Creative Writing, Story Development, Story Structure, Narrative Science
Category Archives: Creative Writing
Need inspiration or a cure for writer’s block? You’ll find it here. This category focuses on the creative process from organizing your writing time to developing your ideas and finding your author’s voice.
Browse through the list or use the search box at the top of the page to find just what you are looking for, and may the Muse be with you!
Coming up with an unexpected change in direction of your plot that alters the course of your story.
Keeping that information from your readers until just the right moment to reveal it for maximum surprise.
As a technique, it is far easier to build a plot twist on your existing plot than to imagine one as a lone outlier and then try to connect it to the main.
To begin, suppose we have a story about a Marshall in an old west town who must overcome a notorious gang.
Rather than trying to invent a twist out of nowhere, ask a question you haven’t answered yet about your plot.
How does the Marshall first find out about the gang’s activities?
Now, let your Muse run wild and come up with as many potential answers as she can – from the sublime to the ricidulous
1. The gang rides into town hootin’ and hollarin’ (pretty typical)
2. He is told about the situation, right after he accepts the job and pins on the badge. (minor twist)
3. He saw a newspaper account of the town’s gang problem and came there on his own to get the job to clean up the gang. (minor twist)
4. The gang sends a telegram to the marshall’s home to taunt him by letting him know they are in town shaking it down. (uncommnon twist – not major, but unexpected)
Okay – none of these are particularly “oh, wow!” but this is just the first step in the technique. Now, you want to pick one of those scenarios (which has added to your plot) and ask another question to advance the potential of your plot twist into even more surprising growund.
For example, let’s pick the following to develop from our initial answers to the initial question:
Answer 3: He saw a newspaper account of the town’s gang problem and came there on his own to get the job to clean up the gang.
Now ask questons about that answer, as you did before, but this time you’ll be farther along your plot thread, giving it even more of a twist.
1. Where was he when he saw the newspaper?
2. Has he done this kind of thing before?
3. Why does he want to interfere?
4. What makes him think he is qualified to do anything about the problem?
5. Does he notify the town’s mayor or governing body before he shows up?
Then, you repeat the second “creative” step with your Muse and provide answers.
Question 2. Has he done this kind of thing before?
1. Yes, he is independently wealthy and does this all the time as a hobby.
2. Yes, one time. His family was killed when he was a child and in his first adventure, he read a newspaper account of a child who was made an orphan due to a gang’s violence in a town in the East. He brought the gang to justice and found a foster home for the child. It was so fulfilling, his ordinary job has been miserable since, and this new article has made him realize he needs to step forward to give his live meaning.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now, through this exercise, what twists have we created for our story? Perhaps these:
1. A scene showing the Marshall as a young boy when his family was killed (by who and how and where can all be figured out using the Creative Two-Step).
2. A scene showing the Marshall see the first article and decide to get involved.
3. Several scene, perhaps in a montage or in a scrapbook of how that first adventure went.
4. A scene of him encountering this new newspaper article and how it affects him.
5. A scene of him quitting his job (how much he needs the money, what kind of job, and so on can be created using the two-step)
6. A scene of him arriving at the town.
7. How he gets the job (again, use the two-step to come up with ideas for this)
8. His first encounter with the gang (casual, antagonistic, high or low tension, anybody get hurt?, did the gang know he was the Marshall when they first encounter?)
The benefit of this technique is that by asking a questions, then providing multiple potential answers, then asking another question about the one you chose, your plot grows and twists at the same time, suggesting new scenes, new characters, and new thematic issues along the way.
Bottm line – don’t get mired in a random process of trying to force yourself to invent a startling plot twist. Simply apply this technique and let the plot twists suggest themselves.
Melanie Anne Phillips Creator, StoryWeaver Co-creator, Dramatica
Here are some links to some good stuff for writers:
My main website for writers – https://storymind.com
A library of the hundreds of writing tips I’ve penned – https://storymind.com/blog
If you know how to tap into it, your subconscious mind can infuse your story with more depth and meaning than you are consciously aware.
