Writers, we all know that awful feeling. The blank page or screen waiting expectantly for our brilliant words to fill it. And us, ready, desperate to flex our writing muscle or whatever the current expression is.
How can we get past that terrible block and just start writing? The thing is—I don’t know if it is the same for you—but the more I write, the quicker the ideas flow, but it is that getting started part that’s tricky. Of course, you’ll find loads of advice all over the internet on how to get those precious words down on paper. We’re talking free writing, dream diaries, character studies, writing prompts and the like. But honestly, if all that was needed from a writing prompt was any old word, we could—would—simply pick our own at random from the dictionary. True, these are all great ways of practising your technique (and like any craft, writing demands regular practice), but they don’t always give you a real connection to a piece of work. And that is because there is something fundamental missing.
Where do we find those elusive stories? Not hidden behind random words that have no emotional trigger. No, we need to seek them out or let them free, tell the stories that are inside us begging to be told. And for me, stories inevitably mean people.
So where do we start?
An infallible method
I want to share a method that always works for me. It comes with a health warning because it is addictive. And the caveat is that the story might not be a whole novel or even an entire short story. It might only amount to a paragraph or two, or a fleeting idea in a bigger picture, but there will always be something, always a story to be told.
So here’s what I do.
I ask questions.
There, that’s all there is to it. Well, more or less.
Questions about what? I have three categories—very broad categories—that work. You could try these or you could develop your own.
Try it with me
Choose a random person you pass on the street, choose a building you pass on your way to work, choose an object shoved in the back of the cupboard. This method works for anything. It could be something you can see, it could be a place you’ve made up (if you are into science fiction for example), it could be something you remember.
We could do this together. Have you got something? Anything will do.
Let’s start asking questions. Let’s start uncovering those stories that want to be told. Remember, no question is too simple, too stupid, too clichéd, too outrageous. So don’t self-censor at this point. You can ask the question and then say no. Really let your imagination off the leash.
Here are mine. I’m going to write them down exactly as they come. No editing.
1. The woman serving in the coffee shop. (NOTE: This is not a character study. This is finding a story.)
How long has she had this job? Why is she so grumpy? Has she had a fight with her husband this morning? No? Then what? Maybe she has learnt that she’s going to be evicted. Maybe she’s growing cannabis plants in her greenhouse and her neighbour grassed her off (pun fully intended). Why is she growing cannabis? Has she got some disease that is relieved by it or has she just got a long habit going back to when she was travelling in New Zealand? Why doesn’t she get on with her neighbour? What did they fall out about three years ago? What has she done to him that has made him call the police about her cannabis farm? Maybe she trapped his pet rabbit. Maybe she slept with his sixteen year old son.
2. The deserted tile factory
What went on between those walls when the factory was working? How long ago? Was it the 1960s? Was the boss a woman? That would have been unusual for the time. Why is she running a tile factory? Did she inherit it? No? Then maybe she won it in a bet. What was the bet? Maybe the previous owner is still working there. Maybe she has to prove that she can run it but he is trying to sabotage her work. Why can’t she get sales? Has he got a hold over his old customers?
3. A plastic dustpan and brush
Where did it come from? A factory in China? Who was working there? Who packed it for the wholesaler? Who signed for the shipment at the department store? What happened to him after he signed? Was it the end of his shift? Did he join his pals for five a side on the way home and then go to the pub and get pissed and crash his car? No? Well, did he go home to an empty house? Is he desperate to meet someone? Has he joined a dating agency and tonight is his first date? But is there something special about this dating agency? Is it only for people with dark tastes? What exactly? No? Then what about if he had arranged to meet someone and she didn’t show up? But maybe he hasn’t been stood up. Maybe she’s dead. Has she been murdered? Is he a suspect?
I had to stop myself with all of these or I would have gone on all day. Each question sets off a whole train of other questions. But after ten minutes work, I’ve got at least three stories to work on as (roughly) outlined below.
1. A scene in a coffee shop.
It goes something like this. The woman serving is rude to the customers. Increasingly so until her boss takes her aside. ‘Do you want to tell me what is going on?’ ‘Fuck off, there’s nothing going on.’ No way she was going to explain how she was working out where to sleep that night. Lucky that it wasn’t a police cell. Was it worth it? Sleeping with the neighbour’s son? Supplying his friends?
2. The tile factory. 1964.
Previous owner and protagonist out on a date. He’s laying on the old ‘I’m your boss thing’ pretty thick. She is smiling, looking pretty. He’s trying to get her pissed. She can hold her drink. Eventually he is more pissed than she is. She bets him something, can’t think what right now, in return for the factory. Witnessed by the barman. The barman is in on it. Her drinks have been watered down. She wins the factory.
3. Warehouse guy murder
Warehouse guy has the mick taken out of him by his colleagues because they all know he is going on a blind date that evening. He waits for her at the gates of the park. But she doesn’t turn up. Eventually he decides to go home, walks through the park, police sirens, he asks an onlooker, finds out a woman has been stabbed, ominous feeling. Next day, up early, local news, sees it is her. Sees his own face as a suspect. Doesn’t go in to work. Sweats it out for an hour or so. Makes a run for it when the police come looking. Because he may be innocent of murder but he has other secrets he doesn’t want them to know.
These ideas are all starting points. You can see that I haven’t got all the details but I certainly have some stories waiting to be told. When I’ve worked on them, written them up as scenes or longer, they might end up as a vignette in a novel or as the backstory of a character, as a short story or a piece of flash fiction. If you are really lucky, you might accidentally stumble across the single exceptional story that is the basis for your novel.
Let me know how you get on. What categories did you use? Did you discover some stories that were there all along? Or do you have other ways of doing a similar thing?
Featured image by Florian Klauer, unsplash.com