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Give it space: How to grow stories in your head

We’ve all been there. You have a great idea, so you snap the laptop open and start hammering out words, but after a couple of paragraphs you’ve stalled.

Where is the rest of the frigging story?!

You worry the idea round a bit and try to think really hard about where it’s going, but your mind’s blank. After an hour or so you chuck the exciting new idea in with the other unfinished stuff in your Documents folder, convinced it’s another non-starter. You go and brood over a coffee. Why won’t that great idea become a great story?

Here’s the thing. No story begins on the page. Stories begin in your head. You build them there, in some mysterious part of your brain that does this stuff, and then you express them onto the page for transmission. Before humans wrote things down, we’d have transmitted stories by telling them to a whole bunch of people. But this is the 21st century, so we tap them into a Word document where they look all neat and tidy and proper.

The trouble with this written-down storytelling is, it’s easy to confuse the physical act of writing with the process of creation. You have the germ of an idea, so you head straight to the computer. But the idea’s still too green. It’s not had time to develop and mature. It’s not ready to write.

That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. Even the roughest ideas have the potential grow into full-fledged ‘Things’. Here’s the secret to making (or letting) it happen:

LEAVE IT ALONE

That’s right. Work less. Or rather, let your brain do the work it needs to do before you hit the keyboard.

When you have that great idea, let yourself pause – notice it, think it over, and store it away. If it’s one that’s going to stick, you’ll soon find it aggregates other ideas to it. You’ll notice someone quirky in a crowd and wonder what would happen if she was in the situation you thought up. Or there’ll be a song on the radio with these great symbolic lyrics and imagery that would work perfectly in your story. Suddenly the idea’s bigger, and more complex, and more alive.

GIVE YOURSELF SOME SPACE

To stimulate the mysterious head-based creation process, a lot of writers recommend activities like walking, running or crafting – activities that occupy your body and allow your mind to kind of pootle around. Giving yourself space is at the heart of giving the idea space. That can be really hard to do when you’ve got a busy life, and you’re dashing between childcare, work and chores. But it can be as simple as not putting the radio on when you’re driving back from the school drop-off. It doesn’t have to be luxury, purpose-built ‘creative time’. Just ten minutes in the day when you remove the background babble and let yourself freewheel.

Gif of a woman saying "I just need to step away for a year"

DRAW THE STORY

Visual story planning can be a great way to grow your ideas, and a useful halfway point between thinking the story and writing the story. Spider diagrams, mind maps, sketching, spreadsheets and other visual media are great tools, particularly when developing more complex work. You need a place to store the ideas, and work out how they connect. Visual plans are flexible, so you can add on and scribble out freely, and their structure reflects your thought process more closely than narrative writing. A visual plan gives your idea space to develop.

RINSE AND REPEAT

Sometimes you may have done all the thinking and planning and get to the point where you feel the story is ready to go, but you still hit a snag halfway through and stall. If you’re writing a longer work this may happen fairly regularly, especially when changing narrators, settings or story arcs. You can use exactly the same technique at these points: take a step back and go and do something else for a while, perhaps go back to the spider diagrams and mind maps of your planning phase. When you get back to your WIP you may find you’ve got some great ideas to get over that particular issue.

IGNORE YOUR INNER PERFECTIONIST

When you’ve found, developed and started writing your great idea, it’s important to keep up your momentum. There’s a lot to be said for your editing brain, but this is not the time to engage it. Unless there are serious issues that need fixing, like, right now, DO NOT fall into the trap of going back over and over that first page/chapter/scene. Faffing leads to boredom, doubt, and being lured away by the next lovely shiny idea. There is no idea so appealing as the one you haven’t started yet, because when you imagine that one it’s super-easy to write and is just intrinsically better and will never cause you as much grief as this crappy idea is causing you. This is not true. Remember, the shiniest of all shiny things is the finished story.

Gif of Michael Fassbender saying 'perfection'

WRITING IS 90% THINKING, 10% WRITING

The beginning of your story is not when you sit down and write the first page. The beginning happened a long time before that, in your mind, on a crazy spider diagram, on Post-It Notes, scrawled in a notebook when you were trying to go to sleep. The writing bit is the last stage of a long process. Give that process time, give it space, and your fantastic ideas will grow into fantastic stories.

Alex Clark

Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a short story writer, novelist and poet. She spent the first half of her working life as an industrial archaeologist and stonemason, and often uses atmospheric buildings in her fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lighthouse Journal, Prole, MIR Online, Shooter Literary Magazine, and anthologies by The Fiction Desk. She is currently editing her first novel. When not writing or parenting, she can most often be found in her vegetable garden. Twitter: @otheralexclark Website: www.theotheralexclark.wordpress.com

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