As an example, here is a short poem I recently completed, followed by a creative analysis of how my own subconscious mind elevated the piece far beyond my intent.
Can I find some peace of mind,
to dull the horrid daily grind,
or should I taste the bitter rind,
whose poison quells all pain?
Will I fight another day,
am I the one my Id will slay,
and what will be the price to pay,
to end this sad refrain.
From time to time I am compelled,
to neuter what I cannot geld,
that which never can be held,
melting in the rain.
Driven by the summer breeze,
to dash against the leafless trees,
then thrust to ground on brittle knees,
and never walk again.
Lifeless dreams through sightless eyes,
dance across the heartless skies,
and sing a ghastly last reprise,
that burns into my brain.
Empty husk of parasites,
humbled by a thousand bites,
drained of self and filled with mites,
resistance is in vain.
Flaccid with my stuffing gone,
darkness now defies the dawn,
time stands still, then marches on,
a pointless trackless train.
Into earth my substance crumbles,
while the time train clacks and rumbles,
all I was is lost to mumbles,
neither sharp nor sane.
Now as if I wasn’t there,
self is shadow, breath is air,
nothing left to be aware,
a terminal moraine.
So, you see, it is about the death of a glacier. But the weird part is, I didn’t know that until after I wrote it.
All through the creative process I thought I was describing a despondent burned-out person, though I, myself, am in quite a positive mood of late.
It felt strange writing this – different than usual. Each stanza came together organically, and though each was about the same issue of loss of self, each was also centered around a completely different kind of imagery.
The stanzas really didn’t seem connected by a central spine or theme, just that sense of loss of self. In fact, taken together, I felt they were just chaotic glimpses into the storyteller’s psyche.
In terms of the creative process, all went smoothly until I arrived at the very last line. After every previous rhyme falling easily into place, I couldn’t (for the life of me) figure out how I wanted it to end.
So, for the first time on this project, I opened the rhyming dictionary and scanned through hundreds of multi-syllable words that rhymed with “pain.”
Nothing jumped out at me until I stumbled across “terminal moraine.” That was it! Perfect ending – terminal having the double meaning of mortality, which seemed to fit with this poor narrator’s description of his or her life experiences.
So, I plopped in that last line, re-read it a few times and published it on my blog under the title “A Way Out,” still believing it to be about this person.
Didn’t like the title though. Seemed mamby pamby. I decided to re-read the poem a few more times and after perhaps half a dozen readings, going from the end back to the beginning, I read “terminal moraine” immediately followed by “daily grind.” And that’s when it hit me – those two phrases sound like they are describing a glacier!
“No….” I thought. “It can’t be….” So I read it once more with “death of a glacier” in mind and holy crap! Every stanza – every WORD rang true to that theme, as if it had been intentionally written all along to describe the last days of a glacier’s life.
Now that has never happened to me before, and I’m kind of blown away by it. The poem is good and the imagery works with any title, but “Glacier” is that missing thread that elevates the poem from a collection of images to a single topic, explored.
I’d say at least half of the artistic impact of the poem derives from seeing it as the end of a glacier. And so, I really don’t feel right taking credit for that since that didn’t happen until the poem was already completed. Hence, this “apology” for the quality of the work.
Still, this brings up an interesting aspect of the writing craft. I’ pretty sure my subconscious knew full well what it was writing about from the get-go. It just didn’t fill me in on it until the end.
I’e read many accounts where readers find so much meaning in a poem, a story, or a song that was never intended by the author, who denies that meaning intently.
And yet, as creators, we all know we have over-active imaginations, and a lot of what goes on with that comes from the subconscious. That’s where inspirations come from and it is the source of those moments of epiphany that pop up in “Eureka!” shouted out loud, even when writing in the house alone.
It is my belief that the truly great writers are those whose subconscious works to instill far more meaning in their stories than that of which the author is ever consciously aware. THAT is the quality that infuses depth and complexity into the piece and draws the readers into a multi-level multi-faceted experience.
This latest effort has driven that home to me yet again – that the best way to construct a story is to let your mind set the destination and your heart chart the course.
