great material out there. But it should be used wisely and ethically.
It’s obviously wrong to take unaltered facts and present them as fiction, particularly if they could cause embarrassment to the real people involved. But there are a lot of times when a writer can take a kernel of truth and transform it into a sumptuous ear of fire-roasted literary corn.
Take the example I used at the beginning of this post. (In case you were wondering, I did get my friend’s permission to use his story.) In reality, my friend just sat in his car, trying to think of a snappy comeback, while the pretty woman who never talks to guys his age sped away.
What could have happened next, in the wonderful world of fiction? Maybe she jumped out of her car and into his, brandishing a gun and telling him to give up his wallet and get out. Or what if he watched her car drive away, followed closely by a black van driven by a menacing-looking man, then he decided to follow them? What if her car got half a block away, then exploded? (I remember a writing seminar where one of the panelists said one of the best ways to overcome writer’s block is to “blow up a car,” so I always keep that as an option.)
The possibilities are limitless, which is the fun. You could take that one scene, which lasted no more than a few seconds, and spin it into a 100,000-word novel.
I’m not suggesting that people should get all of their story ideas from social media. You can learn a lot just by sitting on a park bench at lunch hour. Or by recapping the daily grind with your significant other.
What I am saying is that we blame social media, at least partly, for the decline in interest some people have in reading books. Why not use social media to harvest ideas that may help rekindle their interest in books again?
Not even Spock could fault that logic.
Blake Fontenay is the author of three novels. His most recent, A Three Team Town, is available for order on Amazon.
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