I stood in a long line last week while a single checker bumbled through multiple orders, finally requiring a manager to come take over. I’m a notorious snoop (I mean, people-researcher), so I began furtively sizing up the purchases of those around me while I waited. And what I found was a fantastic writing prompt.

Writing Prompt: Take Your Character Shopping

One woman had at least a hundred dollars in makeup and a paring knife. Another woman had a huge bag of cat food, a tower of canned beans, and a head of lettuce. Two people in the line were placing bets on how long the line would take.

Stories seemed to be writing themselves right in front of me.

Writing Prompt: The Shopping Trip

How can you use a store as a backdrop for a new short story or a chapter in your work in progress?

As I’ve prepped writing prompts for my writers this week, I realized that what we buy reveals quite a bit about who we are. Plus, any kind of store provides potential for conflict, since people from all walks of life collide with different expectations for their shopping experiences.

John Updike published a story called “A&P” in 1961 about a young grocery clerk named Sammy whose day and life is interrupted by three girls in bathing suits who come in to buy a jar of herring snacks. Their nonconformity disrupts the sleepy grocery store and its patrons, and Sammy imagines their life in his mind, while the manager chides them for being inappropriately dressed. At the end, Sammy makes a bold decision, but the girls don’t see it or appreciate it.

Updike used a commonplace setting to put characters in trouble on several levels. You can use your shopping experiences to build fiction too.

3 Ways to Use a Shopping Trip for Writing Prompt Inspiration

Wondering how to leverage a shopping trip in your stories? Try these three strategies:

1. Use the store as a setting.

Look around the next time you shop. A gas station convenience store provides a much different set of props than a upscale department store. Where are the potential sources of conflict?

Is there only one lemon left in the produce section? Are the aisles overcrowded with cases of water bottles down the middle? Could the overstuffed racks of clothes be easily tipped over?

Any of these details could trigger a story.

2. Use the expectations of shopping as a conflict.

A store provides great material for fiction because everyone who goes to a store wants something. As Kurt Vonnegut famously said,

What is your character after? A discreet murder weapon? The perfect dress? A ham for the annual family reunion that has suddenly disappeared from the meat counter?

Whatever your character wants at the store, keep it out of reach due to availability, another customer, or some other obstacle.

3. Use a character’s purchases as an inciting incident.

Shopping requires decisions, another key for great fiction. What items are on your character’s shopping list? Bananas or apples? Bug poison or cleaning fluid? Shovel or ax? Paper or plastic?

Use these goals to kick off the inciting incident of the story. When a character begins making choices, watch out!

Your Shopping Is Research

Shopping lends itself to story ideas, so the next time you are out, take a minute to soak in the atmosphere, the shoppers, and the potential for conflict. Keep an eye out for your next story!

What did you see on your last shopping trip that would be great in fiction? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and begin a scene in a store. Make the character want something and create an obstacle to keep him or her from getting it. Go beyond cliché Black Friday television grabbing and shoes that are out of the character’s price range (unless you can make those fresh, in which case, go for it!).

Share your practice in the comments and encourage each other!

Sue Weems
Sue Weems

Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.