Store in Crisis: Writing Prompts & Story Ideas
Everything can change in a heartbeat. The sharp reality of life is that we have very little control over it. And often, it’s the unexpected event that impacts everything after it.
Picture this. A normal Saturday. Grocery shopping at Sam’s Club. Two aisles from done, cart full, and the intercom comes on. A staticky voice says there’s an emergency and the store must be evacuated. This surprise is quickly followed by employees filtering into the lanes. “Leave your carts,” they say, pointing toward the front doors.
No alarms sound. There’s no visible threat. But a million possibilities stream through our thoughts. Gas leak. Crazy person. Bomb threat. Even in the ordered chaos of few hundred people vacating the front doors and driving from the lot as emergency vehicles streamed in offered its own worries, frustrations, and what-ifs. Our lives did not change that day… but they could have.
Later, the news reported that smoking kitchen equipment caused fire concerns. But there was no fire. Better safe than sorry, surely, and all it cost us was our groceries.
It could’ve been worse.
In fiction, the life-changing event is often the inciting incident—the thing that gets the rest of the story started.
I’m beating myself up over examples I can’t remember… Anyway, you get the idea. If you can think of more, please share them below. It’d be fun to create a real list.
And what about, specifically, stores or businesses that feature into the crisis?
We happened to be at Sam’s Club that day. That got me thinking about both reasons to evacuate and what if we couldn’t? Our regular ol’ shopping trip could’ve turned into a…
Robbery, assault, store shooting, or domestic situation turned deadly, public encounter. There have been many domestics-turned-deadly at Walmarts.
A quarantine situation like in Stephen King’s The Mist (God, I hated that one!), and strangers are stuck together until it’s safe to go outside. Or a toxin’s been released inside, and the government is keeping the infected trapped. Or the store's mannequins come to life and lock the humans in... Was that an episode of Doctor Who?
A fire, earthquake, or tornado. I remember a tornado splitting a Walmart in half in Colonial Heights, VA and people were trapped for hours behind debris.
A hostage situation, with a villain strung out on drugs or desperation holds customers to get money, freedom, his ex-wife’s attention, and the customers must keep their wits about them to survive.
A missing child. A quick-acting store manager could lock the doors and keep all the suspects inside to, at least, rule out people in the closest proximity to the abduction. Can you imagine how pissy some people would get in that situation, especially if the police are coming and they have something to hide?
For any of these, writers must develop characters quickly to add suspense. It’s a challenging task, but when done right, it can springboard into a great, edge-of-your-seat story.
And it doesn’t always have to be dark, thriller-style material.
Two of my all-time favorite reads that rely on happenstance involve people-in-crisis in interesting places.
First, in a book called Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, an apartment’s open house is taken over by a bank robber on the run. The unique personalities stuck together in this off-the-wall event create a wildly entertaining story that mostly takes place in a single room or two. I still laugh out loud at some of the situations in that story, and it’s been nearly a year since I read it.
Second, in Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, Novelee Nation is a young, pregnant woman stranded at Walmart by her deadbeat boyfriend. With no money and no one to call, Novelee lives in the store, and cleverly keeps up her careful occupation, until she can’t any longer… the baby is born on aisle... can’t remember, just not seven. Anyway, if you haven’t read or seen this movie, do it. It’s such a heart warmer. And the movie’s just as good as the book. Plus, Novelee’s unique living situation revealed amazing things about her character, like her honesty in keeping a running tally of everything she consumed or used (to pay Walmart back one day), and her ingenuity at keeping it a secret for so long.
For a fun writing exercise, next time you’re at a store, look around at the people with you, and imagine a what-if that you might face together.
Or take your existing story (especially if you feel it’s missing something) and throw it into an unexpected event. Even if you don’t keep the situation, you’ll learn a great deal about your characters by imagining how they’d react to it.
Share your happenstance ideas… stores you’d like to live in… and books and movies like this below.