Writers welcome story ideas. Often those ideas come from inspiration, from notes, from good old ass-in-chair work. But sometimes you’re just plain stuck.
Try looking and listening while you’re shopping in the supermarket. The other day I spied a man in a kilt in Trader Joe’s market. It was the second time I’d seen him there. And the staff knew him. He talked to them about being out of town for a while. So I wondered: what’s his story? Why the kilt? It wasn’t a costume. It was an authentic, styled kilt. Why?
A while back I asked the woman who was checking out my groceries, how is your day going? She began talking about her plans for the evening, ready to celebrate a young woman’s one-year sobriety. She herself was a recovering alcoholic. What’s the story there?
“We believe in the power of story.” Berkeley, California-based StoryCenter works with local organizations to create digital stories.
Their mission: “When we listen deeply, and tell stories, we build a just and healthy world.”
“We believe in the transformative power of story and understand its critical role in building a more just and healthy world. Every aspect of our work is guided by this belief.”
StoryCenter’s core principles include:
People need to be heard.
“Being heard meets a deep-seated human need for connection. The simple yet critically important act of being acknowledged, being listened to – truly being heard – often changes everything. It can change the person being listened to, the people listening, and everyone connected to these people.”
Listening is hard.
“Most people are either too distracted or too impatient to be really good listeners. In some parts of the world, this has resulted in a profusion of individuals who get paid to do the emotional labor of listening. Researchers, therapists, social workers, and others often play this role, yet anyone can learn to listen deeply. When they do, they create space for the storyteller to journey into the heart of the matter at hand.”
In one of her Brain Pickings online posts, Maria Popova spotlights storyteller Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing a great story.
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I find tip #3 easy to forget. Every one of my characters should want something. Every one. It’s easy to overlook when I’m writing. Characters can become fillers, like background in a movie. They’re in the scene, talking, acting. But not always wanting something. Not always hungry. Not going somewhere.
If my writing is working, the hunger is there. If I have done a thorough character profile before I start the story, the want, the desire, will reveal itself. But there are times when I have to stop to look for the hunger: what does this character want now, in this moment? The character may be desperate to find a lost sibling, for example, but what does he want this morning, when he gets up? Breakfast? Coffee? A shower? Or does he wake up so anxious to meet with an investigator that he skips food and even a shower?
I find the tweets of playwright John Patrick Shanley to be inspiring. Today’s tweet: “Martin Luther King found his mission and became a giant. Kids want to find their way not simply to prosperity, but to greatness. Help them.”
Worthy words for teachers and for storytellers. In story our kids will find their voices, and in their voices they will find their way to greatness.
“Tell your story. No one else can.” A tweet from playwright John Patrick Shanley.
Many talk about finding your voice. Maybe the point is using your voice, more than finding it. Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “If I don’t write this, no one’s going to write it. If I die, this idea dies with me.”
Only you can tell your story, and only you can discover that story by starting to write. You won’t have a story till you begin to write it. Let it come. Let it find you.