In between novel revisions this winter and spring, I’ve been working on a few short stories. The more compressed, quicker course of developing and honing these has helped me think about the process and purpose of telling stories, and today I’ll share some of what I am learning. Likewise, I would love to hear your own experience and wisdom.
I’ll start off with a methodological admission: I am much more a plotter than a pantser. That is to say, I find I write much better (and much more) when I have taken time to plan out my stories before I write them. I of course create along the way, recognize needs for changes to my plan, do often cut or fully reimagine planned scenes or add in others, but at a base, it’s critical for me to have that roadmap from which to start.
So let’s explore how those plans might be created. How do we begin to craft a compelling story in the vague spaces of our minds?
I do think that, to begin, there’s often a bit of the standing-in-the-shower-sudden-moment-of-clarity kind of inspiration that can jumpstart the story-making process. However, I think it’s a mistake, and a grave one, to simply wait for that inspiration to arrive.
At least for me, lack of inspiration and writer’s block usually have more to do with self-doubt and a subconscious avoidance of writing than they do with a lack of ideas out there in the world. Because truly, the world around us is an all-you-can-eat buffet of curious incidents, wrenching dilemmas, those ponderous questions. In the same way that after learning the word “epitome” we start to see it used everywhere, we must prepare our minds for stories, and then they will come.
It’s curious that, when we think about stories, things in the world around us, or the thoughts in our own minds, begin to look more like good story material than they did before. I suppose this is a kind of priming, and cultivating this brand of awareness is a huge boon to us storytellers.
When I’m searching for inspiration, I try to really search for it. I review recent memories and recall odd things I’ve seen happen. “What would happen if…” I ask, or “What’s the emotion behind…”. Curiosity, inquisitiveness, a peering into the depths of things, these can all be sources of inspiration. And when we adopt such an awareness habitually, when it becomes part of us in daily life, then showers and walks and daydreams can yield a harvest of ideas.
A gamut of starting points
In Twitter’s #WritingCommunity, a frequent question asked is the starting point of a story idea:
The point of germination can be any element that starts thoughts percolating. For some folks it’s a character or plot element. For me most recently it’s been an image, a philosophical question, or an emotion from personal experience. It’ll be something worth sharing with others. Something we are curious about. It needn’t be especially profound or developed yet–that will come. When those inspirations arrive, in whatever form, acknowledge and savor them.
How does your garden grow?
If I said I had a stock of brilliant ideas waiting for me to write them, it would be a lie. The truth is, at least in my current way of working, very few of my passing inspirations grow on into stories. I’m a pretty one-project-at-a-time kind of person, and this means that when a story finishes (as has just happened), I find myself back in a where-do-I-start kind of mind.
Like a particle-antiparticle pair, spontaneously erupting into being and then annihilating, or like a seed that falls on asphalt, most of the good ideas pass us by. We’re only human. We can only write so many stories, alongside work and life and cooking and our family and friend relationships.
Having a golden idea, the kind that fires up the mind, that is a first step. But to build it into a breathing story, we must pay it attention, coax it up, and consciously explore it. This is again where the awareness of the mind, our focus, is critical, because we have the power to hold that idea and help it blossom, or to let it go.
A lot of my conscious idea-cultivating happens on walks, or I’ll sit here on the sofa, computer closed, eyes closed, holding that idea in my awareness, midwifing it slowly into a maturer being. Often too, I’ll think and type–freewriting, essentially. I try to type out my stream of consciousness, asking questions, positing potential branches and leaves, then pruning back. I’ve occasionally done this longhand, but I find that typing goes faster and so allows me to more authentically record my thought processes.
In this active brainstorming stage, I am fleshing out things like character and plot, setting, the portion of the full narrative I’ll tell, point of view, the core skeleton of it all. Then I can move into a more structured outline, where I usually plot out by scene, telling the story to myself and solving problems of worldbuilding, cliche, and readers’ potential interpretations. From there, I write.
Building the context
The content of these brainstorms involves the gradual fleshing out of context for my situation/image/question inspiration seed. I’ve got this one element around which I want to build a story, and in the case of fiction that means constructing and combining various story elements so that the resulting piece transmits something (an emotion, a thought, a question) to the reader.
When my seed is an emotion and my goal is to reconstruct that feeling in the reader, I backtrack and consider the road readers might need to take to get there. I tend to begin with broad plot strokes–what, generally, is going to happen? Then I’ll move to characters, setting, then back to refining plot.
I feel like I don’t yet have a good enough awareness of this process to spell out just what I am doing. It feels alchemical to me. A kind of engagement with the flux of character, setting, theme, plot, image–all are shifting, and gradually I pluck out a combination that I think will give me the effect I seek. For a short story, this often takes me a few sessions over several days.
However, the key for me is that I know that every choice I make is ultimately directed at creating a particular reader experience. Character personality choices are not arbitrary, nor are the worlds they’re sewn up in. Just as in lesson planning for a class, the best learning happens when there’s a clear goal in mind, and then I work backwards to find the path there. Again, that is never to say flexibility is not essential too. The story I just completed, it did transform as I wrote, and I adjusted my plan accordingly. I’m curious why it did change. It’s another thing I’m still trying to understand.
How about you?
Over the last four years, my productivity as a writer has greatly increased. More than this, the quality of what I’m producing has improved. I think I owe both these changes to a growing awareness of the intentionality in the writing process. And I intend to keep going, daunting though the road may often be.
How do you go about beginning a new project? From what trees do you pluck ideas? How do you nurture, prune, and bid them flourish? Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. Happy living and writing to you all.