The birth of a story

Recently I have been writing short fiction. The first story evolved after jotting down a very strange but vivid dream I had; the second was in response to a magazine’s themed submission call. The next two stories were also written based on a one-word theme suggested by a magazine. Not that I submitted either of them; they were far too long by the time they were finished, but I suppose you either write with a word limit in the back of your mind, or you keep going until the story’s told. I then went on to write a story from a phrase that I thought would make a good title that had been trotting around in my head for years, then another from an image, a girl walking barefoot on a beach.

Looking at all my stories, a pattern emerges: they all grew out of a single idea, a snapshot image or a good line. Sometimes it is a visual image like the girl on a beach, or a small boy stuck on an escalator. Sometimes it has been an idea, the exhibition of human remains in a museum, for example.

It made me wonder what creative process was at work here, and whether other writers functioned in the same way. Do we need something to jolt the creative impulse, a mere germ of an idea that once it is set down in black and white unfolds all by itself into a whole new world? Or do we do our research as the books suggest, fix on a market, aim at an age group, target a popular trend? Can that single, vivid first line become just the first step on a journey that will cover a whole series of books?

How do you create a story? Do you get an idea that encompasses the entire arc from that first, catchy opening line, to a satisfying end? Do you start like I do with a random image or a nicely turned phrase?