Creating stories — regardless of the genre — is all about making it real for your readers. They need to buy in to what you have created. If they don’t, then your credibility is shot, your readers will stop buying your books, and you can forget about establishing any kind of relationship with a reader base. There are too many books out there tempting them for some love and attention. Although readers are naturally creatures of comfort and will want to stick with an author they like, they also have no tolerance for writers who don’t keep it real.
That can be a struggle for us, at times. We sit in front of the blank screen, fingers at the keyboard, waiting for some kind of brilliant inspiration to arrive. At times, it feels no different than dropping a fishing line in a cold pond, waiting for that big bass to take the bait and bring us the high action we’ve been waiting for.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be such a passive struggle, waiting for that great idea to strike. We just need to activate our creative thinking in non-writing ways to trigger that high-action writing whenever we need it.
Here are five strategies I use to keep my focus in writing stories that are believable, engaging, and accessible to my readers, no matter who they might be.
1. Observe Behaviors.
Being mindful of those around you is a skill you can always work on. Whether you are at a mall, in your car, or at an hour-long business meeting, you can observe the different behaviors exhibited from the people with you.
For writers, though, mere observation is not enough. We begin to ask questions of the people we are observing:
What are they thinking? Is it consistent with how they are behaving?
What might be their next move, action, or reaction?
Is their body language consistent with their words?
What is the source or the origin of their behavior, their expressed emotion, their actions?
These are just a few questions to get you going. The important thing is that you are mindful of the behaviors of others around you, and you consider the reasons for those behaviors. Then, when you sit down to develop a character for one of your stories, you have already stored in your idea bank — at the very least — 10-15 good behavior sketches, complete with motives.
2. Listen To Music.
I spend hours each week listening to new music, trying to find the right artists to fit my creative needs. I have music for daybooking, drafting, revising, editing, and even handling the business side of owning a writing business.
One of the most important playlists I have is for creative inspiration. I scour the library trays filled with CDs for new movie soundtracks — particularly movies that I have never seen. I am looking for music that might tell a story, that might take me on a bit of a journey, thus kickstarting some kind of creative exploration.
The first soundtrack that I used for creative inspiration (many, many years ago) was for the movie Country. Pianist George Winston wrote and played about half of the pieces, which are inspiring enough. But the other tracks were driving, compelling works of music that helped me create stories set in the Civil War and other places. I internalized some of the more powerful songs and used them for personal inspiration and encouragement. Anything is possible when I listen to this music — even to this day, nearly 20 years later.
I have to say, music has brought me to where I am today. I couldn’t create without it!
3. Design Your Setting.
Sometimes, when I am stuck with characters, I turn to my settings and sketch out an idea of where everything is. I do this in meticulous fashion, naming the streets, analyzing the hilly or flat nature of some of the roads, and looking for connections, relationships, history.
It’s all there in the drawing, and it is so inspiring to write a piece where you can actually see where the characters are living — RIGHT NOW.
I do these sketches in my Daybook, on big sheets of paper, and even on paper scrolls that are used as (typically!) easel paper for children. They usually end up on my walls, taped to my computer, or scanned and used as desktop art on my computer.
Design your setting, and give your characters the chance to live freely in their own town!
4. Create Storyboards.
Storyboards are nothing more than little pictures of sequential action in a story. Film directors use these all the time when they are trying to visualize how a scene might look when they shoot it. They consider the different angles and camera shots to enhance the mood or intensity of the scene.
Writers can use storyboards to fulfill the age-old desire to tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What is happening when the story begins? What conflicts arise? How are they resolved?
This creative form of problem solving is also good for meditating on a challenge in your story, or just putting your ideas into a product form that brings to light the visualization of a particular scene.
5. Visualize Your Action.
Visualizing an action or scene in my stories is always great fun. In fact, it is best if I go “on location” to a setting similar to the one in my story and visualize a potential scene. Usually, I don’t have an exact idea of what will happen. I place my characters in the setting, visualize their first movements or words shared, and begin describing exactly how their story unfolds using the surrounding area.
My most successful visualization came when I was working on a short story called, “Alice Flows.” I took a basic storyline with me to a location in western Maryland, sat on a picnic bench with my tape recorder, and began visualizing the two characters interacting in the stream right in front of me. In less than an hour, I felt as if I had lived with them, witnessing intimately the painful process of accepting imminent death in the search for everlasting peace.
If you have a Smart Phone, you don’t even have to buy any extra equipment to do this. All you will need is a camera (still or video) and something to record your voice. Great audio recording apps are available for nearly all smart phones, and most phone cameras today can take incredible photos. All you need to do is find the location, visualize your characters, and whisper “Action” to let them take center stage in your story.
Donald Murray, journalist, educator, and writer who passed away recently, often mentioned in his lectures that writers are always writing, even when they are not pushing the pencil to the paper. I refer often to these five non-writing strategies when working with other writers in LifeStory writing; they will help you as well in strengthening your craft — and your stories — immediately.