What you are about to read is writing advice I fed Ben Humeniuk this week, and he encouraged me to post this where you could read it, too. Am I qualified to dole out writing advice? Probably not. But here we go:
To start with, there are plenty of great storytelling resources available. Here are a few that have caught my attention:
The Shape of the Stories We Tell
The Grand Argument story mind
Pixar’s story rules
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
All of these storytelling theories – plus your own observations from stories you’ve been reading – are great tools for the editing process or to move you forward when you’re stuck, but I’m a big believer in simply letting the story happen. If you focus on the theories too much, you’ll wind up with stale, cookie-cutter stories, and there are already too many of those.
“I write poems to find things out, not to communicate some previously ossified conclusion.” – Scott Cairns
This is a major element of the storytelling process (for me, anyway). I don’t figure out what I want to teach the reader and then construct a parable or fable to get the message across… on the contrary, if I’ve had an epiphany or learned a lesson, often it doesn’t completely gel in my mind until I cement it in a story. That’s the impetus of the creative process: the nebulous things I encounter in life – doubts, hopes, fears, anything I don’t understand – those are only wispy notions in my head until I put them into the context of a character and a place. It’s only then that the piece of truth resonates in me, and that’s when I grow not from something I READ but from something I WROTE. I’m not really sure how this works, but it’s the driving force for why I want to tell stories: I’m not creating something amazing for someone else to read, IT is creating ME and the reader both. That’s called communion, and it’s good.
So search out story theories and writing tools but go to lengths to keep those tools out of your way when you brainstorm and first-draft things out.
1) Draw from your own experiences – what are you trying to figure out? What’s bubbling in your brain that you need to ladle onto paper? What fascinates and interests you?
2) Imagineer, free-associate, brainstorm. Ask yourself, “What if?” and “Why not?”
3) Jot the ideas down first if you need to, but take time out to mull them over and mentally distill them into story moments that you want to live in. Find specific times and places to do this – a few good ones are during a walk/jog, driving your normal commute, and lying in bed at night.
4) Once the ideas have started to gel, first-draft them. Write out of sequence, letting the scenes that are most important to you come first. Draw on what enthusiasm you have to embrace your new story as it comes together, and if you run out of drive, go read your favorite book or watch your favorite film or play your favorite video game. Living in someone else’s ficitonal world for an hour lets you return to your own with a fresh sense of wonder.
So that’s my approach – now let’s hear your thoughts. What did I miss?