An Exercise for Inspiration

January 23rd, 2016 Comments Off on An Exercise for Inspiration

I have two conflicting theories about writing: 1) You should write every day, even just a few words. Make it a habit, not a choice that can be derailed by TV. 2) There’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you’re blocked, you’re writing the wrong story. Sometimes you have to wait it out, other times working on something different kicks everything back in. If you’re truly uninspired, just don’t write: If you do, it will come out forced and, well, uninspired.

The problem is obvious: How can I write every day if I’m waiting around to feel inspired? A recent writing workshop I was asked to lead forced me to answer that question. The premise of the workshop was “turning real life into fiction,” or how to use everyday life as inspiration for fiction. It was intended for new writers who had no idea how to get started. I’d honestly never thought about writing so clinically before—it truly is something I do habitually, and have for as long as I can remember. So I  recast the question as, “How do I write when I have nothing to write about?” That’s when I realized I “just write”—I tell a story that really happened (don’t call it a journal entry) and let it snowball and change into fiction as I go, not fearing where it may (or may not) lead. And yes, I do consider dreams as “something that really happened.” What came out the other end is the following process, which may or may not help you, and certainly shouldn’t be taken as gospel or a requirement for writing good fiction. I simply reverse-engineered my process and made it an exercise that, ironically, I never actually do myself.

A method for inspiration, to turn real-life into fiction…

If you ever get stuck and don’t know what to write about, try this exercise and see if it helps. This is not a formula for writing good fiction, thought it may read like one. This is an exercise to help “prime the well” and to show how you can create fiction from actual events. Stray from the formula as much as you want. Stop answering the numbered questions as soon as you’re inspired and writing.

  1. Write down one thing you did last weekend. It doesn’t have to be amazing or compelling—don’t overthink the exercise.
  2. Write down one thing it reminds you of (a memory).
  3. Write down how that memory makes you feel.
  4. Write down something you would have rather done last weekend (than what you did do). If there’s nothing, write down something else you’ve done in the past that you’d like to do again.
  5. Write down one reason why you would have rather done that other thing, or would like to do that thing again.
  6. Write down what would have needed to happen for you to go from the thing you actually did to the thing you would have rather done (or would like to redo).

This provides you with a basic plot. Your story can go from the thing you did to the thing you would have rather done, which provides motivation for your characters. The memory and how it made you feel gives your story an emotional pull and insight for your main character. How you would get from one thing to the other (and why you’d want that to happen) gives your story its action and, maybe, its antagonist. It also provides the fiction, because your weekend didn’t actually happen that way.

  1. Write down one moment or indicator that the thing you actually did had begun. (For example, if you read a book, it began when you picked up the book or sat in your chair.)
  2. Write down one moment or indicator that the thing you actually did was in the middle of the action. (For example, “I’d been reading for thirty minutes…”)
  3. Write down one moment or indicator that the thing you actually did had ended. (For example, you put down the book and got up.)
  4. Write down which part—beginning, middle, or end—was the most exciting for you.
  5. Write down one moment or indicator that would tell you the thing you would have rather done had begun.

This provides you with the timing of the events for your story, and helps you organize the plot in a linear or nonlinear fashion. Start your story at the most exciting part, even if it’s in the middle. Nonlinear storytelling is typically the most powerful (though not always). Think how the timing of the thing you actually did could have triggered the thing you would have rather been doing.

  1. Write down one part of the thing you actually did that is “too true.” (A real person, your boring old living room, etc.)
  2. Write down how that part could be made untrue but still carry the same weight or purpose. (Instead of a real person who is your friend, make them a character; change your boring living room to a dungeon or jail cell or hotel room…)
  3. Write down one thing that the untruth could lead to. (Who is this new character and how do you know them? Why are you where you are, and how are you doing what you’re doing in that place?)

This provides you with a fictional outline and lets your story breath. You don’t want it to read too literally because you don’t want it to be a memoir. Identify the part that is “too true” and replace it with something else, even if you replace it with something ridiculous (this is how fantasy fiction starts, with something ridiculous).

  1. Write down one thing from what you actually did that you can describe in detail.
  2. Write down how that thing makes you feel.
  3. Write down how the thing you can describe could relate to the memory you were reminded of.
  4. Write down how the thing you actually did and the thing it reminded you of can be made into one story that includes the thing you would have rather been doing.

This is the magic. The detail you can describe can be used for setting. How you fill in the gaps between what you actually did, what it reminded you of, what you would have rather done, and the part you changed so it wasn’t “too true” will have to be fiction. Let your imagination wander! Maybe it would take time travel or a ghost to get you from one thing to the other. Make sure to keep the emotion of the memory it evoked to prevent your story from being flat.

Comment and let me know how it goes! Your mileage may vary.


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