Write down your stories. Each of us has a life experience no other human being will ever have. If we sift through that to find the nugget moments, we can share unique and wonderful perspectives.
Maybe each contribution to the flow is just a drop in the ocean (like this note itself), but I like to believe that the right insight will find the right person at the right time, like a message in a bottle.
If you discover something of personal value and choose not to share, perhaps that message that was meant for that person at just that point in their lives won’t be there when they get there, leaving a vacuum that nothing else will ever fill.
So don’t hold back. You may never see the result of your contribution but, as an artist, that is neither necessary nor does it diminish the power of your work.
Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle. In your mind’s eye, you likely see they whole scene spread out in front of you, as if you were a general on a hill watching the conflict unfold.
That all-seeing “God’s eye view” is a perspective not available to the Main Character, but only the author and audience (as he chooses to reveal it, here and there, casting light on that dark understanding of what is really going on or keeping the readers in the dark.
But there is a second point of view implied in this war of words – that of the Main Character himself. The Main Character has no idea what lies over the next hill, or what troubles may be lurking in the bushes. Like all of us, he must rely on our experience in trying to make it through alive.
The view through the eyes of the Main Character puts your readers in his shoes, experiencing the pressures first hand, feeling the power of the moment. In a sense, this most perspective connects the Main Character’s tribulations (both logistic and emotional) to those we all grapple with in real life. It draws us in, makes us personally involved, and also causes us to see the message or moral of the story as being applicable to our own journey.
Many authors establish both the overall story and the Main Character’s glimpse of it and stop there, believing they have covered all the angles. After all, the Main Character can’t see the big picture and that overview can’t portray the immediacy of the struggle on the ground. All bases covered, right?
In fact, no. Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions the Main Character spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, he cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.
As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”
The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy fifth column combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. But if he stops on the road, he remains exposed with danger all around. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.
Eventually, the two soldiers converge, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.
This other soldier is called the Influence character, and though you may not have heard of him, this other soldier is essential to describing the pressures that bring the Main Character to a point of decision.
In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking right up to the moment we have to make a choice.
It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat for the Main Character. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach that point of climax where the Main Character must choose to stay on course or to step off into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”
This other character provides a third perspective to a story’s structure – that of an opposing belief system that the Main Character is pressured to consider. What would the original Star Wars have been without Obi Wan Kenobi continually urging Luke to “Trust the force?” How about A Christmas Carol without Marley’s ghost, as well as the ghosts of Past, Present, and Future?
Without an Influence character, there is no reason for the Main Character to question his beliefs. But just having an opposing perspective isn’t all that an Influence Character brings to a story.
A convincing theme or message is not built just by establishing an alternative world view to that of the Main Character. That would come off as simply moralizing since it presents the two sides as cut and dried, in black and white. Few life-changing decisions in life are as simple as that.
Rather, the two views must also be played against each other in many scenarios so the Main Character (who represents us all) can begin to connect the dots and ultimately choose the tried and true approach that isn’t working or the new approach that has never been tried. In other words, at the moment of conflict, both courses are evenly balanced which is why, no matter which side the Main Character comes down on, it is a leap of faith.
It is that repeated questioning of the Main Character’s closely held beliefs that comprises the fourth perspective of our story when seen as a war – the personal story between the Main Character and the Influence Character in which the author’s message is argued.
This fourth point of view elevates a structure from being a simple tale that states “here is how it is,” to a fully developed story that makes the case for “here’s why it is as it is.” Such stories feel far more complete, even though they may still work well-enough to be successful without it.
For example, in the movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, is dissatisfied with his lot in life and decides to take over Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus.
The kidnapping and all that follows in the plot is that Overall perspective of the general on the hill.
Jack is the Main Character, trying to improve his life through altering his situation, embodying perspective number two.
Jack’s girlfriend, Sally, is the Influence Character, providing the third perspective: an alternative belief system. As Wikipedia puts it: “Sally is the only one to have doubts about Jack’s Christmas plan.” Essentially, he tell Jack that Halloween and Christmas should not be mixed and he should be satisfied with who he is.
