Dreaming stories into being

image by umjanedoan

I’ve always been prone to dreaming.  I’m the kind of person who wanders down the street staring into windows, fantasising about the lives of the inhabitants.  During a spell as a hotel chambermaid I used to wonder about the person whose room I was cleaning, inventing for them a career path or relationship struggles.  It sure took the boredom out of dusting and vacuuming.  At the moment, with a novel just finished, I’m in the luxurious phase of developing new stories.  And I’ve come to re-embrace this nosiness  curiosity.

Where do they come from, these stories?  For me, they’re often based in something real – a place, or a newspaper report.  They might be born out of snippets of things overheard on the radio which, as I describe in In the Beginning is how Sisterwives began.  In each case, I see or hear or read something, maybe cut it out of the newspaper, and experience a kind of heart-race moment when I know that this could develop into something.  The scribbled ideas or cut out bits of newspaper might sit in a box for months, even years.   But I’ve learned to trust my intuition.  That heart-race moment is not to be ignored.  Even if I don’t use it there and then, the impulse that makes me write it down or cut it out is significant.  It speaks to something in me, often so deeply embedded that I’m not able to name it. 

How do we move on from that initial impulse, or charge, or glimmer of an idea?  In order to work things through, some writers might go for a walk or a run, or have a long bath.  Once, I managed to plot a whole novel in my head inside a flotation tank (I recommend it – though I think being plunged into darkness and floating in salt is meant to inhibit brain activity rather than activate it). 

At some point, though, these fragments of ideas and scenarios and characters need to be captured.  Over on Matt Tuckey’s site Power is a State of Mind I’ve blogged about a mind mapping process that really works for me in coaxing these fragments into the beginnings of stories. 

But let’s go back to that heart-race moment.  When we experience this, what we’ve stumbled upon is the emotional truth of the story, even if we haven’t yet fully formulated the story world.  According to Peter Dunne, ‘we are attracted to the subject of our stories because their underlying power calls to us’ (with thanks to Vanessa Gebbie for sharing the link to this post).

If we can identify the root of this emotional truth, it can help us define the shape of our story. 

Put another way, this emotional truth answers ‘the story question’:  ‘what is this story about?’  That truth could be about absent fathers, or death.  It could be desire, or friendship or power or loss.  The story itself, the ‘what happens’ is the result of a ripple that spreads out from a moment: a waitress called Sally meets a boy called Harry when she’s waitressing in a café.  He invites her out.  They talk.  They sleep together.  She realises what he teaches her about her ex boyfriend and about their relationship.  What drives the story – the heart of the story – could be the notion of loss or love.  If I decide to shift the action to Brittany, the emotional truth shifts.  It becomes about Sally being an outsider in a different culture, speaking the language but not truly knowing its codes.  The heart or truth of the story, if we listen to it, will define the ‘what happens’ as dialogue and action unfold. 

Dreaming stories into existence; connecting with these emotional truths that resonate with our own experience or thoughts or hopes for the world.  We take an idea, or a concept. We find people – fictional characters – to represent them.  We discover places in which they can exist.   Or – the other way round – we might first conceive of the person then build them a world.  If we listen to intuition, the heart of our story leads us onto the next bit of the process, that world building, which is where the ‘once upon a time’ begins.

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