Pssst. Want to learn a magic trick to help you make progress every time you sit down to write?
It’s the special lil’ ingredient that makes a good story really satisfying.
And the best part is, you have to know your plot inside and out. You don’t have to know the beginning or end of your story. You definitely don’t have to know the name of your character’s childhood pet.
You don’t even have to know what it is you’re trying to say. Because writing is very often the process by which we figure out what it is that we’re trying to explain.
And don’t get us wrong. It’s not like anyone actually has a clue – we’re all winging it from one day to the next and hoping no-one finds out.
But you do have to know one thing: that you are writing a story.
And that every story is about change.
Every time you sit down at your work, something in your story has to change.
A few thousands words about Jodie going about her daily business as normal is not a story.
A few thousands words about Jodie trying to go about her daily business as normal but being hampered at every turn by physical and emotional barriers is a story.
What about something like this:
- Jim-Bob might get hit by a car (his life changes!).
- Francene might have been driving the car (her life changes!).
- Jim-Bob’s resulting broken leg might mean he has time off work (his leg changes, his work status changes).
- Francene’s guilt means she visits regularly with home-cooked dinners (her mental health changes, her routine changes).
- Jim-Bob’s wife is at first grateful for the help, but starts to become annoyed and falls out with Francene (you get the idea).
- Francene has a panic attack (ch-ch-ch-chaaanges).
- Jim-Bob’s wife overcomes her hatred of Francene and helps her (etc).
- When Elizabeth visits Pemberley for the first time it might seem like she’s just nosing around the grounds but as she reflects on its beauty she realises that her mind has changed and she is actually reflecting on Darcy’s beauty. (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen)
- June playing Scrabble with the Commander might initially seem like a pointless or boring scene, but it creates a very quiet change in power dynamics across the whole household. (The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)
- Tunde has a little romantic interlude with the woman by the swimming pool but she uses her new found power to overwhelm him. He has never experienced fear of sexual assault from a woman before. She has never had the power to assault someone before. It’s a transformational experience for both parties. (The Power, Naomi Alderman)
We’re not even necessarily talking about specific plot points here.
We are talking about the constantly shifting dynamic of any kind of interaction. The never-ending ebb and flow of life.
Because what are stories if not vehicles for casting light on the darker, ever changing areas of the world, to highlight how those ebbs and flows might cobble together to create a result?
The greatest foundational block for writing is to simply know that every time you sit down at your work, you have to make something change.
If nothing’s changing, you ain’t telling a story.
And there’s no better way to avoid spending 20 pages describing the beautiful scenery than making sure you CHANGE something.
Which leads swiftly on to our first handy dandy Foundation writing exercise:
NOW DO THIS:
You’re going to set a timer for 10 minutes and when the timer goes off YOU MUST STOP WRITING. Even if you’re on a roll and think you could go forever, you need to trust the magical WHQ process and stop.
There will be more time to write tomorrow and the day after and the day after and forevermore but right now 10 minutes is all you get.
During the 10 minutes, you’re going to take the protagonist from your current story, WIP, or a random as-yet-to-be-written idea, and write down as many changes as you can think of.
This probably sounds a little vague so we’re gonna help you out here.
Let’s say you have a character called Esme. Esme is 26 and lives in a rented flat in Brighton with her strictly platonic friend Jon. She works as a programmer for a digital media agency. She has great hair.
Start by listing (at least) five physical things that could change for Esme. These are real world changes – she could decide to have an Americano instead of a latte, her mother might decide to visit, she could be made redundant.
Then list (at least) five metaphysical or emotional things that could change for Esme. These are subtle world changes – she could realise it’s time to let go of an old insecurity, that she believes in God after all, that she hates her boyfriend.
If you still have time in your ten minute slot, see if you can come up with more changes for other characters. They can be from a story you’re already writing, a book you love, a character you know well or are just getting to know, a story you’ve been thinking of, something that already exists, or just stuff that comes to you randomly right now. (tl;dr, they can be from anywhere).
They can be big changes (Frank’s mum died!) or tiny ones (Sandra decided to get up an hour early to do some yoga) or anything in between.
They can be from stories we know (Luke gets knocked unconscious by Tusken Raiders) or stories we don’t (Lauren can’t bear her stultifying life in the suburbs anymore and heads out into the wilderness with nothing but a pack of ramen).
They can be changes that happen to the same people, or completely different changes happening to completely different people.
There are no real rules here, except THINGS HAVE TO CHANGE.
Ok? Now go do it.