The goal of creative writing is to make the reader feel like they are inhabiting the fictional world you wish to render (or nonfictional one you wish to recreate), to make this world seem real. EM Forster says the writer’s only responsibility is to make the reader want to know what happens next; making the world seem real is an implied and necessary prerequisite. To make your readers feel the world, you must create an image in their brains. Studies show that specific, concrete actions and objects (verbs and nouns) light up the same neural pathways that would go off if we were actually performing that action or seeing that object in real life. In our brain, we are experiencing it. In other words, reading is equivalent to doing—that is, when the right words are being used.
One of the best ways to access the images your brain naturally projects is to observe how you experience your memories. The writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry has a method called writing the unthinkable that demonstrates the three-dimensionality of projected images. As the warmup, close your eyes, and picture a car. Got it there, situated in your mind’s eye? How can you if you’re reading this?
Okay, good. Now:
Are you inside or outside?
Is it day or night?
What’s to your left?
What’s to your right?
Did you picture a black Camaro? A pistachio Volkswagen Beetle? Being able to answer these questions (admittedly better administered verbally than in writing) should give you an idea of how clear and specific your mental images can be. As Russell Brand extrapolates,
There is no limit to what can be imagined either; we can now in this moment command the mind to play the Kylie track, then instead of her singing it, have the words emerge from the mouth of an elephant in dark glasses. Your mind is doing it now. It exists. Then you can put your school’s hardest kid in there, mine was Jamie Dawkins (no relation), put him on the elephant’s back dressed as bin Laden, singing the harmonies.
Barry’s next step is to pick any concrete object—“lemon” or “feathers” or “cookie” or whatever tickles your fancy (she has a readymade box of nouns to draw from)—and take 2-3 minutes to jot down images you associate with it. For “lemon,” mine might be “melting lemonade popsicles in summer,” “seeds in a strainer,” “rinds in a slushie,” “shrimp cocktail,” etc. Then take the most vivid image on the page and sketch in more of the surrounding scene, describing the sensory details associated with it. Move around in the image; explore it. What’s going on to the left and the right? What do things sound like, smell like, taste like, look like, feel like? Barry’s point is that the things we remember are significant; if they’re not, then we forget. I might remember the shrimp cocktail because it was from the celebratory dinner after my high school graduation at which my grandparents presented me with a new car they left out in the parking lot with a giant picture of me taped to the side. The lemonade popsicles might remind me of the time my brother busted my lip while we were playing street hockey and I couldn’t eat them for a week because they stung so bad. The point is, if you probe your memories, you’ll discover narrative. Of course it’s impossible to sift through all of them; the object provides a useful filter that organizes the mental database.
Senses are the gateway to memory: if you suddenly smell the air freshener that your deceased grandma used to use in her bedroom, then your mind will flash to your grandmother’s bedroom back when she was alive. And you won’t only remember the place itself, but the things that happened in it, whether it’s a recurring memory of how she read in her armchair or a specific one of your rifling through her dresser to play dressup. Barry points out that if we pay attention, we’ll notice this flood of sense-based memory happens all day long.
And this is the next important lesson: pay attention. This poem by James Wright (via David Mitchell) discusses the importance of observing:
“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
Much like Barry’s exercise, here the writer is apprehending what’s above, below, and to either side of him. The point, according to Mitchell at least, is tongue-in-cheek; it’s not a waste of time for a writer to observe, but rather a writer’s job. There’s a difference between observing and merely seeing; the more time you spend observing, the more you will see (Wright sees horse poop and observes cyclical regeneration). Once you’re able to mentally look around and observe the physical sensory details that bring a scene to life—that is, project it into the reader’s brain—then you’re well on your way to fulfilling the classic creative writing adage “Show, Don’t Tell.” As Anton Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing lights up the neural pathways; Telling doesn’t. For example:
Telling: Dad was a mean man.
