Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’? Are there degrees of block? What is it for you? Is it being not particularly inspired? Is it being unable to write a passage as you’d really like, or not knowing how best to attack it? Or is it being unable to come up with a story at all? If this last thing is your problem, then in the hope of finding one, we might ask: Where do story ideas come from, after all?
Well, from anywhere and everywhere is the simplest answer, of course. I hope to return to the theme in a future piece, but here I’ll just describe how I came up with a couple of my stories. It’s not exactly rocket science, and I know that if you’re a writer, it might seem a bit like I’m trying to teach a grandmother (you’re the grandmother, just for today) to suck eggs (strange expression). But anyway … first a story that wasn’t mine.
In Spanish director Luis García Berlanga’s fantastic black comedy El Verdugo (literally ‘The Executioner’, but given the English title ‘Not On Your Life’, 1963), a young man applies to be an executioner in Franco’s Spain, just so that he and his new wife (whose father is the retiring executioner) can get the apartment that goes with the job. His father-in-law convinces him that he won’t actually have to execute anyone as the judge usually spares convicted people from the garrotte. But it all gets a bit complicated ….
If you don’t know the film, I really recommend it. If you can get hold of it, or watch it on-line, get a load of the perfectly written ending (also perfectly shot and acted). Berlanga apparently imagined this scene from a real case – in which the executioner found out that he was to execute a woman – and came up with: “What if it’s the reluctant executioner that has to be dragged whimpering to the execution room?” What Berlanga did was take this idea and conceive a plot and characters that would coherently lead us up to that final scene. And the whole thing is utterly brilliant.
On a more modest scale (naturally), I wrote a script for a film (as yet unproduced) that begins with a lift door closing, but only so far; it’s obstructed by something that we can’t see. I don’t know where this mental image came from – possibly a circumstantial scene in an old film that I’d assimilated into my sub-conscious. But I know it was jostling around in my mind for a long time, nagging to be developed.
I wrote a script that takes us up to that moment, in which we finally discover what’s stopping the door from closing (you can probably guess what it is). It was the image of the door that I started with, and it remained a kind of beacon to be followed as I wrote. In fact, it began as a crime story, written in the context of a course I was doing, but my tutor steered me away from crime (not literally, you understand!) and it became a drama. I managed to keep the scene of the lift, though, and the … whatever it is.
My first story for SFB arose in a similar way. I’d just got off the bus one morning and I saw a tourist of a certain age (he looked American) walking towards me wearing a T-shirt. Emblazoned across the front of it in large caps was the legend: “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE”.
I was on my way to work and it must have been a Monday because I remember being a little down in the dumps, but those words got me thinking about my own life. The idea really cheered me up with its possibilities … although much like the protagonist of my story, the feeling passed more quickly than I would have liked.
However, the seed for my story (Once) was there. All I needed to do was to plant the image (a character spotting a similar T-shirt on the street) as a key moment in the story, and then ‘water’ it. The plot grew through musing, and many of the details sprang up during the act of writing.
These three stories are good examples, I suggest, of how anything or anyone that catches your eye, or any image or scene that flashes into your mind, can be the seed of a story (be sure to note it down when it presents itself – DON’T trust your memory!). There’ll be work needed to develop it, naturally, but having a seed to plant in the first place is half the battle, isn’t it?
(to be continued)