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)
I want to know what was blocking that lift now!
Phil Town says
Ah, well … you’ll have to wait until the film comes out, Sian. (But don’t hold your breath …)
Donald Baker says
Spot on Phil. I have similar experience for where my stories come from. My story Columbus Day came from a co worker getting a poor performance review that said Bottom Performer. Bottom Performer was my prompt, I built the entire story from that. The first story I had published was What the Man Says, prompted completely by the name Inabnitt that I saw on a rule billboard. The Last First Friday was a story prompted by part of a conversation I overheard.
My experience is that there is so much interesting things going on around me that I have never had writers block. In fact it is the opposite, I have more ideas than I can complete. I keep a backlog for when I want to write a new story.
Donald Baker says
That’s a rural billboard! Ah autocorrect!
Phil Town says
You’re right, Donald. I do think it’s wise to note down any ideas that come to you, to keep a bank. And may I quote you in the next piece re your inspirations? Thanks!
Donald Baker says
Yes. Quote away. Honored!
Erik Porter says
Great article, Phil. Looking forward to the next part. I have a Scivener file with loads of one line ideas that usually come from some visual I’ve seen or imagined. Now, to find the story in each one . . .
Phil Town says
Thanks, Erik! Yes, finding the story is the other half of the battle …
Pawan Garg says
I think this story is an inspirational experience. However, I am suffering with the writer’s block for long, almost 10 years or so. As I have written occasionally during this phase, and shared my work with peers, I have got nothing but encouragement from them. However, I easily give myself up to my habits such as watching tv, giving my time to family and friends, and overthinking about the returns or acceptance of the content that I would be writing. May I ask, what should I do, please, to turn on the tables and actually get some writing done.
Phil Town says
Sorry about your block, Pawan. I’m not an expert on the psychology of ‘the block’, but I think you might find something of a solution in your own words.
You say “I have written occasionally”. That has to change. Write often. Write every day if you have time. This will help the fluidity of your writing.
Then you overthink “the returns or acceptance of the content that I would be writing”. That has to change, too. Write anything. Keep a journal just to record your thoughts. Don’t worry initially about the quality of the things you write for yourself. Just get it all down on paper/on your computer. Get your ideas out of your system – that’s the first, important step (see my other ‘Where do stories come from?’ pieces for suggestions).
Of course, before you share your work with others, you should organise it/tidy it up/correct mistakes, etc., so that what you show of yourself is as you would like it to be. But this ‘tidying up’ will be the least onerous of all the tasks since the hard work (getting ideas down on paper) will already have been done.
Then, when you have something that you’re pleased with yourself, find an audience for it. If it helps that this is your family and friends at first, that’s fine. But you could also think about sharing it with a wider audience.
I participate in a fortnightly flash fiction contest on WordPress/LinkedIn. I’ve been doing it for over a year, and it’s really helped me; it gives you a prompt (which helpfully directs your ideas), a length limit (1,000 words) and a deadline. You post a story, other writers get to read it and comment on it, and you have a chance of re-writing it before the deadline, based on suggestions you get. Then everyone votes on the stories and there’s a ‘winner’ (although everyone’s a winner because of the experience).
The group are very supportive and you’ll find yourself learning a lot about the stuff you produce. And you’ll find yourself getting into a routine of producing a story every two weeks – that’s good discipline.
There are other groups out there, but if you’d like to try this one, you’ll be very welcome. It’s run by Alice Nelson (who writes for Short Fiction Break) and another writer. You’ll have to register for WordPress and LinkedIn, if you haven’t already. Click on this link for the current contest. Do try it.
Good luck, Pawan!