Showing: One Christmas Eve [Dad] shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. (George Saunders, “Sticks”)
Flannery O’Connor offers this on showing:
Now when the fiction writer finally gets this idea through his head and into his habits, he begins to realize what a job of heavy labor the writing of fiction is. A lady who writes … wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.
The line she cites of Flaubert’s as an example is:
She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.
This passage shows both the larger town that Emma Bovary is a part of, and her effect on it. The bailiff’s clerk is activated by his bareheadedness, slippers, and sheet of paper: three strokes.
Point is, you can’t just tell the reader you’re at an amusement park and expect them to believe it. You have to show them the skeletal behemoths of the rides and the creaking chains that pull them, the clammy feel of the bar clamping you into the roller coaster cart, the smell of cotton candy, the sound of screaming and the fact that, eventually, you start to ignore it. In “Sticks,” Saunders offers more “sensuous strokes” to activate the mean father: “He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream.” The things we do show what kind of people we are.
Now that you can beam scenes into your reader’s brain with evocative sensory details, you’re ready to discover how these scenes fit into the larger overarching structure of a plot. An industry plotting standard is the infamous “inverted checkmark” model:
which represents rising action leading to a climax followed by a brief stint of falling action (the resolution). A story is, loosely, something that happens. What happens, however, cannot be arbitrary, but could only happen to your particular character(s). A family going on a picnic and being struck by an asteroid is something happening, but it is entirely arbitrary, as the asteroid would have killed any family. In Flannery O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family gets killed by a fugitive criminal, but this is not arbitrary; it is specifically the grandmother’s fault that they encounter the criminal. She brought along the cat she wasn’t supposed to, and, emerging from its hiding place, the cat causes a car wreck that puts the family in the criminal’s path. The grandmother’s selfishness initiates the story’s chain of events; it not only leads them to the criminal, but also ensures their destruction once there when she is unable to contain herself from blurting that she knows his identity from the papers. This is an important lesson: plot comes from character. Characters cause their own problems, and problems are plots.
Laura Numeroff’s classic children’s tale If You Give a Mouse A Cookie nicely illustrates the “rising” action of story:
If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin. Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache. When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim. So he’ll probably ask for a pair of nail scissors. …
One thing causes another causes another. Plot is just one big ole snowball rolling down a hill—down the hill being, in this case, through time.
As per Barry, plots aren’t premeditated. In my experience, there are (at least) three avenues to generating them: beginning with a concrete setting, a concrete character, or a concrete action (note the common theme here). The key is you are discovering plot from writing, not generating it beforehand. There are plenty of exercises to jump start you from any of these three avenues, providing some parameters to work in that can help narrow the overwhelming possibilities of the blank page. Once you have something that happens, you can then ask what other things this thing might logically (or illogically) cause.
Setting. Justin Cronin offers a list of mini scenes to bring to life with concrete details. Once you start to describe the setting, you’ll find the story of what happened there just waiting for you to discover it. Starting from “something rusty,” I began describing an old scythe by a woodpile that used to be the narrator’s father’s. Implicit here is the story of why the father is no longer around; the fact that the narrator associates a sharp (or formerly sharp) object with her father implies he is a man who could also cut—emotionally, that is. Though he can cut physically too if that route is best for the story.
- Dusk descending on an open field in autumn, beside a rarely-traveled road far from any city.
- An amazingly expensive instrument in a surprisingly humble setting.
- Being searched at an airport.
- Being in the presence of a favorite relative who might be ill.
- Someone buying something large/expensive/frivolous.
- Getting a haircut
- The first night in a new house.
- Begin lost in a thoroughly alien neighborhood.
- Stepping off a plane into a strikingly different climate.
- The look and feel of the world just before a storm arrives.
- The “feel” of stealing something.
- The room of an abandoned house, unaccountably strewn with books.
- The view from a rooftop.
- Having dental work done.
- Driving on an icy road.
- Sneezing and hiccuping at the same time.
- A crying child who cannot find her mother.
- A butcher shop.
- Counting out a lot of money into piles.
