So in the first part I talked about how to strip a story back to its basic plot, taking out the emotions, setting, adjectives and leaving just four or five sentences giving the outline of a plot. Now we need to put flesh back on those bones.
Once you are happy with the sequence of the actions, you may decide to put the story back into the same setting you had in the original but just using different words. I used the example last time of ‘Cinderella’ which we will often find illustrated as being set in the late 18th century as that is when the most famous version was written, so you could stick to that. However there are versions of that story going back over a thousand years to ancient China, Egypt and India. So you could move the story of Cinderella to one of those. Or put it in modern times and dress, or a steampunk fantasy setting. At this point in crafting a story we are not looking for the minute detail of a particular period or culture, just the feel so you can visualise it.
One useful exercise to be able to see your story in its new setting is a technique called Freeze Frames. You can do this with a partner if you have an online writing buddy, alternating between the two of you as you work your way through your own bare bones but you can also do this by yourself. You will need a stopwatch or timer and you might want a way to record what you say.
Set your stopwatch to beep every minute, giving each bullet point one minute each. You are going to visualise a single frozen moment for each of the ‘bones’ and describe it out loud. Remember that you are describing a still picture, not a plot. Like the game ‘Just a Minute’ you can’t repeat yourself and you can’t pause, really go into the detail of what you can see. If you run out of things to say zoom in on one area, describe the ants on the rose, the hair on the lip of one of the characters. When the stopwatch beeps, move immediately on to the next bone without stopping to think, and so on until you have done them all. This method can throw up details you didn’t realise were there, already in your imagination waiting to be brought out.
When you are done note down what you saw and felt, or transcribe your recorded description into notes. Do the images feel right for the story you want to write or do you feel it is not the right setting, not the right time or place? If you are using this to work on a real-life event, you may find it helps you remember details that you had forgotten, but it is also a powerful way of bringing back overwhelming emotions so be prepared for that and perhaps avoid using this for anything traumatic, at least without help from a counsellor.
Once you have done this first stage, you can take it a step further by going back through the images, perhaps picking one that really speaks to you, perhaps all of them. Close your eyes and bring the picture to mind again, then walk into the image so you become part of it. In your imagination, walk about, you are the only person who can move, everyone else is frozen. Look around, look under the sofa, open the drawers, go through any doors you can see. Look past the original frame of the image into the rest of the room, walk around people and see what they look like from the back, look into their eyes, what can you see? Everything that you see can teach you something about the story you want to tell.
As you move about you can bring back the emotions of the story. What are those characters feeling in that frozen moment? Engage the other senses as well as sight, how do the dresses feel, how cold is it, can you taste anything, smell anything? Now you might feel you are no good at visualising so this one isn’t for you but maybe give it a try anyway. The worst that will happen is that you have a peaceful few minutes with your eyes closed, but you may find yourself realising something about the story that you didn’t know before and the only way to get better at this is by practising.
The final stage is create the story and for most of us that will mean sitting down to write with a pen or a computer. But it doesn’t have to. You could take each bullet point, learn it off by heart then take it for a walk. Repeat it a few times as you move then begin to fill it out with the personal detail, the character development, the memory of the images you saw, the rest of the story, the adjectives and descriptions. Put it all back in. You will have some false starts but if you keep going you might find that the story unfolds itself in front of you. This is the way that storytellers often start to craft a story, and I often say that I find out what is going to happen in the story when my ears hear my mouth say it. Note anything that you like in your favourite way, whether that is as written notes or recording yourself.
Once you have moved through these stages, then you can start to write in your normal way using the images and notes that you have created. Write until you feel you have the first bullet point covered, then move on to the next. You might realise that your original bones missed out a vital plot point, or that something you thought essential was unnecessary, you can adjust the bullet points as you go.
This technique can help you get the first draft of a story down because it is all about the plot and the underlying story rather than that obsession of writers, finding the perfect words to convey that story. Once you have worked through all the points you can set them aside and start to work on the story as a whole, polishing the language. You will also have to do all those other things you learn to do when you learn to write: thinking about character development, making sure your point of view is consistent, playing with the chronological timeline and so on. You then keep editing until you have found the ‘right’ way to tell the story you have to tell.
© Lisa Kenwright 2020