But that fourth perspective is missing – the thematic argument between those two conflicting points of view that would have provided a strong and organic message to the story. Sally states her opposition, but she and Jack never pit one way of looking at the world against the other, not through discussions, nor argument, nor even through a series of scenes illustrating the value of one over the other.
Think back to A Christmas Carol. How many times is Scrooge’s world view contrasted against that of the ghosts in a whole series of scenarios? But in Nightmare, the opposing world view is stated but never argued, leaving the story, though incredibly inventive and exciting, somehow less satisfying in a way the audience can’t quite identify.
All four of these perspectives are needed for a story structure to be as powerful as it can be. In developing your own stories, consider our analogy of story structure as war to ensure that each of them is present, and your story will be far stronger for it.
Melanie Anne Phillips
Perhaps the best way to instill real feelings in a character is to stand in his or her shoes and write from the character’s point of view. Unfortunately, this method also holds the greatest danger of undermining the meaning of a story.
As an example, suppose we have two characters, Joe and Tom, who are business competitors. Joe hates Tom and Tom hates Joe. We sit down to write an argument between them. First, we stand in Joe’s shoes and speak vehemently of Tom’s transgressions. Then, we stand in Tom’s shoes and pontificate on Joe’s aggressions. By adopting the character point of view, we have constructed an exchange of honest and powerful emotions. We have also undermined the meaning of our story because Joe and Tom have come across as being virtually the same.
A story might have a Protagonist and an Antagonist, but between Joe and Tom, who is who? Each sees himself as the Protagonist and the other as the Antagonist. If we simply write the argument from each point of view, the audience has no idea which is REALLY which.
The opposite problem occurs if you stand back from your characters and assign roles as Protagonist and Antagonist without considering the characters’ points of view. In such a case, the character clearly establish the story’s meaning, but they seem to be “walking through” the story, hitting the marks, and never really expressing themselves as actual human beings.
The solution, of course, is to explore both approaches. You need to know what role each character is to play in the story’s overall meaning – the big picture. But, you also must stand in their shoes and write with passion to make them human.
Remember blowing bubbles with that solution in the little bottles and the plastic wand? The craft of writing is a bit like blowing bubbles (life is like a box of chocolates!) This holds true not only for your dramatic approach, but also for the characters in your story as well.
The study of real bubbles is actually a science which combines physics, geometry, and even calculus! And, as with most natural phenomena, the dynamics that drive them have a parallel in psychology as well. For example, the math that describes a Black Hole in space can equally be applied to describing a prejudice in the mind.
So, by observing bubbles we can more easily grasp some otherwise intangible concepts about the psychology of stories and of the characters in them.
Turning our attention to stories, let’s look at several dramatic endeavors that can benefit by applying the qualities of bubbles. Bubbles burst. Sometimes you want them too, other times you don’t. The larger a bubble gets, the more impressive it is, but the more fragile as well. Until a bubble bursts the tension along its surface (surface tension) increases. But once it has burst, all the tension is gone. So the key is to blow the bubble as large as you can without exceeding the maximum sustainable tension. To do this, you need to know when to stop blowing, seal it off, and let it float on it’s own. In addition, you need to consider how hard to blow, how fast to blow, and to master the art of pulling away the wand to allow that magic moment when a bubble with a hole in it seals itself to become a perfect sphere.
When introducing a dramatic element into your story for the first time, consider how much material to work with at a single dramatic unit. Too little material tries to blow a bubble with not enough solution. It may not even make a film across the wand, and if it does, it will snap at the first breath before a bubble can form. Too much, and it drips off the wand, slobbering all over everything else, and snapping apart as well, because the sheer weight of the stuff makes the membrane too thick to flex. So, don’t work with dramatic units too large or small. Don’t focus on details too tiny or grand movements too large. Find the range and scope of your dramatic concepts that your readers or audience can hold onto while you pump it full of promise and then let it float into their hearts and minds on its own.
