Growing a story

A story starts small. Something pops into your head and waves a little ‘potential story’ flag. There’s not much to it. It’s like a seed, dry and brown, hard to tell what it might turn into. But, like a seed, it’s full of potential if you treat it the right way.

It could be anything, this seed:

Who lives in that house?

What if there were a school for witches and wizards?

If the world were perfect, what would people complain about?

Why are my glasses never where I left them?

So what do you do with one of these ideas? Me, I leave it alone. I ignore it. A good idea will keep coming back to you. And every time it comes back, it’s a little bigger, a little stronger. I’ll find myself it asking questions, what-if questions mostly, when I’m not quite sleeping and when I walk my dogs, those times when my mind’s adrift.

At last it’s clear that the idea is a goer, a potential story. It has germinated, I suppose, and it’s ready to show its potential. That’s when I start writing things down. I start with everything I know so far, no more than a few sentences. Next, I work out the story’s timescale. Even when I don’t know exactly where the idea is going, it is usually possible to me to tell what portion of the whole I have. So I draw up a plan. Say I imagine that the story will take place over the course of a year. I’ll write a sort of calendar and work out where the bit I already have fits. I ask lots of questions: what happened before this, why did it happen, what happened next, where is it leading? It doesn’t all come at once. Sometimes I have to put the plan to one side and come back to it. Sometimes I have to throw away all I’ve done and work it out a different way.

Now you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned characters and setting yet, aren’t you? I’ll tell you why. In the past, I’ve written character sheets and planned different settings. But I find that I rarely refer to them, and, when I do, what I’ve written is completely different from what I’d planned. The characters and settings grow best for me when they emerge from my storytelling. By letting them emerge, I find I tell the reader what is necessary and interesting in the places where it is necessary and interesting.

So here I am. I have a plan, chapter by chapter, of the events that will take place in my book. I know the timescale of the story, and I know what roles the characters will play and I also have a good idea what sort of people they are, though I am trying to ignore them at the moment so that they can act as they wish once I start writing. The ending? I have an idea of the ending. I know where the story’s heading, but I’m not 100% sure it will work out the way I’m expecting.

And then I write. And for all the planning, the story seems to grow by itself. Bits appear that weren’t in the plan. Of course they do, because the plan was only a couple of sentences per chapter. Minor characters turn out to be much more important and interesting than I thought. I find myself writing about things that interest me but that I never realised would fit into this book until I started writing. The story swells, fed by all the things I am, the things I’ve experienced and what I’m interested in. Sometimes it dredges things I’ve forgotten from my memory. Sometimes it makes me realise I care about things I hadn’t noticed were important to me. It takes on a life of its own.

Claire Watts

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2 Responses to Growing a story

  1. lovely article Claire. I think after all is said and done, this is why we love writing so much. It is our creation, bad or good. We are little gods playing with what’s going to happen next, characters, what ifs, follow the dots…I wish I can always sit down and follow my story without life interfering. Does that sound crazy?.

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    • Not at all crazy, Rita! I do think the amazing thing is how much free will characters seem to have. You know it’s wrong when you’re making them do things they wouldn’t do.

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