Writer's Digest, February 1931
By Alfred I. Took
Many beginners sell their first story because of the unique situation they introduce or the unusual twist they give to an ordinary situation. Therefore, if you would sell, be unusual.
Thousands of stories have been written about a man breaking out of jail; consequently, that situation is commonplace. But have a man break into jail, and that is decidedly unusual. Nearly every crook you ever read about took care to leave no clues behind. That's very ordinary. But let's create a crook who believes in leaving plenty of clues and we have an unusual situation. I started a very profitable connection with one of the best magazines in the country with a story that commenced: "'The trouble with us crooks is that we don't leave enough clues,' remarked Smoky Biggs."
A burglar breaks into a house, opens a safe, and steals something. That's very trite. But have him fill the safe with money he brought with him and that's a story the editor will look at twice. Or a colonel "bawls out" a private. How boring! But have your private bawl out the colonel and you ought to produce sufficient fireworks to make a sparkling story.
A rich man makes a will leaving fortunes to those he loves. He dies. They get the money. That may be news, but it's not a story the fiction magazines will buy unless it is handled in a masterly manner by a great writer. A penniless man makes a will leaving fortunes to those he hates. Ha! That's different. Of course, they believe him rich. On his death bed, he reads the will to them. They are highly elated. Then he tells them he is penniless and chuckles at the joke he has played on them. Suddenly comes a telegram saying he has just been left a huge fortune. A quick-witted relative snatches the will from the old man's hand and runs off with it. Before the old curmudgeon can make a new will, he dies, with a full realization that his joke has backfired. Well, that one brought two cents a word first time I sent it out.
Men kill whales, and whales kill men. That's very ordinary. But have your whale save a ship and its crew, and then have the crew, full of gratitude, save the life of the whale. That is unusual—so much so that I gained entry to the pages of the Saturday Evening Post with it.
Recipe: Take any usual situation, reverse it, devise a twist to make it logical, then go ahead and write your story. If it is unusual enough, the editors will probably overlook any minor faults it may have and buy it.