The first step in the writing process is to simply imagine the world of your story. When you attempt to plot out your story, you may find yourself just writing your idea of the story. The idea isn’t necessarily wrong, in fact, it might be bang on. But it’s probably not the whole story.
The story lives somewhere in your heart, your soul, your subconscious. Or wherever else you keep stories; maybe it’s a sock drawer. Personally, mine are behind the baking soda. But to coax the story out, you have to give yourself time to play. When you engage with the story with a playful attitude, your characters will tend to spring up out of the ground and surprise you with where they want to go.
Imagining a world means imagining your characters in relationship both to each other and to the world they inhabit. It means jotting down images, ideas, and fragments of dialogue or setting that emerge from your heart (or from behind the baking soda). Stream-of-consciousness interrogatory exercises are helpful in this process of coaxing the world of your story to emerge from its hiding place, particularly if these exercises dig into what truly interests you.
For example, take five minutes and adopt the persona of your character to complete just one of these lines:
- The secret I won’t tell anyone is…
- The biggest shock of my life was when…
- The thought that keeps me up at night is…
Remember, you’re speaking in the voice of the character, from the first-person perspective in present tense. Never mind for a moment whether you actually intend to write the story in first-person present. Pronouns and tenses can always be fixed. Remember: grammar is irrelevant in a first draft. Go ahead. Take five minutes and imagine your world, imagine your character. Be your character.
These are the kinds of questions we all struggle with. These are the kinds of problems we all have. Everyone has a secret they won’t tell anyone. Everyone has had a big shock in their life. Everyone has a thought (or three) that keeps them up at night. These are the things that truly interest us about ourselves. So when we listen to the voice of a character talking about things that truly interest us as human beings, connections and relationships are formed. This is the essence of building relatable characters. These are the things that make us stop and say, “Wow, yeah, I’ve suffered a shock like that, and that’s just how I felt about it.”
And when you write about what truly interests you, what truly interests all thinking beings, conflict will naturally arise.
Conflict is the touchstone of drama. As you explore the world of your story, you’ll naturally be drawn to charged moments, whether they’re large or small. You’re not going to be drawn to the hero’s trip to the bank… unless he’s an armed robber ready to take the bank down, or desperate for a loan to save the family farm.
As you explore the world of your story, these moments of conflict will arise. “The secret I won’t tell anyone” probably involves a conflict. The biggest shock of one’s life? Conflict. The thought that keeps one up at night? Conflict. At this stage in the process, as you’re exploring the world and your character’s relationship to it, you don’t need to do anything more than just write it down very quickly. You don’t need to do anything else, just fill the well. You don’t need to spell it correctly or punctuate properly. Just capture the thought for posterity and allow the images to accumulate on the blank page without trying to force them into any preconceived idea of the story. You want to allow yourself a period of time to just explore these nascent scenarios without making premature demands on a plot. Stay curious and keep writing. More questions will emerge and the world will begin to form.
And let’s be clear: you’re not writing a story at this point. You’re not even outlining your story. You’re just allowing your mind to play, to make connections that you probably won’t even understand except in hindsight. Otherwise, outlining your story is just going to be an exercise in limiting yourself. You never want your idea of your story to get in the way of letting your characters live through the story.
There will be times when you think to yourself, “Ack, I’m going in the wrong direction!” Don’t panic. Instead, be curious and question the nature of your experience and be curious about where this experience exists in the world of the story. We’ve all felt like we’re going in the wrong direction at some point. Your characters will sometimes feel like they’re going in the wrong direction. How does it feel to go in the wrong direction? What is concerning about it? Allow your characters to live, to experience the same uncertainties that you do, and in allowing them that freedom, explore the vastness of your character’s choices.
How It Works
For this example, I’m going to adopt the persona of Corentin son of Winoc of the House Pelan, the narrator of my novella, A Merchant’s Tale. I’m not concerned with spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, or any other element of “good writing.” I put five minutes on the clock, and I write. Go!
The secret I won’t tell anyone is… I resent my father. I never met him before I was fifteen years old. My mother told me he and his brother left before I was born to explore the western reaches of the Summer Sea. She used to tell me stories of his adventures. I believed her when I was a child, believed all the marvelous tales she told of far-away places and magickal beings. My father was a sailor, confronting many-headed sea dragons. He was a soldier, overthrowing foreign governments. He was an explorer, finding lost cities and wrestling their treasures away from terrible monsters and fierce natives. I believed it all, and my dreams of him and his adventures would keep me up all night, too excited to sleep in my little room in our little house in Mendêvos. But then, when I was six, my mother died, and I had to leave our little house to live with my aunt, her sister, and the brute she called “husband.” When I first spoke of my father’s adventures in their house, my aunt’s husband told me those stories were lies. My father had not been a sailor, or a soldier, or an explorer. He’d simply been a trader. He and his brother had been living and trading in far-away Khem, in a colony there with other Aukrian traders. But there had been a change of power in that city. The Aukrian quarter was burned, and captured Aukrian citizens were blinded. Many others escaped only to die aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Aukrian colonies in the Summer Sea. My father was no hero. More than likely, he was dead. I denied it all. He was a hero, I insisted. My mother had told me so. For my insolence, I was beaten. But I was a stubborn lad, and I took a great many beatings for my dream-father. By the time he returned, my insolence and my dreams had long since been whipped out of me.
When I started this exercise, I had nothing more than a name. In two sentences, I had a resentful fifteen year old boy (conflict). A boy estranged from a father he’d never met, alone with a mother who filled his head with exciting dreams. By the ninth sentence, he’s an orphan (conflict) being told that his mother was a liar (conflict) and his father was nothing like he’d been told (conflict). I allowed the character to tell me his story, and I played with ideas and images.
Where did the ideas come from? Memories of movies like Sinbad the Sailor and Tarzan, books like King Solomon’s Mines, and stories like the tale of Theseus, adventure-stories that I myself grew up with and brought with me into this game of exploring the world in which Corentin lives.
Through this freestyle play, I learn more and more about who Corentin is and what motivates him. More importantly, I’ve added images and ideas to the wellspring from which I can draw as I write the story of A Merchant’s Tale. This paragraph might be part of a dialogue over a campfire, a story Corentin tells to his fellow travelers, or the background behind a conflict with his father. Or it might be nothing at all. It will depend on where the story leads me, because at this point, I’m not writing the story. I’m just imagining a world in which it happens.
Want to learn more about Corentin and A Merchant’s Tale? Click here.
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