Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Playing with story

I'd like to welcome new guest writer Rachel Connor to the site. Novelist, radio dramatist, all round creative and rampant foodie, Rachel is also employed by the Arvon Foundation. Her novel Sisterwives is due out late 2011.

I’m in a fertile phase of story development at the moment. With a novel just finished, I’m free to sketch out and scribble new ideas, seeing where they lead me. I’ve come to love this part of the process. It’s the writer’s equivalent of mucking about with modelling clay. I love to feel the texture of those stories, squidging them between my fingers and wondering what they might become.

The notion of story and where it might come from is preoccupying me a lot just now. I’ve blogged about it in my latest post Dreaming a story into being. So I thought it would be good to share a mind mapping process which I’ve found brilliantly helpful in building stories.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A reasonable chunk of uninterrupted time

  • A big piece of paper. Flipchart paper is great, or I sometimes use big rolly scrolls of paper that allow for continuous flow. Or 4 pieces of A4 stuck together, that also works

  • Marker pens, the more colourful the better

  • Optional: glitter glue or other materials to prettify; newspapers or magazines for cutting out pictures of possible settings and characters

Here’s what you do:

Write something in the middle of your big piece of paper. It can be anything: a word, a sentence, a concept, a name. It can be a fictional something or someone you’ve been thinking about for ages, or the first thing that pops into your head. Then, using free association, build up words and phrases around it, joining with arrows or lines. Fill the paper as much as you can with ideas. Don’t edit anything, just write down what comes – whether situations or people; events or themes. Enclose them in bubbles or love hearts. Make it pretty if you want to (use the optional glitter glue). Be creative. Write big.

If you like, flick through some magazines or newspapers and find pictures which represent your characters or settings and stick them somewhere on the paper. The idea is to create a story ‘mood board’ to help you envisage the situation you want to fictionalise.

Continue for as long as you want. Don’t, at this point, try to apply any structure or coherence to what comes up. Bizarrely, I find it sometimes helps to do this bit with my eyes half closed, almost as though I’m meditating.

The next step is about looking for connections, and this is where the events of the story might begin to take shape. Your character - let’s call her Sally - might be linked to specific words that give you an idea of where she lives, what she’s like, what she might have in her fridge, even. You might give her a home town – let’s say London. Then something tells you to cross that out and write Quimper. You’ve never been to Quimper. You’re not even sure where it is – Brittany, you think – and you’ve no idea why it pops into your head. But you write it down anyway and somehow, by shifting the action to Quimper you’ve given a new focus to the story. Now Sally, who is English, is temporarily living in France. This produces more questions – why? how long has she been there?- and it strikes you that you’ve hit on something that could be fascinating to explore: what it’s like to be an outsider, maybe; Sally’s experience of linguistic and cultural difference.

If it’s a story, something has to happen. Find another character for Sally to meet or love or clash with. Sally is working as a waitress in a café bar. In walks Harry, she takes his order. Then what? This point of action is probably where your story begins. What happens next is dictated by the kind of people the characters are, and how they interact. One thing is for sure: whatever happens next, meeting Harry must change something for Sally. Change is the fuel for stories.

But what if you want to ditch the idea? You don’t want to write about Harry and Sally at all. You can always screw up the paper and start again, repeating the whole process until you feel excited by a story’s possibilities. Chances are, though, if you’re bored or uptight or angry, it’s because you’re worrying too soon about your ability to write this down.

The key thing to remember is this: the process is all about play. It’s doodling, being open to the different routes that your story could take. At this stage, don’t get too logical; don’t close down your options too soon. Stay open minded. Be amazed by how, in a matter of less than a couple of hours, you’ve invented a whole world from scratch.

You can worry later about structure, about how you’re going to manufacture things so that event A is followed by event B and so on until the end. For now, fill that piece of paper. Work with your eyes half closed, and enjoy yourself. The hard work of writing it will begin soon enough.

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