- Sorting warm laundry with a small child.
- The room of someone who has died.
- Something rusty.
Objects. (I’d call this a subset of Setting rather than its own avenue, but that’s merely quibbling.) The Storymatic is an expanded version of Barry’s noun box, with the goal of combining random elements to inspire the story of how they are connected. Draw two gold cards, which describe potential characters (member of the clergy; rider of elevators), and two copper cards, with props and plot points (long awaited invitation; abandoned building), or as many cards as you want. The possible number of story combinations is supposedly six trillion.
Images. (Still in the Setting subset.) What better to conjure mental images than real ones? Robert Olen Butler’s Had A Good Time: Stories from American Postcards is an entire story collection in which each piece was inspired by a postcard. You can see Butler, who is also a vocal advocate of writing without thinking, composing one of these pieces in real-time (that is, unearthing the narrative implied by the image) here.
Character. Robert Boswell’s craft book The Half-Known World eschews traditional character questionnaires (How tall is your character? What is his job?) for an alternate one:
What did your character forget to do this morning?
Why does your character think he ought to be fired?
What recent mistake vaguely reminds your character of a previous mistake she can’t name?
What stupid thing kept her awake last night?
If you met your character in a bar, what would she think of you? In what ways would she be right? What would she get wrong? What would she see about you that you don’t yet understand about yourself?
An answer to any of these could provide a great opening from which to work forward.
Action. Plot is conflict working itself toward resolution. All stories must have conflict. All conflicts are caused by people. An exercise designed by former Gulf Coast editor Zachary Martin called “Boy Circle Girl” generates instantaneous scenes waiting to be fleshed out. Start by making a list of verbs that one person can do to another, then plug in “boy,” “girl,” “man,” and “woman” on both sides of each verb.
Boy dresses woman
Woman swindles woman
Girl reads to boy
Delve deeper and show us the scenes these lines are telling (and use the Storymatic for further inspiration).
Once you have these story starters, whether from setting, character, action, or some combination thereof, they can offer you clues as to what might happen next. For example, I had a student once write a story opening from the Storymatic card “frozen piece of wedding cake”: a man wakes up in a hotel room late at night and goes to snack on his wedding cake, but finds it frozen due to an apparent refrigeration malfunction. Trying to remedy this, he sticks it in the microwave, but for too long, and the cake melts. From these events my mind’s already spinning the deeper conflict that this man’s surface struggles are evidence of: he is unable to get the cake into the state he needs it to be in to do what he wants to do with it (i.e., eat it). I would expect that he’s about to learn, or already has learned, that something similar is also going on with his new wife. The cake is a symbol of their union, which is apparently unpalatable: a great starting conflict to hatch a larger plot. Curiosity is piqued, a question raised: why would this man marry someone he potentially didn’t like? Future scenes will likely explore how the union came to be, when and how it became so unpalatable, and whether it can eventually be restored.
Seek out the questions your concrete descriptions have raised. If there aren’t yet enough questions whose answers inspire scenes, try rewriting the opening with some new parameters—from a different point of view or in a new setting. When the aforementioned student rewrote his scene in a new setting that had to be a tight space, he had the man wake up in a coffin on top of a giant wedding cake. Though he did not write so far as to indicate whether this was the case or not, it seemed like a dream our newly married character was having that further underscored the problematic union, unequivocally showing the man’s stress about it. The concrete impetus of the Storymatic card kept the student from telling us something along the lines of “Mike was unhappy in his marriage…” which is not painting a scene in my head that enables me to feel his unhappiness in my own cells. I can’t see “unhappy.” I can see a melting piece of wedding cake. Now that we have this unhappy couple, we can apply the mouse’s logic: If you have an unhappy couple, they’re probably going to fight. When they fight, they might break something, like a priceless string of pearls. When the string of pearls breaks, one might roll into the a/c vent, which in this hotel are on the floor, and when the man goes to chase this pearl down…he might meet the woman he really should have married.