Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chasing Stories: How to trap the elusive idea

The author of today's guest post is PHC student Sarah Watterson. Sarah is a sophomore literature major at PHC who spends her spare time chasing stories and devouring those that other writers have caught.

In Barnes and Noble a few days ago, I noticed a game in which one threw three dice to create a story. On each side of the cubes was a different picture and from the combination of pictures one had to piece together an impromptu tale. While I'm not sure this is a foolproof method, it highlights what is necessary for the creation of a story. A story is just the joining of elements that were originally separate, a piecing together of different things. Story-writing is all about making connections and creating patterns.

But how does one come up with a good story idea? To be entirely honest, I'm not really sure. Often I have no idea where one of my story plots comes from; all I know is there is something gnawing at my brain that was not there before. C.S. Lewis said The Chronicles of Narnia was inspired by a mental picture of a faun walking through the snow carrying an umbrella. J.R.R. Tolkien was grading papers one day when a line popped into his head, which he promptly wrote down: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So of course he had to find out what a hobbit was, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were born. I was encouraged when I learned that Tolkien was just as surprised as his characters when Black Riders entered the Shire and the hobbits met a stranger called Aragorn in an inn. Stories, once begun, can run away with you.

To acquire that elusive beginning, I can offer a few hints that may help you (some serious, some perhaps less so).

Dream often. The books Frankenstein and The Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were purportedly inspired by their authors' nightmares. So if you can remember a weird or fascinating dream, write it down. You may become the next Robert Louis Stevenson. But if you are not gifted with such dreams (I'm not), take heart and read on.

Take long showers. While this advice might seem a little strange, I have found that some of my best inspirations come while I’m taking a long, hot shower. Maybe the streams of warm water aid in the flow of imagination. But seriously, find the right place where you write most easily and haunt that place like a restless ghost. Maybe it is not the shower (I rather hope not for the sake of your family members who will be taking arctic baths), but whether it is under a favorite tree or in a cozy nook or in the local library, settle yourself down and start banging or scribbling away.

This next one is a no-brainer: Learn from the best. Read the great works of other authors. I promise, they are the farthest thing from stuffy or dull. As you read, pay attention to the things they do well. How does this author tell an engaging story? How does he make you care about his characters? How does she make the setting seem real? Find the crème de la crème of the genre in which you desire to write and learn from them. And while I have no quarrel with the living, dead authors often are the best teachers. Though I'm sure you can get plenty of recommendations,  I will put in my own plug for Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Connor, and C.S. Lewis. And the Bible definitely counts as well. God is, hands down, the best Storyteller.

Bounce ideas off your friends. Many of my story ideas come from conversations in which my friends and I spin a “what if?” into a story.

Find some children to tell a story to. Kids love stories, and they will help you think on your feet. When a six-year-old asks you for a story about a dragon, he likely won't be willing to wait for an hour while you sort out your thoughts. You will be forced to invent quickly. So find some siblings, kids you babysit or a friend's little sister and weave them a tale. It doesn't have to be serious; make it light-hearted and funny. But I guarantee it will get your imagination working.

Look for story ideas in your studies. My friends can attest that my school notes are full of story scribblings because ideas will drop into my head while a professor is lecturing or the class is discussing a concept. Unlikely as it might seem, school textbooks, history lectures, and biographies are a gold mine of story ideas. Be on the alert.

Notice the little things. Anything, a diverting circumstance, an interesting sounding place, even an unusual name can release a train of ideas that eventually gel into a narrative.  Story ideas often come when they are unexpected. So pay attention and be ready. Write ideas on napkins if necessary.
While this may sound patently obvious, one of the best ways to write is to, well, write. Just sit down and start spewing whatever comes to mind. Trust me, this is not a waste of time. Often when you start writing, the words begin flowing of their own accord. (This article is a perfect example. I started not knowing what I was going to say and now you are scrolling down, searching and praying for an ending).

Final advice (yes, this will have an end): Be patient. Keep working and give yourself time to let ideas brew. Dig persistently and you will find some nuggets of treasure, even if it feels like you have to dig all the way to China. In short, just keep spilling words onto paper (or Word processor) and keep your eyes and ears open. Who knows what  might drop into your head, demanding to be scribbled down. Happy writing one and all!

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