ON FACEBOOK A COUPLE of days ago, my friend Jennifer Eagleton wrote about the excitement of sitting down to start a new piece of creative writing.
She’s right: starting a new book or screenplay or game design or song does feel great.
But then what usually happens?
Let’s be honest, there are few things more inertia-creating than a blank page staring at you from a computer screen, daring you to fill it with something brilliant.
It’s almost painful. There’s the keyboard, there’s the clock with the time set aside for writing, but where’s the genius-level concept?
This is the sixth part of a weekly series on how to write novels and screenplays.
Part one dealt with defining the word “story”.
Part two dealt with understanding why stories matter.
Part three dealt with choosing a title.
Part four dealt with the importance of setting aside enough time to get to the end of the project.
Part five dealt with seven elements commonly found in popular stories.
Here's one of the curiosities of modern life. People who sell computers or software programs call them “productivity tools”. But I have never known anyone to produce a brilliant idea while sitting in front of a computer.
Great ideas come while you are thinking creatively while doing something else: walking, reading, playing, dreaming, flicking through a newspaper or magazine.
For example, you encounter a curious news story, and you think: “Wonder what that feels like?” “What if instead of that happening, this happened….?”
But there was a sentence in the story which caught my attention. It said that his son was with him in the room at the moment of arrest.
Most people see drug-dealers as bad guys who should be grabbed by police and taken away to jail. But that’s not how children see Dad. Dad is usually a hero figure, the somewhat bumbling but good-at-heart guy who works hard to earn money to feed and care for his family.
I wondered: Which response did this boy have? It would be interesting to tell the story from his point of view.
Tied to the fact that the boy’s emotions were likely to be pulled powerfully in at least two directions, comes another thought: teenage children, like adults, often react to situations in unexpected ways.
So even if we could work out how the boy felt, in real life he may have responded differently.
He might be filled with fury against his father—or against the detective. But he might express this by emptying himself of emotions and becoming sullen and silent. Or he might be stunned and confused, but express this by violent anger.
So we have a character and a situation and a big pile of emotions. What do we do now? Once we have an idea from real life, we add elements to give the story depth.
- Maybe the boy’s parents broke up; his mother left him, but his loyal Dad kept custody, because Dad is the only one who loves him.
- Or maybe the police officer also has teenage children, and feels sorry for the boy, wanting to talk to him, straight after the arrest.
- Or maybe drug-dealer Dad entrusts the boy with a secret before the police arrest him. And now the boy has to decide whether the secret is good or bad. And whether he should tell the detective.
The ideas above COULD work, but they could also be formulaic if handled badly. We really, really want to avoid being formulaic.
So perhaps we could go in a different direction.
Maybe the centre of the plot is a series of discussions between the boy and the detective. You just know that that relationship is going to be interesting—it’s almost definitely going to be a great beating heart for a story.
Perhaps the detective has no children. He doesn’t know how to deal with young people and goes through a steep learning curve.
I realized that the newspapers had, once again, delivered a great story idea for me.
Did I sit down and write the boy’s story?
No. And the reason I didn’t is another good lesson for story-writers.
Just because you’ve had a good idea, it doesn’t mean you should start writing immediately. The fact is, you’re going to need multiple ideas. One isn’t enough. Aim to have five or six at least, if not ten or more.
Here’s the reason why. Stories make up their own minds about exactly when they want to emerge.
You may look at your ideas list and find you are really excited about story number one, or number four or number seventeen. But you’re having a tough time making progress on it.
The best thing to do is drop it for now, and get working on a different one. There will be one which will flow out of your brain cortex like a river of words.
How do you get lots of ideas? Get a pocket-sized ideas book, or make a “notes” section on your smartphone, where you can jot down good ideas whenever they occur, even if you are sitting on a bus, or chatting with friends. You’ll be surprised how often things that people say or things that you see or hear or read will trigger story ideas in your head.
Reading the news, preferably daily, is vital. Get into the newspaper habit, either physically or on a screen. It's often the short items in the "news in brief" columns that spark the best story ideas.
Taking situations from real life can have advantages. They are more realistic. They will feel familiar to readers. And they take you part-way along your journey of imagination.
Soon you’ll have a big fat book of great ideas. And you’ll never find yourself sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, wondering where to get started. Instead, you’ll be bursting with ideas, and dying to get writing. It’s a great feeling.
Now you know what you are going to write about, is it finally time to sit down at the computer?
No. There’s one more thing you have to do before you start writing.
It’s the one that 90 per cent of authors miss.
It’s the most crucial step of all.
And I'll tell you all about it... some other time.
Okay, it'll be next Friday.
(Illustrations: "Fantasy-art-child"; picture of boy posed by model)