This month, some tips for helping you to begin to close in on what the one story is that you need to tell, as it hides in the undergrowth of your mind. And then a discussion about finding the easiest way through.
1. One way to discover the story you need to tell is to think about what you want to achieve through the telling and work backwards. Do any of the following speak to you?
-I just love making things up.
-There’s a part of me that is always hidden away. I want to let it out.
-I want to feel creative, be creative.
-If I’m really honest, I just want to be published writer. I’d like that status.
-I get kick out of being on stage and performing my poetry.
-To express my feelings.
-I know through writing I try to bring order to my world, to feel in control.
-I’ve had a difficult time recently. I want to move on. If I write a story that’s based around my experiences, I think that will help.
-I’m an old lady now. I’ve got stories I need to tell’
-I’ve got to write reports for work. My colleagues are telling me they’re boring to read. I’d like to learn some techniques to make them entertaining.
-I want to improve my grammar and spelling in a way that keeps my interest.
-I’ve got a fantastic idea for a book/film/poem. I want some support to write it.
-I want to meet other storytellers.
2. The best stories are often the simplest. I began my writing career as a screenwriter. In screenwriting there is a term KISS- ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Myself, I’m not sure about the ‘stupid’ bit, but it remains broadly true. There is a difference between complication and complexity. Complications are plot twists and turns. Complexity is depth of character. If a story has too many complications there is not sufficient room for the characters to move through a range of emotions, and there isn’t time for the reader to experience those emotions and process them alongside the character. Many new storytellers (and some old hands as well), try to put too much into their stories. Don’t be one of them. A good way to gauge if your story is simple enough is to imagine you are telling it to a child, (or find a real child to tell it to!) And complexity- well that’s welcome, but that’s for later in the process. As you choose your initial story idea all you need is the skeleton of the plot. For now, you don’t need more than that.
3. Choose an idea that’s ‘extreme’. When I say extreme, I don’t mean that it necessarily needs to contain battle scenes with thousands of soldiers. I mean emotional extremity. Make sure your idea has the potential for extreme emotions: happiness, sadness, jealousy, anger etc. It’s interesting to note that the stories with the fewest characters or the shortest timescales can sometimes be the most extreme in this way.
4. Choose an idea that has the potential for tension and conflict. Again, low level simmering conflict at the family dinner table is as effective as world leaders gathering to try to end a war.
5. Pick an idea that screams for visualisation. You want your reader or listener to be able to see the story in their mind. So you need to be able to see it first.
6. Above all, remember that you are a natural storyteller. If there’s a story that swills round your brain and keeps coming back and back, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably a story that needs to be told, and a story that will work. And that’s regardless of any doubts that your rational mind hurls in your face.
Words Are Clay
It can also be useful to remember that wild words are living, breathing creatures, adaptable and evolving. (Just like the wild animal. And the wild storyteller). Follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville when he says,
‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft- nay, but the draft of a draft.’ -Herman Melville Moby Dick
You can’t get it ‘right’ or wrong’, there is only engagement with an ongoing process.
Try to view words as physical substance (again, more closely related to your body than to your mind). The most important post-war Italian novelist, Italo Calvino, did just that. In a letter to one of his critics, he explained how to view his work:
The written page is not a uniform surface like a piece of plastic; it is more like the cross-section of a piece of wood, in which you can see how the lines of the fibers run, where they form a knot, where a branch goes off.
-Italo Calvino Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985
Your job is to play with form. Stay light around the process. Treat it as clay to be formed.
The Path of Least Resistance
In the opening of his book ‘The Path of Least Resistance’ Robert Fritz tells us an interesting fact about the city of Boston. ‘The Boston roads were actually formed by utilizing cow paths. The cow moving through the topography tended to move where it was immediately easiest to move… Each time cows passed through the same area, it became easier for them to take the same path they had taken the last time, because the path became more and more clearly defined... As a result, city planning in Boston gravitates around the mentality of the seventeenth-century cow’.
He takes this fascinating fact as a starting point for a discussion on how we can create pathways to achieve our personal and professional goals.
The challenging terrain of our lives can include mountains of expectations, rivers of anxious thoughts, and the bogged ground of habits. There is an art to moving with ease, and navigating with flow. It makes sense to put in place a structure that supports us to find the easiest route through.
Often, we need to start by being really honest with ourselves. For example, I think I want to write words that are brave, and vivid, but when I look closer I realise that I have great deal to lose by writing in a way that challenges society, or my family. Until this conflict is resolved, the energy will not move along the path I intend, because it is not the path of least resistance. If I keep trying to meet an unrealistic target, and continually fail, my confidence will spiral downwards.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.