How to develop imaginative short story ideas from a saying

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Below is the first part of the sayings chapter from my book How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas



In this chapter, we are going to think of a saying as a means of both inspiration and guidance for developing our short story ideas. To this end, we will analyse a saying and then follow it with a story plan based on an idea we worked out of the analysis. Next we will write a 1,000 word story. This way the reader can see the whole process at work in a single go. We will also look at some other short story ideas that this saying inspires.

To be certain the reader acquires a good understanding of how to work with appropriate sayings, we will examine two other examples and create early draft story plans out of their analysis. Anchor words are introduced in this section.


The type of saying examined here expresses universal nuanced truths or wisdom in an ironic and often witty way. The saying usually sets the reader up for an expectation in the first half that is not met in the second. Instead, we get something unexpected – an ironic twist. The effect is to jolt the reader into seeing the truth or wisdom (message or theme) of the saying from a fresh and poignant perspective that they would not otherwise have thought about in quite this way, if they had ever thought about it at all.


For our purposes, our saying will have at least some of the main storytelling elements, especially character, and also the potential for exploiting others.

Here is the saying:

On passing a graveyard, I am always reminded of one of life’s great tragedies: headstones are full of dull facts and second rate poetry.

Character here is in the first person, which is promising. This first person POV (point of view) challenges convention by making a witty and unusual attack on a single but important aspect surrounding the tradition of respecting and remembering the dead. So he has grabbed our attention.

At first glance, there seems to be no conflict potential. And yet, the character’s perspective and opinion is at great odds with the convention he is criticizing. Therefore, the potential for conflict is huge. For example, supposing he expressed his opinion out loud at a sensitive moment, like during a burial?

Let’s look at irony, wit and the twist together. In the first clause, we are being set up to think that the second clause will deliver something big and meaningful about our mortal existence: On passing a graveyard, I am always reminded of one of life’s great tragedies. Instead, ironically, the second clause gives us something seemingly petty and irrelevant: headstones are full of dull facts and second rate poetry. Suddenly, we are thrown into a spin. The second clause is so unexpected and irreverent that it makes us laugh. However, this second clause is possibly not saying something petty at all. It certainly has a ring of truth about it. Perhaps there is yet more irony here. This sort of stuff certainly gives us thoughts for our story idea.

Does the saying have drama? Drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices. If we look at what we said about conflict, and we consider there might be moral questions involved in this conflict, and it is certainly possible that might be so, then the potential for drama is clear.

Whatever theme you may read into the saying, it obviously doesn’t have to be the same theme that emerges from the story. Here the theme revolves around the belief that death is actually treated quite lightly in so far as it concerns the writing on a headstone.

The setting doesn’t have to be in a graveyard. But it’s an obvious choice here.


The saying can act simply as a source of inspiration for imaginative, insightful and credible ideas. We don’t have to stick closely to our analysis for our story’s plan; we don’t have to be guided strongly by it. If it prompts something very different and preferable for us, then we should go for it.

But here we are sticking closely to our analysis for our story’s plan. Our story will revolve around headstones, or more precisely, what is written on them, and the reaction of one character to them. As much as possible, we will keep faithful to the actual saying, though due to its extreme pithiness we obviously have to develop elements like plot and storyline from scratch.


A new couple are visiting her grandma’s grave. He’s a poet (story from his POV, third person). He empathizes with her story regarding her grandma’s last months. Her story is touching and poignant, revealing good and enduring memories of her grandmother.

Inciting incident (kicks the plot into gear)

When he reads her grandma’s headstone, something alarms him. He reads a neighbouring headstone, and his alarm increases.

Middle part (rising tension; suspense begins here, too)

She sees him upset. Talk about her grandmother as well as being in the cemetery have brought back sad memories for him, she says. He denies this, wants her to stop focusing on him. He asks her to continue telling him about her grandmother.

Middle part (tension rising higher)

Finally, they start to retrace their steps. Sometimes they stop and she reads out loud from the headstones. This really causes him discomfort. She’s aware of his discomfort and wants him to confide in her. She feels it’s related to a past tragedy of his. But he doesn’t want to tell her the truth of what’s causing his discomfort. It’s her time, her moment, her visit to her grandmother’s grave, and he feels she’d find him shallow or trying to be too clever if he told her the truth. But he feels pressured into saying something; so to explain his discomfort he spins a tale about an old flame dying tragically young.

Middle part: high point and darkest moment (tension higher still)

She accepts this lie, though he knows she really thinks his discomfort is evidence he’s not over his old flame. The lie makes him feel bad, but at least she’s off his back about the true root of his discomfort. Or so he thinks. Soon she reminds him of something he told her that seems to contradict part of his lie. Caught in the headlights, he has a moment of panic. But he keeps his cool and manages to bluff it out.

Climax and resolution

Outside the cemetery, the reader finds out what’s really on his mind. Her grandmother’s story was beautiful. Why wasn’t it on the grave showing the sort of woman she was? Why not the same sort of thing on the other headstones, too? Imagine that! An individual story on every headstone, keeping poignantly alive the memory of those buried beneath. Instead, all these dead souls are condemned to an eternity of dull facts and second rate poetry by their headstones. As a poet, it broke his heart to see it.


To read the rest of this chapter and the other chapters in How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas by Jerry Dunne, purchase the book at any of the online stores below.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

About jerrydunne

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1 Response to How to develop imaginative short story ideas from a saying

  1. Thanks Jerry, you are such a good teacher. I’m planning a story for NaNowriMo, a mystical thriller, and I was having trouble with the premise. After I read your post it came to me in 48 pt. script, loud and clear; “No good deed goes unpunished.” It fits perfectly. I think they could use you here at Notre Dame, Professor Dunne,

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