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Story ideas, with Tania McCartney

Riley and the Curious Koala is the third in the Riley series of picture books. Riley’s first adventure began in Beijing with Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, continued on to Hong Kong with Riley and the Dancing Lion, and his latest adventure brings him to Sydney Australia.

"Riley and the Curious Koala (cover)"

To celebrate the launch of Riley and the Curious Koala, author Tania McCartney has set off on a blog tour. You can check out the other stops on her tour if you scroll to the bottom of this post. She’s here today to talk about how to come up with good ideas for writing stories.

Over to you, Tania!

"Tania McCartney, author"

Before you start reading this article, you need to do something—and don’t skip ahead and cheat or it won’t work! Write these words down a page: setting, character, object, situation. Now, next to each word, write a two-digit number between 11 and 99. Go on, do it now. It should look something like this:

Place 17

Character 87

Object 56

Situation 44

Put it somewhere safe. Done it? Good. Okay—now let the article begin …

One of the questions I receive most when reading to school kids is this:

Where do you get your ideas from?

This is such an interesting question! Least of all because it’s such a hard one to answer. Everyone gets their story writing ideas in different ways—and many authors will tell you it’s from the everyday happenings in their life—boring but true. From opening a yoghurt pot to tripping on a rug … these are the things that inspire an active imagination. And yes, they’re also the things that inspire me.

Imagine, if you will, opening that yoghurt pot and finding something other than creamy white yoghurt inside. Perhaps it’s a pot full of centipedes. Or a tiny white rabbit. Or a strange green slime that pours out pink smoke. What kind of story could unfold from such an opening?

And what of the rug trip? Perhaps it’s an old Persian rug, tightly woven with mystical patterns. Perhaps I trip and I fall, only I don’t hit the floor, I keep going, right through the carpet into another world …

These everyday occurrences can really spill over with story ideas if you just open yourself to the possibility … and think outside the square.

But you know what—sometimes it’s hard to think outside the square when you’re young and life experience hasn’t twisted your brain into a mangled wreck of crazy thinking. There’s also those Parent and Teacher expectations—the pressure of coming up with something marvellously creative.

So I’ve come up with a little exercise that will help you create a fantastically imaginative story that will ooze out of you like taffy.

We all know the basic storyline structure—yes? Basically, there’s a beginning, middle and end. Got it? Great.

Then there’s the details. First of all—the setting or the place. Where is your story going to take place? Then we have to think about characters. Who is involved? Who are the main players? Next is a situation. What is actually going to happen in this story? It helps if we add an object that becomes the focus, along with the characters, in making a story come to life.

The other thing we need to consider is conflict. Conflict means making something troublesome or difficult for our characters. Changing things around, making them do something or work towards something. One of the easiest ways to do this—as with my Riley travelogue books—is to make them search for something.

Characters often search for something in books, even if it’s not an actual object. It’s a common recurring theme.

When a character searches for something, you can put in as many cool plot twists and problems as you like. Plot twists, problems, drama, conflict—that’s what makes a story interesting—and makes people want to read your story. Nothing worse than writing a story no one wants to read.

So—here’s a challenge for you. I want you to write a story—an adventure story where someone is searching for something. And here is how you’re going to do it.

Grab the page with words and numbers you wrote at the beginning of this article and find your numbers on the following grids—reading first down the side of the grid then across the top. For example, for my number choices (above), I will write a story with the following components:

Place 17 – haunted house

Character 87 – a tribe of eskimos

Object 56 – a forest of stalagmites

Situation 44 – having plastic surgery

"Tania McCartney Places Chart"
Place Chart: Double click on the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Character Chart"
Character Chart: Double click the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Objects Chart"
Objects Chart: Double click the image to zoom
"Tania McCartney's Chart of Situations"
Situations Chart: Double click the image to zoom

Once you have written down your four basic elements, you now need to construct a short story using these references. So, for me, I need to write about a tribe of Eskimos hunting for a forest of stalagmites in a haunted house. And plastic surgery will need to be someway involved in order for me to find those stalagmites.

Hmmm. Maybe I should leave this particular story up to you …

You have just 20 minutes to write your story. Make it fast and off-the-cuff so you don’t think about it too much. Then, if you want to—why not email it to Soup Blog (or to me for Kids Book Review!) to be published online, so we can revel in your cleverness. You can also ask your teacher to run this challenge in your classroom.

You might surprise yourself how creative you can be when writing this story. Remember to throw in conflict along the way and to resolve the story at the end … will your character(s) find what they are searching for?

I, for one, would love to see what you come up with. Use this story writing grid often to challenge that wonderful imagination you have hiding inside your head. And do let me know when your first book is published, will you not?

Tania McCartney is an author, editor, publisher, blogger, book reviewer and mango devourer who loves writing, celebrating and supporting children’s literature—and literacy. She is the author of the Riley series of travelogue picture books, as well as several published and self-published books. Tania is also an experienced magazine writer and editor, is the founder of Kids Book Review and is a Senior Editor at Australian Women Online. She lives in Canberra with a husband, two kids and a mountain of books.

Enter Tania’s colouring-in competition to win your own copy of the book!

(Entries close 30 November 2010.)

Tania’s Riley and the Curious Koala blog tour schedule:

Monday 15 November

Writing Out Loud


Monday 15 November

The Book Chook
Crafting a Book Using Photos

Monday 15 November

Handmade Canberra Blog


Tuesday 16 November

Dee Scribe

Marketing a Self-Published Book

Tuesday 16 November

Reading Upside Down


Tuesday 16 November

Australian Women Online


Wednesday 17 November

Little People Books

Reading to Little Ones

Wednesday 17 November

Miss Helen Writes


Thursday 18 November

Soup Blog [You’re here!]

Story Writing Ideas

Thursday 18 November

Bernadette Kelly’s Blog


Thursday 18 November

Posie Patchwork: The Blog


Friday 19 November

Sally Murphy’s Writing for Children Blog

Approaching Publishers

Saturday 20 November

Sue Whiting’s Blog

The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Saturday 20 November

Sheryl Gwyther’s Blog


Saturday 20 November

Kids Book Review


Sunday 21 November

Sandy Fussell’s Blog

An Interview with Riley!

Sunday 21 November

Kids Book Review


Sunday 21 November, 6pm

Tania McCartney Blog

Book Launch Party

"Riley and the Curious Koala (cover)"

3 thoughts on “Story ideas, with Tania McCartney”

  1. Oh wow, this is such a great activity! I’ve never seen it done exactly this way and I love it!

    Of course, I now have to write a story about a flying (and likely flatulent) worm who is searching the old gas works for a set of false teeth before his impending amputation.

    I think I’ll call him Chomper.

  2. Hello! I’ve been reading your site for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent job!

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