Once upon a time, there lived a girl in the wild, wild west. Every day, she wished upon a silver star to see her missing uncle again. Until one day, she had grown enough to wear his pistols. Because of that, she left for San Fransisco, the last place her uncle had gone. Because of that, she had to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because of that, she met gold-miners along the way who deputized her after proving handy with her uncle’s guns. Until one day, she discovered what happened to her uncle. And ever since, she was changed.

Ah, the story spine. Do you recognize it in the opening tale? Behold the classic story starter, “Once upon a time…” The template simplifies a story structure:

  • Once upon a time…
  • And every day…
  • Until one day…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Until one day…
  • And ever since…

Although each vertebrae of the story spine has a specific purpose to carry the story from start to finish, writers do not need to use the structural phrases. In fact, the classic “Once upon a time…” opening can morph into any place and time. Liz Husebye Hartmann, one of our fellow Carrot Ranchers, recently posted an interesting meme on FB about the way Korean folk stories begin: “Back when tigers used to smoke…” The phrase is meant to cue story. Your options for starting a story are endless.

Here’s a revision of the simple tale above without using the structural phrases:

Where the wind blew fierce across the wild, wild west, a girl mourned her lost uncle. She wished upon his silver sherrif’s star to see him again until she’d grown enough to wear his pistols. On her sixteenth birthday, she left for San Fransisco, the last place her uncle had gone. The wind howled at her back when she crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On a treeless peak, she met gold-miners who deputized her for bravery and proving handy with her uncle’s guns. Chasing claim jumpers, she discovered what happened to her uncle. He’d become the criminal she arrested.

The story spine can expand from each bone. We, as creative writers, get to play. Templates give writers structure to produce more complex and compelling pieces of writing. We can change the protagonist to another gender, a particular age, size, or a million other concrete details. We can change the setting, the tone, the genre. We can specify the action through cause and effect. We can pick one conclusion from a billion. We can reveal what the story meant to the protagonist or the journey or surprise the reader.

Here’s a completely different story created by changing details from the original.

When beavers still roamed the wild, wild west, a girl mourned her lost pony. She wished upon the boulder near her village to see her ride again. After three nights, a vision came. After spring runoff, she left for the coast, following the vision of abalone. The rain soaked her when she neared the Pacific surf. On a friendless beach, she found a herd of stolen horses; her pony among them. Sneaking into camp at night, she released the herd, mounted her pony, and rode away. She returned with horses and a stash of trade shells for her village.

Writers increase their creativity when they play! Curiosity opens our minds wider when we slow down and reconsider different choices to make when writing and revising. If you want extra play this challenge, consider submitting two stories, one based on the original but different in its details and action. Be sure to indicate which story is the original if you submit two.

Back at Carrot Ranch Headquarters in the Keweenaw, we are basking in the newness of grandparenthood.

Knowing that Regis Elle is in the world brings profound peace. Holding her bonded me soul-to-soul to a new wonder of life. She lights me up and softens the Ranger’s features. She has the kind of parents every child deserves. Watching my son gives me so much joy. I’m grateful to my DIL and her mom, too. This past week has been a deepening of my soul.

Crystal, my co-grandma, sent me this awesome cheer: (Give me a “K,” give me a “y,’ give me an “l,” give me an “e;” what does it spell? Daddy!)

Regis has great expressions, her daddy’s eyebrows, her mom’s curly hair with daddy’s cowlicks (that’s going to be wild).

These two grandparents are totally smitten, and you get to see Todd’s soft side!

Much to be grateful for as we slip into the long cold nights of winter Up Over. Can’t wait to kayak one day with this girl!

November 14, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that begins with “Once upon a time…” or use a different beginning. Invent a new story-starter or research different beginnings from among the world’s cultures. Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by November 20, 2023. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Thursday following the next Challenge. Stories must be 99 words. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Writers retain all copyrights to any stories published at Carrot Ranch.
  3. A website or social media presence is not required to submit. A blog or social media link will be included in the title of any story submitted with one.
  4. Please include your byline with your title on one line. Example: Little Calves by Charli Mills. Your byline can be different from your name.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99WordStories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts on social media.


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