How hard you blow is equally important. As you may recall, blowing too hard will simply spit the solution right out of the wand and onto your parents’ carpet. (Why you chose to blow bubbles in the house even after having been told not to is no more fathomable than why you chose to be a writer, even though you knew better!)
Blow too soft, and your solution will just wiggle and vibrate in the wand, never bowing out to become a bubble at all. Eventually the solution in the wand will simply evaporate, and you’ll have spent a lot of time blowing with no bubble to show for it. Now a master storyteller can use this effect to his or her advantage. Get the right amount of solution on the wand and then just vibrate the blazes out of it with a gentle blow, tantalizing your audience, who is going to wonder if anything will every come of it. Just when it looks like the solution has almost evaporated too much to work, you pick up the airflow and form the bubble right before their eyes. Or, you might just keep it vibrating, a red herring, and simply let it dissolve out of the wand. Better be sure of your skills, though, because you want your audience to know you blew it, not to think you blew it.
And do you recall how if you blow at one intensity you get a single bubble, and if you blow with a different push you get a string of small bubbles? In fact, you can even get a series of medium bubbles if you find that narrow mid-range.
Dramatically, you can drop a lot of little bits of information, a few mid-sized bits of information, or one big bit, all with a single blow. (Killed 7 with one blow!). These are the Multi-Appreciation-Moments (M.A.M.) in which a single dramatic movement, passage, or discourse propels more than one dramatic element into the story.
Bubbles have size. The size of a bubble, in writing as in soap (or in writing “soaps”), depends primarily on the size of your wand and the huff in your blow.
Short stories are one size wand. Mini-series are another. Haiku are still one more. Each one has a maximum size of bubble it can produce, no matter how hard you blow. But size isn’t everything. There is such a thing as the beauty of perfection. Your idea is your solution, your format is your wand; try to make sure not to blow too hard for the wand/solution ratio you are using.
Surface Tension – wonderful phrase, that! Someone should use that for a title. More wonderful still is the way it works. Stories are about structure and passion. Your solution is about water and soap. Too much water and nothing happens. Too much soap and it all glops up. When you get the right mix of structure and passion, you’ve got the right raw material for a great bubble.
What holds the surface of the bubble together is the attraction among the soap and water molecules. What keeps it from collapsing is a slightly higher pressure on the inside than on the outside. A larger bubble has more tension because there is more surface. And yet, the total surface area of a collection of smaller bubbles far exceeds that of a single bubble occupying the same space. In addition, smaller bubbles are more stable, lasting far longer.
Use big bubbles for big events of singular identity with a limited life span. Use smaller bubbles collectively as a consistent foundation of longer duration.
Put your ear to the soap foam on dishwater or a hot bath, and though the mass remains largely constant, you can hear the satisfying snap, crackle, and pop of individual bubbles as they burst. Such formations can add stability to your story, even while providing an underlying level of surface tension, punctuated by hundreds of tiny eruptions. In addition, you can shape foam into all kinds of complex forms, while the shape of individual bubbles is far more limited.
While bubbles, on their own, are usually round, if you dip a bent piece of wire (such as a clothes hanger) in solution, you can create triangles, squares, and even approximations of hyper-cubes!
Although one might argue that the film from one wire side to the next does not comprise a bubble, and the enclosed area of such a shape does not either, guided by these outside influences a shaped bubble may indeed occur within the space bounded by the wires that doesn’t directly touch the wires. One shape, for example, may create a square bubble within another bubble. So, although the larger bubble is directly connected to the wires, the inner bubble is only connected to the planar surfaces of the outer bubble.
Ah, but I wax scientific. Fact is, the “set pieces” of your story are the wires dipped into your dramatic solution. An obvious heavy-handed control technique, you can also create very specific shapes by building those second-generation bubbles within bubbles, which are not formed by direct influence of your set pieces, but rather by indirect influence from being attached to those dramatics that ARE connected to the set pieces.
It’s a great point, but not for the faint of heart.
Bubbles combine. When two bubbles encounter each other, they might just bounce off like billiard balls. But if conditions are right, they join, creating a common interface between them. They are spherical except where they are joined, which becomes a flat side. More than two bubbles can combine, and when they do, all sorts of additional, symmetrical interfaces are created.
