Writing fictional stories: The creative process
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PERHAPS you’ve always wanted to write a fictional story based on an old family photograph, but never knew quite where to begin. Or maybe you have a child who bubbles over with stories, and you want to gently offer guidance for the story-writing process. Whether you are young or old, writing fictional stories can be a wonderfully stretching, self-expressive, and even healing process.
The art of creating fiction is a fluid process. Ideas lead to outlines; outlines lead to new ideas. Writing a first draft may reveal new possibilities for characters and settings, so you decide to outline again, and more ideas emerge.
Whatever your plan of action, don’t be afraid to write. Write honestly and courageously, and write as often as you can. As your story unfolds, keep these three building blocks of the creative process always in mind.
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 your mind and heart 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 will become just as riveting when you imagine their lives and dreams and personal challenges in a way that 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 were ultimately reborn in North America’s future? 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.
Broad and Fine Brush Strokes: The Outlining Process
Sometimes, you’ll begin a story 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. Now you need an outline, a place to organize your content and fill in the gaps.
We find a profound example of creative organization in the Genesis creation account. All is formless and empty in the beginning. Then the Author turns on the light, so to speak, and the work of outlining begins. He creates three major settings (aren’t there three acts in your story?): the sky, the water, and finally dry land. The broad brush strokes are complete.
A setting would be dreadfully dull without the props to build a scene. So the Creator/Author drapes the bare land with plants: twisting vines, shy flowers, and showy trees. He fills the sky with sparrow songs and eagle calls, and generously sprinkles the water with fins and scales and sticky tentacles. Don’t forget the 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.
A scene is lifeless without characters to speak and hide and stumble and grow. Finally, the Author introduces a man and a woman. 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.
Careful Selection: The Storytelling Process
After so much brainstorming and outlining, it’s tempting to clutter our stories with too many people, unnecessary facts, and boring details. We must make careful, conscious selections. You would never serve 45 different dishes to your children for lunch. Your daughter would never expect you to paint her bedroom in 36 shades of pink, blue, and orange. Likewise, a good story doesn’t need every moral lesson (or every 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 recent movie Saving Mr. Banks. Using every power of persuasion, Walt finally convinces Pamela Travers to let him make Mary Poppins (and the turbulent childhood memories it evokes) 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 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. Daniella also blogs at www.waterlilywriter.com.
Photos: Jim Lukach (shell), Brian Snelson (castle), Cushing Memorial Library (three ball players), Barney Moss (shell grotto), HA! Designs (bride), and Boston Public Library (1907 World Series), courtesy of Creative Commons