Now that we have looked at some ways of generating ideas for stories, it's time to look closely at how we tell our stories. One of the earliest decisions that a writer will need to make is to choose a narrative style.
First of all, it is important to know the difference between the author and the narrator. Obviously the author is the person writing the story. But the author is not necessarily the person telling the story. Quite often the story is being told by one of its characters.
When writing fiction in first person narrative (I, me, my, we, etc.) it is important to develop a character who is independent of yourself as a writer. Obviously you may put a lot of yourself into the character, but ultimately the character is not actually you. You need to develop a deep understanding of this character – how they talk, how they react to situations, how they think. Eventually you should know this character better than they know themselves. Some first person narratives – such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – have very strong, distinctive voices for their narrators, and while not all first-person narrators need to be as distinctive as Holden Caulfield, it is still important to find their voice.
When writing in first-person narrative, it is also important to remember that the action must be limited to what the narrator can perceive. We cannot go outside his or her field of knowledge or read the thoughts of other characters. Everything that is described must be through the narrator’s senses.
The appeal of first-person narrative is that it provides opportunities to get inside the narrator’s head. He or she can openly discuss their feelings. We view the story through their eyes alone, and often relate to them in a personal way. First person narrative creates close contact with the reader. It helps readers to empathise with your protagonist and develop an emotional connection with them.
Third-person narrative (he, she, it, John, Mrs Brown, etc.) gives the writer an omnipresence, the ability to view the story from anywhere, like a ‘fly on the wall’. Many stories are told this way. The narrator has the ability to read the thoughts of any character, and to describe any scene regardless of who is in it. This is particularly useful for stories that have many characters or locations. Third person narratives still normally have one or two main characters with whom the reader can closely connect. In fact, many stories written in third person narrative still do not reveal information that the protagonist does not know. This achieves the effect of aligning the reader with one main characters, creating a close relationship and empathy between reader and character. Remember, readers must care about your characters on some level in order to maintain an emotional interest in your story.
Selecting your point of view depends on the type of story you are writing. Quite often the narrative style will select itself naturally. Sometimes you might even abandon a story that is ‘not working’ and start again from a different point of view for much better results. Carefully considering what your narrative style is going to be, and knowing who is going to tell the story, is one of the most important early decisions you will make.
What exactly is imagination? Perhaps there is no strict definition. But here is a true story to help us understand its value to creative writers:
A good friend of mine once described how he’d been writing about a storm, but had struggled to think of an adequate description for the thunder.
All of the usual descriptions seemed a bit boring and stale. A sudden clap of thunder or an angry roll of thunder just didn’t excite him. He needed something fresh and original – something highly imaginative. But it just couldn’t come to him. It seemed like all the good descriptions had already been used many times before.
Couple of weeks later, he was waiting at a bus stop when there was a sudden clap of thunder! It was one of those loud, unexpected crashes followed by an echoing rumble that gradually fades into silence. It reminded him of the time he’d failed to come up with a highly imaginative description of it, and it plagued him that he still couldn’t think of one now. As he was contemplating this, a little girl no older than four or five turned to her mother and said: Mummy, God just dropped his piano!
Wow! thought the writer. What an original, creative and beautiful way of describing thunder. But how is it that a young child, in seconds, was able to come up with such a vivid and original description of something an experienced writer had strained over for weeks?
Perhaps imagination could be described as the ability to see the world through the eyes of a child.
A common myth about imagination is that young children are more imaginative than older children or adults. Well that is nonsense. Sure, many young children are highly imaginative, but do we really lose our imaginations as we mature? Of course not. The problem is that the older we get, the more our thinking patterns begin to follow set rules and routines, and the more easily our imagination is blocked. And as we get older we become more conscious of ridicule. For example, if you don’t believe in God, or even if you believe in him but find it difficult to believe that he would be moving his own piano rather than getting somebody else to do it for him, then you would probably never think of such a description as readily as a young child.
In order to truly ‘free the mind’ and exercise our imaginations, we need to think with the clarity and inquisitiveness of a young child. This does not mean thinking in a childish way. It simply means we need to achieve an open-mindedness that comes only when our thoughts are free of inhibitions, fears and set thinking patterns. The exercises that you completed in Part One are a good example of this style of free thinking.
No matter who you are or where you come from, you have already had a wealth of life experiences that can provide ideas for some great original stories. (Remember here that we are talking about ideas for fictional stories. Autobiographical, or reflective writing will be covered later.)
Perhaps you have had some exciting stories happen to you in your life. They can always be a good source for ideas. But you don’t need to have been abducted by aliens to have some interesting experiences to draw upon. Quite often the smaller things can be just as good. Of particular interest can be stories of high emotion, such as times when you were very scared, or very happy. Experiences that teach us a valuable lesson in life can also be a very good resource.
And the experiences that inspire us don’t necessarily have to be our own, they can be of other people we know or even just people that we hear about.