You entire story should be like a collection of bubbles, interfaced together. Each single bubble is another dramatic element or point. Over the course of your story you have blown them one by one until your story has fully taken shape. Then, on their one, one by one they begin to pop. Some of the solution is spattered away, some is absorbed by the remaining bubbles. Due to the extra solution, the remaining bubbles pop faster and faster until all the original bubbles have burst.
Let’s close by seeing how bubble science can help describe what your characters do you in your story. Suppose Sally calls on the phone complaining to Jane about a personal issue she is facing. Jane knows just what to say, but simply saying it will be rejected and not have the comforting effect she wants. In fact, Jane is smart enough to realize that she has to start out slow and easy, and over the course of the conversation blow a bubble of comfort big enough to enclose the problem.
So, with patience, Jane continues to talk to Sally, starting by enclosing a small part of the issue, then slowly expanding her support until it hold the whole thing inside. Now if Jane is too full of herself, has the habit of “beating a dead horse,” is emotionally needy herself and has to have confirmation from Sally that her problem is completely solved, or is just inexperienced, then she won’t know when to stop blowing and will continue pumping support into the conversation until the bubble gets so large it bursts.
But, if she knows what she’s doing, Jane will recognize when the bubble is big enough and then pull away the wand and stop blowing so that the sphere can form. She can do this by changing the subject, not off-topic, but to something tangential, to something touched upon in the conversation, but instead of talking about the part of that new topic that was connected to the personal problem, she now talks about other aspects of that topic that don’t involve Sally’s original issue.
Moving sideways in topic at the right time is like pulling the wand sideways from the bubble so that it can close.
Of course, Sally might be mired in her problem and stuck to the wand. But Anne may be in the room with Jane, hear that Sally is trying to come back to the original issue, and (being a good friend and student of psychology) realize another lateral move is needed. Anne would then raise her hand to get Jane’s attention (who would ask Sally to hold for a moment). Anne offers another off-topic comment based on what she has heard of the conversation. Jane passes the comment on to Sally on Anne’s behalf, and now Sally has been doubly distracted. At this point, either the bubble is free of the wand, or Sally simply won’t let go.
If the bubble is free, then it’s effect will remain within Sally long after the conversation and will work to resolve her angst. If it is not free, the air will just whoosh right back out of the wand and the bubble will deflate as if it never was, and Sally can go on moping about her problem.
Now, you might think this is all very complex, but it is this kind of bubble interaction that makes characters seem fluid rather than built of bricks. But do real people act like that? Sure they do. In fact, the very dramatic scenario I just described happened to me two days ago. That’s how I got the idea for this writing tip.
I was “Jane,” and with “Anne’s” perceptive interjection, I was able to assuage Sally’s angst, free the bubble, and Sally has been quite happy for the last 48 hours.
Real life psychology, character psychology, story psychology… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.
All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit. Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.
You have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience. They expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story that holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.
Problem is, if you keep your nose buried too far into the details, you might be undercutting the overall impact if you lose sight of how all the pieces work together. We all get drawn deeper and deeper into our stories as we massage every little aspect individually. That’s why it is a good idea to come up for air once in a while, step back, and see how your story plays as a whole.
One of the best ways to do this is to think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.
Here’s how it might go. Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.
Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.
While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.
Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.
Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.
Your story is a person. It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.
When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself. If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.
Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.
Melanie Anne Phillips
This article is drawn from my StoryWeaver Story Development Software
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The concept behind this method of finding inspiration is quite simple, really: It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea.
Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you are working on a particular story and you run into a specific structural problem, you are looking for a creative inspiration in a very narrow area. But creativity isn’t something you can control like a power tool or channel onto a task. Rather, it is random, and applies itself to whatever it wants.
Yet creative inspiration is always running at full tilt within us, coming up with new ideas, thinking new thoughts – just not the thoughts we are looking for. So if we sit and wait for the Muse to shine its light on the exact structural problem we’re stuck on, it might be days before lightning strikes that very spot.
