When I worked in advertising back in the '80s, we often researched ideas in focus groups and to stimulate discussion, we covered large pieces of card with photographs cut out of magazines.
This is one habit I still use to generate story ideas. But there is no need for the scissors and glue.
Most times I assemble ‘imaginary’ mood-boards in my mind and fill these with photos, sounds, smells, textures and tastes.
Other times, I use a Google picture search to build a collection of images (such as the example below). So, if the story was set in the Antarctic, the mood-boards help me imagine the cold, the snow, the textures, the smells, the sounds that these pictures inspire.
What would you put on a mood-board for a country house scene? Maybe a scene out of an Agatha Christie novel? Or some photographs of little old ladies drinking tea. The smell of early-morning fireplaces. The sound of the ticking grandfather clock.
These mood-boards help me develop a 'feel' and ‘dress the set’ where the action takes place.
I believe the greatest challenge all writers have is working out what they want to write. To find their greatest passion.
With this in mind and watching the Rio Olympics, I got to thinking about the qualities that make a great athlete, asking the question 'What makes these men and women the best in the world?'
The first answer is 'Well, they practice a lot. Every day they get up at four in the morning and run or swim or jump.' But the real answer, the one that matters, is that they love what they do. You just can't be great and hate your job. The best swimmers love the feel of the water. The best runners love the way their legs carry them faster and faster. The best jumpers love the feeling of travelling higher and higher, skimming over the bar. All these athletes have found their passions.
A few weeks ago I watched Ray Bradbury's presentation at The Sixth Annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea. The first thing he said was "The best 'hygiene' for writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week, then it doesn't matter what the quality is to start, but at least you are practising. At the end of the year, you have fifty-two short stories, and I defy you to write fifty-two bad ones. It can't be done."
I have been thinking about this. In fact, you could say that I have been ruminating on this idea for three weeks. What a challenge! One short story a week for a year. This idea intrigued me. So much so that this week I decided to take up the challenge.
Over the next year, I will be writing one short story a week. I will start on a Monday and finish on a Sunday. I will not look back at what I have written. I will move forward relentlessly - a short story beaver. And I will post about this challenge here on The Writing Habit.
I write to know the world, know myself, understand my beliefs, face my demons, find direction, to remember.
I was like a boat thrashed by waves on stormy sea, spinning without direction, going nowhere. Writing became the rudder. It gave direction.
If I don’t write, I can’t find out what I am thinking. The moment the pen hits the paper, there is something to say.
The word 'pretend' comes from the Latin 'praetendere' meaning 'to stretch forth, reach out and extend.'
So, every morning wake up and reach out for whatever you want to be. Build up your confidence in your writing by pretending that you are already what you want to be.
Sit back, close your eyes and imagine.
What images appear? Lee Hall, before writing Billy Elliott, had the image of a boy in a tutu jumping on a bed at home in a Northern coal mining community. He wrote this image down and then free associated other scenes to go with it. That’s how a classic was born.
You can do that too. Think of favourite scenes, observations, moments. Write these down and then free associate to find out what else fits around it. Many of these ideas may not be in the final story. Just don't be critical. Write them all down. You can judge them later.
We are looking for the focus in the story or to put it another way, the heart of the story. This is a central idea that readers and audiences remember.
To find this, write scenes from different points of view. Characters see things in different ways and what might seem obvious to one character may not be obvious to another.
Take the reader and audience on a journey. Focus on moments when something impacts on the character’s world. These moments and no other. Then build in the tension through conflict and action. If a scene does not have tension, then ask why it is in the story.
And at the end, be able to answer this question "What was the point?"
A father kills his son and then pretends it was a suicide.
'Dramatic irony' is when the reader knows something that the characters do not know. A good lie becomes the story question that the reader wants resolved by the end of the book.
What is the secret in your story?
“Drama is real-life with all the boring bits cut out." Hitchcock
Work out what doesn't need to be there to tell your story. Go through scene by scene and notice when the tension lags.
One question to ask “What this scene’s purpose is in this story?”
Another question "Would anyone miss this scene if it just disappeared?"
Raise the stakes. Always follow the next logical progression again, and again, and again. Be relentless.
I am always looking for interesting writing techniques and I really like the way William Goldman outlines his stories. He encapsulates each scene with words like "baseball glove," or "drive" or “funeral”. At this stage he isn’t going into detail - just enough to remind him of what has to happen. I call this a ‘keyword’ outline.
I like the way the outline is not held down by detail with every twist and turn thought out. Instead, you have a naked skeleton to flesh out later with detail, but only after all the bones are in the ‘write’ place.
Or as the song goes:
The toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone…
… now hear the words of the Lord!
An outline is a scene by scene description of events that, when lined up, make the story. The outline helps work out what you need to show. One question to ask: “What does the reader want to know next?” If you can answer that question then you'll know what to write.
The point is to evoke the soul of the story, to see this as a whole rather than a series of random events. We don't want forty nine boring scenes heading up to an unusual ending.
Every scene must be relevant so ask of each scene, “What is achieved?” Be specific. Tell us what is achieved in each scene and why that scene is in this story.
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Be inspired to write!
Below is a link to Pinterest where I post Juxtaposition photos, to inspire ideas. These are always two random photos, presented side by side. I find these fascinating. They always surprise me. Maybe they will surprise you too.