Writing a fictional story: The creative process
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Have you ever thought about writing a fictional story based on an old family photo, but never knew quite where to begin? Or maybe you have a child who bubbles over with stories, and you want to guide them through the story-writing process. Whether you’re young or old, story writing can be wonderfully stretching, self-expressive, and even healing.
Writing a fictional story is a fluid process. Ideas lead to outlines; outlines lead to new ideas. After writing the first draft, you may see new possibilities for characters and settings. You revisit your outline, and more ideas spill out.
Whatever your plan of action, don’t be afraid to write. Write as often as you can—with honesty and courage. As your story unfolds, keep these three building blocks of the creative process in mind.
1. Unlikely Combinations: The Brainstorming Process
Original stories spring from curious minds. What if my childhood toaster came to life? What if a mail-order bride was secretly a spy? The possibilities are endless when you open yourself to unlikely combinations.
A deaf composer, a blind ice skater, a baseball pitcher without a right hand—these are the things great stories are made of. The characters inside your head can become just as fascinating when you imagine their lives, dreams, and personal challenges in a way no one else ever could.
Before Suzanne Collins became famous for her dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games, she was simply a writer who asked questions.
- What if reality TV entertainment came at a truly violent price?
- What if ancient Greek myths and Roman gladiatorial games became a reality in the future of North America?
The author’s imagination combined ideas and images until she had created something wholly memorable and new. This is the fiction writer’s brainstorming process.
2. Broad and Fine Brush Strokes: The Outlining Process
Sometimes, writing a fictional story begins with a single vivid picture: an empty road at dusk, a half-submerged bridge, an ancestral castle. At other times, your mind’s eye will zoom in on the particulars: a red hair ribbon, a pile of shells, or a snippet of conversation. Like the broad sweeps of color and the fine details of a painting, both are important, and both equally valid starting points for a story.
Next you need an outline, a place to organize your content and fill in the gaps. We find a meaningful example of creative organization in the Genesis creation account. In the beginning, everything is formless and empty. Then the Author turns on the light, so to speak, and the work of outlining begins.
He creates three major settings (just like three acts in a story or play): sky, water, and dry land. The broad brush strokes are complete. But the settings would be pretty dull without props to build a scene. So the Creator/Author:
- Drapes the bare land with plants: twisting vines, shy flowers, and showy trees.
- Fills the sky with sparrow songs and eagle calls, and generously sprinkles the water with fins and scales and sticky tentacles.
- Populates the earth with land-dwelling creatures—hairy and slimy and everything in between! The scene is set with sounds and colors; there are pets to cuddle and foods to eat.
- Introduces a man and a woman, for after all, a scene is lifeless without characters to speak and hide and stumble and grow. A romance is born, and a family line commences for better or worse.
An epic story can come to life, for the work of outlining is now complete.
3. Careful Selection: The Storytelling Process
After all the brainstorming and outlining, it’s tempting to clutter a story with too many people, facts, and details. Instead, make careful and thoughtful choices. After all, you would never offer several dozen different dishes to your family for lunch or paint a bedroom in 17 shades of pink, blue, and orange.
In the same way, a good story shouldn’t include every moral lesson or gruesome detail from the author’s imagination. Some parts of the story will ultimately remain in the writer’s head, so her readers can enjoy only the best parts.
This is why I love the portrayal of Walt Disney in the 2013 movie, Saving Mr. Banks. Using every power of persuasion, Disney finally convinces Pamela Travers to let him make Mary Poppins into a timeless, magical movie:
“Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Whether you’re writing a fictional story for yourself, an audience of three, or the thousands in your circle of acquaintances, take the time and imagination to polish your story. Life is messy and cluttered, but good stories remind us of a world where order and hope and redemption are always possible.
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science.
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