What If? A Writing Prompt
Every little bit adds up
Let’s start with a story about soap…
Throughout my childhood no one in my family ever threw out a sliver of bath soap. Even once the bar was used down to a paper-thin scrap, it went into a shoebox with a horde of similar slivers of Cashmere Bouquet. All of them dried, cracked, more like shards of bone. Our family had such a shoebox, we had several. My grandparents had more. I’d wager that most people in our small town had their own boxes of soap slivers.
This habit stemmed from a legend. Someone had once seen a recipe in a magazine—Family Circle, Red Book, Woman’s Day—that showed how you could mix a glycerine soap concoction, then cast all your old soaps together in a loaf pan. Once the soap conglomorate set, you could turn it out and slice the loaf into usable bars. Each of these would be a rainbow of old soap colors and scents, held together by a matrix of clear, glycerine soap. No one knew where to find the recipe, but no one wanted to toss their old soap slivers in case the recipe might surface someday.
Year after year, we collected soap slivers. It’s what people did. And no, the glycerine recipe never came to light. This isn’t the exact plan, but you can now find plenty of such soap recycling methods.1
Which brings us to writing…
The most common misbelief about writing is that an author starts with “Once upon a time…” and ends with “…happily ever after.” That you begin at the beginning and end at the end. No way is that the case. More likely you write a scene with little or no idea where it will ultimately fall in the finished piece. Movies can’t really do that, they need the whole landscape mapped out ahead of time because filming costs so much. But a writer with kids to tend or a full-time job, well, a writer can experiment on bits and pieces, testing voice and style and premise to see if they resonate with an audience.
In that way a writer is the opposite of a filmmaker. Instead of showing the final cut to a test audience and then going back to tweak the whole thing, a writer can test the individual elements up front.
For anyone with a full-time life, this is necessary. If you can identify key scenes and write them as short stories you’ll have an on-going sense of completion. You’ll have an expanding collection of stories instead of a cumbersome incomplete mess of a novel. And stories can be tested on an audience. And stories can be sold. And when you go hunting for an agent or a book publisher you can show a track record of success. Not every idea justifies a book, but it can become a short story.
With that in mind, consider that most novels contain a number of obligatory scenes: What does the character do for work? Where does a character live? How do the two romantic principals meet? What’s the Big Lie the main character maintains to be loved? Where does the problem come in? Plus any number of self-contained backstories. Each of these is a small bar of soap, but it’s progress toward making the big bar.
Even the so-called “lull” scenes can be written as stories. What does the character do when she’s not doing anything?
With that we come to the writing prompt?
What if a student—high school or college—is taking rudimentary biology. He’s given a frozen dead cat to dissect over the course of the term. It’s a lovely cat, but you know, dead. Soon into the project, our student finds a small microchip under the cat’s skin. This can be whatever you choose, but for now let’s say it’s the standard microchip implanted in a pet to help find its owner if the pet gets lost.
Now, instead of being just a frozen cat, the animal has a history, a name, a home. The student pockets the chip and must find a way to get it read. The cultural precedent is there from stories such as Sunshine Cleaning, in particular the plot thread wherein Emily Blunt’s character tracks down the estranged daughter of a woman found dead.
Eventually our student finds the owner of the cat, contacts the owner, and lies by saying the cat’s been found alive. This becomes the meet-cute. And it’s the gun, because the moment this falsehood is revealed, the story will fall to chaos.
Where would you take this story? Would the student seek out the “Burke & Hare” who are snuffing out cats in order to supply college biology courses? Or is our student a psychopath who will use this emotional leverage to manipulate the situation? How will he get the chip read? Will he stalk or stakeout the pet owner? Will he use intimate knowledge of the cat—its dental work? its scars?—to suggest he has it and needs to be paid a reward?
Or, will he try to solve the cat’s apparent murder? Was the cat left in the custody of a boyfriend when it “vanished”? You decide.
My point is that this one small dynamic can be worked out in a short story. Perhaps our student regularly finds such microchips in animals and runs an on-going scam?
People are thrown to love animals. And to love characters who love animals. And to love characters who love characters who love animals. It’s not an entire novel, but it can be a self-contained short story. It can be a sliver of soap that you sell, or that you stash away until you have a critical mass of such soaps.
The choice is yours. Where would you take this story?
The serial killer prize packages went out on Saturday. (I don’t get to write that sentence very often.)
Do this in a food processer, and you’ll get served with divorce papers. Trust me.