Fortunately, we can trick Creativity into working on our problem by making it think it is being random. As an example, consider this log line for a story: A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.
Step One: Asking Questions
Now if you had the assignment to sit down and turn this into a full-blown, interesting, one-of-a-kind story, you might be a bit stuck for what to do next. So, try this. First ask some questions:
1. How old is the Marshall?
2. How much experience does he have?
3. Is he a good shot?
4. How many men has he killed (if any)
5. How many people are in the gang?
6. Does it have a single leader?
7. Is the gang tight-knit?
8. What are they taking from the town?
9. How long have they been doing this?
You could probably go on and on and easily come up with a hundred questions based on that single log line. It might not seem at first that this will help you expand your story, but look at what’s really happened. You have tricked your Muse into coming up with a detailed list of what needs to be developed! And it didn’t even hurt. In fact, it was actually fun.
Step Two: Answering Questions
But that’s just the first step. Next, take each of these questions and come up with as many different answers as you can think of. Let your Muse run wild through your mind. You’ll probably find you get some ordinary answers and some really outlandish ones, but you’ll absolutely get a load of them!
a) How old is the Marshall?
Some of these potential ages are ridiculous – or are they? Every ordinary story based on such a log line would have the Marshall be 28 or 35. Just another dull story, grinding through the mill.
Step One Revisited
But what if your Marshall was 86 or 7 years old? Let’s switch back to Step One and ask some questions about his age.
1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?
2. Can he still see okay?
3. What physical maladies plague him?
4. Is he married?
5. What kind of gun does he use?
6. Does he have the respect of the town?
And on and on…
Return to Step Two
As you might expect, now we switch back to Step Two again and answer each question as many different ways as you can.
5. What kind of gun does he use?
a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.
b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.
c) He uses a Gattling gun attached to his walker.
d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.
e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.
f) He uses a whip.
g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.
And on and on again…
Methinks you begin to get the idea. First you ask questions, which trick the Muse into finding fault with your work – an easy thing to do that your Creative Spirit already does on its own – often to your dismay.
Next, you turn the Muse loose to come up with as many answers for each question as you possibly can.
Then, you switch back to question mode and ask as many as you can about each of your answers.
And then you come up with as many answers as possible for those questions.
You can carry this process out for as many generations as you like, but the bulk of story material you develop will grow so quickly, you’ll likely not want to go much further than we went in our example.
Imagine, if you just asked 10 questions about the original log line and responded to each of them with 10 potential answers, you’d have 100 story points to consider.
Then, if you went as far as we just did for each one, you’d ask 10 questions of each answer and end up with 1,000 potential story points. And the final step of 10 answers for each of these would yield 10,000 story points!
Now in the real world, you probably won’t bother answering each question – just those that intrigue you. And, you won’t trouble yourself to ask questions about every answer – just the ones that suggest they have more development to offer and seem to lead in a direction you might like to go with your story.
The key point is that rather than staring at a blank page trying to find that one structural solution that will fill a gap or connect two points, use the Creativity Two-Step to trick your Muse into spewing out the wealth of ideas it naturally wants to provide.
This tip is taken from my StoryWeaver Story Development Software in which the whole first section helps you find inspiration and then grow those creative ideas into your characters, plot, theme, and genre. Try it risk-free for 90 days!
We all know that writing is not just about assembling words, but also about assembling ideas. When we actually sit down to write, we may have our ideas all worked out in advance or we may have no idea what we want to say – just a desire to say something. But either way, the one thing we could always use more of is inspiration.
In the work-a-day world, some of us must labor at uninspiring jobs, which dries up our creative juices. Others may be so driven to write a novel or a screenplay, but haven’t yet found a thing to say, sometimes leading to the doldrums we call writer’s block. For all of us, though, life intrudes, making it difficult to find and fan the spark within, Yet even in the worst of it, we all share the immutable desire to express ourselves through the written word.
So how can we break our Muse free from that straight jacket and let the ideas flow? Here are a few suggestions to try.
