A lot of people who sit down to write a story are worried they don’t have any ideas. They think people who do have ideas are very special, or different in some way to people who don’t. It’s for this reason that authors are so often asked where they get their ideas from. The people asking think that the author will reveal the magical secret of their genius. But actually anybody can write good stories if they learn that there is nothing special about ideas. It’s the way the idea is organized that matters. 

Sense Memory

Everybody has a million stories already inside them. To pick one out, all you need to do is remember something. Memory is a natural story-telling device. It is our personal history. But a good story-teller knows that a reader pays attention to detail, particularly to the concrete detail delivered through our senses. A dog is just a dog. A dog with a white muzzle and a limp, holding something in her mouth, is a different matter. That dog is already wandering around your mind, becoming a story.

Warm up exercise

5 Minutes

If you would like to give it a try, think back to when you were very small. Perhaps you are six or seven years old, maybe a little older, whatever works. Now choose one memory for each of your five senses: something that you remember seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting. For example, I can remember the taste of the toothpaste in my grandmother’s bathroom when I was little. It was pink and extremely powerful. 

Don’t worry about making the sentences pretty, just write down a few words for each memory and leave it at that. You should have all five memories written down in about five minutes. 

Main Exercise

20 Minutes

Now choose one of your sense memories and tell the story around it. Use the first person, present tense to give your reader the feeling that they are right there with you. Try as hard as you can to use only sensory detail. Your story will come from one sense memory, but when you write about it you can use all your senses, or just two or three. But avoid abstract description. If you keep it simple, honest, and give yourself just a moment to think about where you’re going to start and where you’re going to end, you will have written a story worth reading.  

For example, my story about my grandmother’s toothpaste will start with me watching her brushing her teeth in the morning, then putting up her hair and applying makeup, before going downstairs to make breakfast. When she’s gone, I try some of the toothpaste myself and it is so strong it makes my eyes water. I have never tasted anything so powerful. I think what sort of a woman my grandmother must be to brush her teeth with stuff like that, twice a day, like it’s nothing! And when I go downstairs to eat my boiled egg, I am still thinking about it. I keep this secret knowledge to myself as I watch her crunch her toast and sip her coffee until she asks me if she has grown whiskers.

That’s enough for a very short story. It’s also the beginning of a much longer one.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English MD/PhD admissions GRE GMAT LSAT chemistry writing strategy math physics ACT biology language learning test anxiety graduate admissions law school admissions MBA admissions interview prep homework help creative writing AP exams MD study schedules summer activities history personal statements academic advice career advice premed philosophy secondary applications Common Application computer science organic chemistry ESL PSAT economics grammar test prep admissions coaching law statistics & probability supplements psychology SSAT covid-19 legal studies 1L CARS logic games reading comprehension Spanish USMLE calculus dental admissions parents research Latin engineering verbal reasoning DAT excel mathematics political science French Linguistics Tutoring Approaches chinese DO MBA coursework Social Advocacy academic integrity case coaching classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics medical school skills IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs PhD admissions algebra astrophysics athletics biochemistry business business skills careers data science letters of recommendation mental health mentorship quantitative reasoning social sciences software engineering trigonometry work and activities 2L 3L Academic Interest Anki EMT English literature FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Italian Pythagorean Theorem STEM Sentence Correction Zoom algorithms amino acids analysis essay architecture argumentative writing art history artificial intelligence cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem chemical engineering chromatography climate change clinical experience cold emails community service constitutional law curriculum dental school distance learning enrichment european history finance first generation student fun facts functions gap year harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern international students internships investing investment banking logic mandarin chinese mba meiosis mitosis music music theory neurology operating systems phrase structure rules plagiarism poetry pre-dental presentations proofs pseudocode school selection simple linear regression sociology software study abroad teaching tech industry transfer typology units virtual interviews writing circles