A picture worth a thousand plots. Or turning ideas into stories

Helga’s Post #102: Like all writers, I am inundated with countless ideas that I think might be worthwhile for turning into a story (not exactly words of wisdom to the initiated). Writers get ideas during most of our waking hours, and probably more often than not, they keep us awake at night. So it’s not a lack of worthwhile ideas that stifles our writing progress.

Where do all these ideas come from? It’s often a small detail that catches my attention, an image of an every-day occurrence, maybe with an unusual twist that over-stimulates my brain. I believe that happens to all writers. We think up possibilities or conclusions when we witness some ordinary event or not-so-ordinary people. That’s the start and essence of a story.

But harvesting these ideas and turning them into real stories becomes a challenge. If only we could remember these flashes of brilliance when we get to sit down at the keyboard. For me, an unexpected, surprising image works best. It can stick to my brain like secured with heavy-duty contact cement. It won’t let go until I spin a story around it.

Here is one such example.

I was late for an appointment the other day, a hugely important one: getting my hair cut. Please don’t judge me as excessively vain – I wear my hair short, very short, so it really shows when I don’t keep it cut regularly. Since I am planning to go on a lengthy trip, I could not afford to miss it. So here I was, rushing to my precious appointment at the salon, and being late because of a traffic jam on the way.

What’s your point? You may well ask. What’s this got to do with writing?

Okay. I admit this is not a suspense story or thriller. I just want to illustrate that writers have priorities. When something crosses our paths that we instinctively know will turn into a story, nothing will stop us. Not even missing a hair appointment.

So here I was, one block from the salon on Mainland Street, running, fighting a nasty January wind. I turned a corner, and what I saw made me slow to a crawl and then stop. Full stop. I stood as if rooted to the cobblestones.

I slowly reached into my purse for my iphone. I tapped on the camera icon. I pretended to focus on the building behind. Click. And another. And then I was gone. He didn’t notice. How could he?IMG_1182

And that’s the story. A solitary man immersed in the warm closeness and affection of his dog, and his other dog up close too. A man who couldn’t care less about the weather or a passerby getting a photo of him. A man so completely absorbed that nothing else seemed to matter. What does his body language reveal? Is he happy, sad, content, longing for something?

Not sure if I made the point. Or even if there is a point worth making. To me, this image for some reason triggered an emotion. A sadness, but also something else. That’s when I started thinking up a story. It would not have had the same effect on me if the man had been in rags, begging for money using his dogs as props. This man however was well dressed. Expensive shoes, rings on his fingers, a stylish cardigan. I didn’t see his face. It’s his body language that got me thinking.

What’s going on here? My imagination started to churn into full gear. What if… what if…

I recently found a useful exercise on another writers’ blog, ‘The Science of Story’, by David Baboulene, a story development consultant. His advice? Keep it simple, and furthermore: “If you keep the protagonist and his aims to the fore, ensure everything is relevant to these aims; and set them head on against conflicts provided by the forces of antagonism, then show us how the protagonist overcomes the forces of antagonism and how s/he grows in achieving those aims by the end, you will probably have a fine story in front of you.”

He provided the following template as an exercise:

My story is about <name of protagonist>. His/her goal is to <insert aims here>. However, s/he is blocked in achieving these goals by <insert forces of antagonism here>. Only one of the protagonist or forces of antagonism can win; their aims are mutually exclusive. At climax, <insert key conflict event> happens, leading to <resolution for protagonist happy or tragic ending>, depicting a significant <positive or negative> change in life values and moral understanding for the protagonist.

Let’s see how my man/dog image could morph into a story:

My story is about Stephan Bartok, retired owner of a profitable restaurant chain (I chose the name because I want him to be an immigrant from Europe). His goal is to remarry after losing his wife in a tragic accident. He is terribly lonely and has started an online relationship with a woman who seems like a perfect partner in every way. They share values, interests and educational background. She is twenty years younger. She, like Stephan, was born in Hungary and now lives in Virginia. She works for the CIA and does a lot of travelling to the Middle East. A first meeting is arranged and he plans to propose marriage. However, he is blocked in achieving these goals by his online love cancelling because she becomes ill with a mysterious virus and can only be cured with an experimental drug. He sends her money and more money until he realizes he’s been scammed. His only solace are his two dogs.

Etc. etc.

We can spin this yarn any way we like. What if… what if… indeed, we have a myriad of ways to let this play out. We can use characters based on real people in our lives, we can tell the story to reflect our own values, likes and prejudices, and whatever else we want to do. We are omnipotent and unstoppable. We are the storytellers.

Who else could claim such powers?

11 thoughts on “A picture worth a thousand plots. Or turning ideas into stories

  1. This is great. Just a small ordinary street scene that touched you and you’ve spun a whole tale out of it. I’m thrilled by how you see things. Not being a fictional story teller it’s intriguing to me to see how easily it can be done.

    • Alison, it’s a start. Or rather, a spark that might kindle a flame. It’s like that with fiction. A small event or detail observed, and it might call forth a memory or an emotion strong enough to take it further. This happens sometimes when I am looking at your photos, especially the people portraits. There may be many stories hidden behind those faces. Thanks for your supportive comment.

    • Thanks, Liz. These kind of images are commonplace enough, but the trick is to notice them. On that day that my mood must have been receptive to it, whatever it was that triggered it. Maybe as simple as missing my own dogs who brought me so much joy over many years.

  2. Love the photo and the story. I have an end-of-shelf stash of photos, mostly from papers, that have lodged in my mind and like the grit in oyster shell, they may… or may not turn into a pearl of a story one day.

    • Andrea, sometimes those snapshots turn out to be powerful starting points to a story. I find if there is some kind of connection, even subconsciously, then I may have come upon a powerful spark for a story. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I think those of us who have a drive to express creativity tend to view the world a bit differently than others do. Be it through written words, music, painting, or other medium, our brains are somehow wired to imagine the “what ifs” and set them down. I think it would be hard for anyone who doesn’t share that “wiring” to find the inspiration in the world that we do. So it would be hard for them to create that image or fictional world or musical piece. And that may be why they often ask in admiration, “How can you come up with all those ideas?”

    • Oh, thanks for those inspiring words, JM! It’s very uplifting and I agree with your analysis. I also believe people who ‘create’, be that music, paintings, or fiction, are wired to experiment, to take risks and dare to stray beyond the ordinary. It would be an honour for anyone to be part of that exclusive and gifted group of risk takers.

  4. Pingback: 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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