Friday, February 26, 2016

Beginning Your Story: Setting the Fire

You started with a spark of inspiration, a story question or a situation worth exploring. You've brainstormed all the related ideas, themes, characters, situations feelings, even symbols or mental images this idea inspired through mind-mapping, previewing and visualization. Now it's time to get cooking.

Find the Hottest Coals

First: set all that work aside (you'll need it later) and walk away. Clear your head. Think about something else. In fact, don't think about story at all.

Second: find your mental creative place (a quiet room, or put on your headphones and blast your favorite music, go for a walk, or even just wait until a certain time of day when you feel the most relaxed and creative) and summon up those feelings and images that first inspired you.

Third: without referring to you notes, write down the four or five key ideas you feel are absolutely necessary, the things which resonate with you the strongest, the reason you want to write this story.

Pile On the Fuel

Now get in touch with your inner seven-year-old child and ask questions, lots of questions. Pick the first item on your short list and start writing down questions. If the item you're thinking about is a thing or a place, be sure to ask about the people behind it. Who made it, or made it significant. What important thing happened there or with it? If it's about a person, ask what important changes have occurred in their life when the story starts. What do they want to change? Why haven't they done so before now? If the item is more abstract, ask yourself what about it makes it cool, creepy, attractive, frightening or maddening and what kind of people, places or things do you associate it with.

Don't worry about whether or not the questions seem silly or even make sense. Just jot them down quickly You're goal here is to trick your subconscious into giving up its secrets. When you've gone through each item, go back and answer these questions. Again, work quickly. Write whatever springs to mind. If some questions or answers stand out, go back and ask more. You may even find yourself in a dialog with yourself, asking and answering your own questions as you look for the meaning behind the things you want to write about.

No matter how strange this dialog may seem, assume that nuggets of pure gold are hiding within. You are telling yourself what you want to write. Like a young child, your subconscious may not explain itself very well or lose site of the pig picture under a mound of odd details so be prepared to look at these ideas from all angles as you search for the secret connections and purpose behind them all.

When you do go back afterward, focus on the people, groups and organizations behind the story. Look at their history and motivations. Look for patterns, who works together with whom and why? Where do they agree and disagree? The heat of your story comes from conflict and conflict comes from strongly motivated characters pursuing incompatible goals or using incompatible methods to achieve them.

At this point, you may already have a full story in your head. If you gone through all the steps so far, you should, at the very least, have the essence of one ready to be put together. All you have to do is find your focus and concentrate the heat.

Next time – Beginning Your Story: Concentrating the Heat

Beginning Your Story: Chasing the Spark

Once you have that spark, you'll need to gather up all the toys (story ideas) that you want to play with. There are probably many methods of mining the subconscious, here are a few that have worked for me.


What is it about the spark the most fascinates you? Does it evoke a particular emotion? Does it promise interesting conflict? Does it explore an interesting point of view?

  1. Write it down in the middle of a blank piece of paper and circle it.
  2. Giving yourself only a few seconds, without thinking, quickly write every idea—no matter what—the first idea provokes.
  3. Afterward, review the results, and draw lines connecting these new ideas to your first idea.
  4. Select the most interesting of the new ideas, circle it and repeat the process.
  5. Continue until you fill the page, run out of ideas or feel that you've got enough ideas to work with.
  6. Finally, look over the results. Which ideas repeat? Which stand out as most interesting or important? Which seem to group together? Which seem to contradict or oppose other ideas?

You may find ideas for characters, conflicts, settings, even snatches of dialog, forming early in the process. Write them down and keep mapping. You may only need to do this process once or you might want to do this several times over several days, each time focusing on different core ideas which the first map produced. When you find all the elements you need to form The Sentence you know you are nearly there.


Close your eyes and imagine your story is finished. You're holding it in your hands. It is exactly the type of story you'd hoped it would be and, fortunately, brilliant reviewers think the exact same thing. (That's why they're brilliant.) Write a review of the finished story. (Which you haven't started yet.) Feel free to describe it as the best, most amazing, most profound work of fiction ever written, but describe why it is. Describe the characters, the themes, the plot, the setting, etc. Describe how it feels to read it. Describe why others should read it. Describe how and why it will change your readers' lives and what they will get out of it. Once you've calmed down, go back and look at it, underlining the ideas you want in your story.


I don't spend a lot of time on Pinterest. In fact I wouldn't have created an account there at all if I hadn't stumbled across some Pinterest boards while doing image searches for a book set in Japan. I tend to use it primarily when researching settings and then after the plot is well established. But there is a long tradition of writers cutting out pictures of people who resemble characters and places to be used as settings. If you are more visually oriented, try starting the creation process by seeking out and collecting images which evoke the feelings and ideas you want your story to convey.

Whichever method(s) you use, before long, you should find yourself with a bunch of fragments that need to be drawn together into a story. (Assuming the story hasn't already assembled itself.)

Next time – Beginning Your Story: Setting the Fire