When I’m asked “How do you start writing stories?”, the answer in my head is almost always, “My God, how do I stop?!” Of course I don’t say that out loud. (Or well, I did blurt it out once, to much hilarity…)
So here goes – some of my own thoughts & musings:
- Listen to the everyday stories of folk around you – To be honest, we’re all storytellers to one extent or another. It’s a Wednesday evening and I’ve heard at least twenty or thirty stories this week. Stories of daughters and sons; of sickness, bullying and celebrations; of wild weekends, mysterious vilifications and strange chemical reactions. I’ve heard mysteries, adventures, love stories, thrillers. I’ve seen props and photographs, shared tears and smiles. And am storing them away.
- Read books; watch films; go to plays – Basically, learn from the greats (and not so greats – learning from others’ mistakes helps more than you think). We learn our most basic and important skills by imitation – talking, walking, relating – and writing/storytelling is no different (evidence in itself that storytelling is one of the most essential skills we can learn/use). Find some heroes and read/watch everything they’ve ever done. Listen to the commentary track on a film (The Commentaries on the Buffy dvds are brilliant). Read a paragraph you like? Copy it long hand, get the feel of the words into your bones. Try re-writing a chapter of your favourite book. Try changing the ending. Sit at the feet of the masters then play with the toys they give you.
- Write for your own enjoyment – If you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, you’re really going to have a problem. CS Lewis said he wanted to write the stories he wanted to read. “The stories I want to read aren’t really out there, so I shall write them myself.” This is why you are unlikely to find me writing ghost stories…
- Read poetry – Writing poetry is a more technical skill to learn, but reading poems help with falling in love with words. And if you’re not in love with words, writing them becomes much more of a challenge.
- Invest in a proper thesaurus. Not a crappy alphabetical one, but a real one (I use Roget’s) arranged thematically. Reading around the words, and seeing words that are related and their antonyms close by aids understanding of how words interact with one another. And like with the poetry, helps fall in love with words.
- Write what you know… Or don’t – I hear the phrase “write what you know” parroted out so much, it makes me think that some writers are saying it in a selfish attempt to throw the rest of us off our game. For what I think when I hear this is, “Write what I know? How boring!”. What’s the point in writing about the things around you, about the daily grind of living. Isn’t the whole point of writing and storytelling to open a window to the unknown? Isn’t exploration, adventure and escape the whole shebang?! Well, yes and no. And here we come back to the old saw of separating out the plot/setting from character/theme. You see writing what you know is essentially about authenticity. It’s the characters’ reactions, behaviours and attitudes that have to be “what you know”, otherwise that’s where you lose your way. And it’s also important to maintain that authenticity within the story world itself – if you’ve established that a character behaves within certain limitations, to have them behave “out of character” can be disorienting, off-putting and loses your authentic voice. This is why (for me) bi-weekly soaps are so annoying – because so often it’s not that the situations are ludicrous (though sometimes they are), I can handle that, but that the people behave in ways that are completely unrealistic. I always used to say that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was so much more realistic, despite the fantasy setting and that’s because the characters were authentic. The upshot is, make your settings as fantastical as you like, make your plots as ludicrous and unpredictable as you can – but when it comes to the people of your world – write what you know. Stay authentic.
- Start writing/telling – As the Nike advertisers would tell us, Just Do It. Tell some stories to friends. They don’t have to be originals, retell stories you like, stories from your childhood, go with the classics – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. It feels weird at first, but like when you do your scales when learning an instrument, it’s the building blocks of storytelling. This gets you used to telling people stories. Sit in the garden (or maybe at this time of year, next to the fire) with a pen and paper, so much more satisfying than typing at a keyboard and start writing the first thing that comes into your head – even if it’s just lots of random gobbledygook. Practice the art of writing things down, practice the art of sharing stories.
Final thought – I came across this brilliant Slidedeck inspired by a number of tweets by Pixar Storyboard artist Emma Coats. The rather clever Gavin McMahon then put the tweets together as a slideshow – and bam! you have pretty much a storytelling Primer. Just brilliant!