You might begin by writing about yourself. Even though you want to create fiction, writing a short autobiographical piece is like a warm-up exercise. This works because you don’t have to invent anything, just choose the words. Think of it as priming the pump. Often I have written material as a means of getting something off my chest, out of my thoughts, or perhaps just to get a grip on nebulous feelings or issues by forcing myself to put them into concrete terms.
You can do this exercise on social media and share with friends, or if it is too close to home, you can just keep it to yourself. But in either case, you’ve greased the wheels and the is absolutely the first prerequisite to finding inspiration.
Some of what I write this way has actually turned out to be salable as extended anecdotes, essays on personal growth, or insights into meaningful emotional experiences. But, most of what I have written for my audience of one remains with me. Perhaps it is too personal to share, or just too personal to have meaning to anyone else. No matter, though. It has done its job and now I am ready to work on the story I really want to write.
If writing autobiographical material isn’t your cup of tea, try this: Pick three random words out of thin air. I’ll pick Red, Ground, and Rover as an example. NextI’ll ask myself what those words might mean, if they were all taken together… Red, Ground, Rover. Rover could be a dog. Ground Rover could be hamburger… No, that’s not right… Moving on… Maybe these three words could be about someone roving over red ground – perhaps a Johnny Appleseed kind of guy on Mars. Now we’re cooking Okay, let’s run with that idea.
(Remember, the point here is not to create an actual story but to jog your creative process.)
Blurting out something that has no conscious intent behind it can be a useful trick in overcoming writer’s block. It seems that writer’s block most often occurs when we are intentionally trying to determine what we want to talk about. But, when we just put something forth and then try to figure out what it might mean, a myriad of possibilities suggest themselves.
If you like, take a moment and try it. Just jot down a few nonsense words to create a phrase. Then, consider what they might mean. Rather than attempting to create, you are now in analysis mode, the inverse emotional state of trying to produce something out of nothing. You’ll probably be surprised at how many interpretations of your phrase readily come to mind.
Now if you still aren’t ready to write, you can carry this a little further. Going back to my example, I’m thinking, Mars is red, and the Martian Rover explored the planet. Looks like I’m starting a science fiction story.
But what to do next? How about another nonsense phrase: “minion onion manner house.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s tie it in to the first phrase. Suppose there is some underling (minion) who is hunting for wild onions on Mars (onions being so suited to the nutrients in the soil that they grow wild in isolated patches). The underling works at the Manner House of a wealthy Martian frontier settler, but is known as Red Ground Rover because of his free-time onion prospecting activities.
Now, these phrases weren’t planned as examples for this book. To create an actual example, I just blurted them out as I suggest you do. And once they are out there, just as we see pictures in ink blots, animals in the clouds, and mythic figures in the constellations, we impose our desire for patterns even on the meaningless. And in so doing, we often find unexpected inspiration.
More than likely, none of our ideas are suited to what we are attempting to write, yet we have successfully dislodged our minds from the vicious cycle of trying to figure out what to say. And, returning to the specific task of our story, we are will just as likely be surprised to find that writer’s block has vanished while we were distracted.
For many authors, the hardest part of writing is the raw invention needed to come up with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, a meaningful theme, and an involving genre.
Often this is because authors tend to focus so hard on what their stories need that they aren’t even considering what THEY need to be inspired.
Here’s a tip: Next time you find yourself feeling particular creative and motivated to write, take note of your surrounding and yourself. Assess the situation and conditions that might be contributing to your proactive mood.
Keep these observations in a log so that you can look for recurring patterns over time or at least common elements, such as the time of day, the location, having had a good night’s sleep, lunch with a friend, after watching a particular genre of movie or listening to a particular style of song.
The first benefit is that you can begin to see ahead of time when these elements are expected to be present and to be prepared to take advantage of a visit from your Muse. The second benefit is that you can arrange your life to bring these elements into conjunction so that you can more easily write-on-demand whenever you choose.
This tip is taken from our StoryWeaver Story Development Software in which the whole first section helps you find inspiration and then grow those creative ideas into your characters, plot, theme, and genre.