Australian author John Marsden says that he got a lot of great ideas from observations he made when working in schools. Once he was teaching some Year 7 girls who created a character out of the shape of the leaves pressing against a window. They called it Max, and it became a running joke with them. Max eventually became an important part of Marsden’s popular novel Out of Time.
Marsden also acknowledges that the main inspiration for his best-selling book So Much to Tell You was the courage of Kay Nesbitt, a Melbourne woman whose face was disfigured by a gunshot wound. Newspapers and other media can be wonderful sources of ideas for your stories. Quite often they are filled with fascinating stories of tragedy, luck, happiness, humour, you name it! And often the most interesting stories are the very short ones hidden away far behind the major headlines. By simply browsing through a newspaper, you can often find seeds for hundreds, maybe thousands of great ideas.
One of the most common questions writers get asked is Where do you get your ideas from? Well the answer is there is no simple answer. Writers get their ideas from a wide variety of sources. As we have already seen, there are some common strategies used to generate good ideas.
It is important first of all to distinguish between an idea and a story. An idea is an interesting concept that has the potential to be turned into a good story. A story is the final product that is created when the idea has been developed and reworked probably many times.
Sometimes good ideas come to us unexpectedly in a bolt of inspiration, but that is rare. Most ideas are generated from our own experiences, or from our observations of others. Ideas can come from incidents at school, work or home, or even from TV shows or other people’s writing. They can come from all sorts of places – often unexpected places. Ideas surround us daily, and good writers are good observers of them. Some writers even carry a notebook with them to record their ideas as they come to them. That is recommended!
Ideas can be compared to seeds in a garden. Some will blossom into flowers, others may turn out to be weeds, and some won’t even germinate at all. But the more seeds you have the better your chance of flowers.
An essential combination
In a nutshell, it could be said that all ideas come from only two places: experience and imagination. Most fictional stories are a combination of the two.
In Maria Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi we read about the life of Josephine, the daughter of Italian immigrants in Australia. Even though it is a work of fiction, we know that Marchetta herself is the daughter of Italian immigrants so a lot of the story would be based on her own life. This is an example of experience mixed with imagination.
Even stories that seem exotic and surreal can be inspired by real life. J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan was inspired by the death of the author’s 13 year-old brother. As Barrie and his family grew older, his brother remained the same age in their memories. He was ‘the boy who never grew up’.
Great works of fiction often come from real life experiences mixed up with a healthy dose of imagination. It would be extremely difficult to write a fictional story based simply on one or the other.
Lateral Thinking is a term first coined by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1967. It involves thinking 'sideways' (laterally) rather than straight ahead. When we are mentally solving a problem, we are trying to get from one point to another in our minds and we normally try to take the most direct route. But sometimes it may be more productive to take a few sideways steps and approach the problem from a different angle. Possibly an angle that we hadn't considered earlier.
Let's look at an example. Supposing the characters in your story are trapped in an elevator. You need them to escape, but you don't want them to go through the hatch in the ceiling because that is rather boring and uninspired. You want a clever alternative, but you just can't think of one. You've tried brainstorming the question How do my characters escape from the elevator? but you're still not satisfied with any of the ideas you've come up with. You're just about ready to give up. Major writers' block!
Now let's try some sideways thinking. So far we've focused on how our characters can escape from the elevator. But what if we asked ourselves Why do they need to escape? Maybe they discover that the elevator is really a spacecraft, or a time machine. Maybe it takes them to a secret place that hasn't been discovered before. Or perhaps a bomb goes off outside and the elevator saves them. Or maybe we could ask ourselves What else could they be trapped in besides an elevator? Does it have to be an elevator or can it be a closet, or a public toilet, or an ice-cream van?
This common technique is known as Question the Question. That is, to answer questions with further questions rather than possible solutions.
All this time you've been presuming that escape is the best alternative, but perhaps it is not. Lateral thinking is about looking beyond the obvious – a bit off to the side. As de Bono says: You cannot dig another hole by digging the same hole deeper. In other words, if you are writing or planning and you get a bit stuck, then perhaps instead of trying to push through you should simply change directions. Think of some alternatives that you hadn't considered before, even if they seem ridiculous at first. Dig your hole in another spot.
Let’s consider our previous question regarding moon missions. If we were to question this question, a couple of possible responses might be:
Have there been any secret moon missions that the public didn't know about, and if so why?
How do we know the moon landing ever happened in the first place?
From the Lateral Thinking list we are beginning to consider whether there might have been a conspiracy regarding the moon landing. Maybe NASA faked it in order to win bragging rights over the Russians, their space travel rivals at the time. That would be a fascinating story in itself, or perhaps it could inspire a similar story set in the future about a Space Race to Mars, or Pluto. Or maybe your story could take place in a galaxy we don't even know about. A race to find the fabled planet called Earth? As we can see, there are many great stories that could be written around one simple topic. Use these creative thinking techniques to give yourself a wide pallet to paint with – the wider the better.
Separate names with a comma.