The chest of a thousand drawers lived for years in a shadowy alcove between my grandparents’ kitchen and their downstairs hall. Actually, it didn’t have a thousand drawers, but since I never actually counted the number of drawers, and since the contents always seemed so mysterious to me, it may as well have been a thousand.
The chest was not very tall. It came up to my shoulders as an 11-year-old, was made of some kind of grayish metal with silver handles and little silver-edged boxes and on the front of each drawer that was clearly designed to hold some sort of label to describe the contents of the drawer. None of the squares had any labels. It was wedged under a shelf that had originally been designed to hold one of those old telephones with the mouthpiece on a stand and the earpiece you would hold up to your ear, but which now held a jumble of photo albums and old phone books.
I could and sometimes did spend hours rummaging through those many drawers and their intriguing, though sometimes unidentifiable contents, which seemed almost fluid in that I rarely found the same thing in the same drawer twice. And sometimes it seemed as if the entire contents of the chest had been replaced overnight.
In those drawers, over the years I found an ever-changing assortment of everyday items including (but not limited to); nails, screws, safety pins, bits of sandpaper, magnets, scraps of paper, some with writing on them, some blank and no two pieces the same, stubs of pencils, leaky batteries, hairpins, naked crayon pieces, knotted shoelaces, unopened packets of alcohol swabs, foam curlers, rusty screwdrivers of various sizes, paint brushes, yellowed index cards, the pieces of what must once have been a transistor radio, tassels from the living room draperies, an unopened packet of toothpicks still in its cellophane wrapping, random partially burned birthday candles, long expired coupons, a good number of buttons booth lose and still attached to papers, half used packets of garden seeds, stickers and petrified Christmas hard candies still wrapped in plastic.
Then there were the more unusual items that would seem to randomly turn up.
There was a tiny metal cylinder that moo’d like a cow when it was turned over. This had obviously belonged to some sort of toy and I felt a weird sort of guilt as I turned it over and over, wondering what toy was wandering around without its sound box, mute and unable to communicate with the world. This of all the items seemed always to be in the chest, though always in a different drawer.
Once I found a drawer full of random doll limbs and glass eyes that creeped me out so badly, I didn’t open the chest again for several weeks.
There was one day I discovered a stack of letters written on onion-thin paper and tied up with a faded green ribbon that was knotted so tight I never was able to get the knots open enough to free the letters, which I ended up putting back in the drawer unread.
Once I found a drawer full of leather scraps. The scraps were butter soft and hypnotic to the touch. I kept finding them (though in different drawers) for almost two whole weeks, and then they were gone. I opened every drawer in the cabinet three times that day looking for those amazing leather scraps. When I asked my grandfather about them, he claimed he’d never seen them. When I asked my grandmother, she just shrugged and said she wouldn’t be surprised at anything I found there.
When asked where the chest had come from, both of my grandparents gave the same sort of vague answers “oh we just picked it up somewhere” or “we’ve had that for years.” When I asked my mom about it, she shrugged and said that it had always been there when she was growing up. When I asked her if she remembered the contents changing, she said “well of course they change, people put things in and take things out. That’s what drawers are for.” When I tried to expound on what I meant, that the contents didn’t just change, like the normal contents of drawers, but sometimes seemed to change from day to day or from hour to hour, she got concerned and asked me if I was feeling okay. I never mentioned the drawers to her again.
My aunt found me rummaging one day and laughed when I told her about not being able to find the leather pieces. “That thing ate my paintbrushes once” she said, laughing. “I put them in the top drawer on the left-hand side, and when I went back the next day they were gone. Let me know if you find them, will you?”
“Did grandma take them maybe?”
“She claims she didn’t touch them. But someone did.”
“Maybe the chest did eat them!”
“Maybe it did at that.”
In spite of the possibility of its actually eating the things put into the drawers, I was never afraid of the chest. To my 11-year-old brain, the idea that it was somehow alive in some way seemed a better explanation than just the idea of regular people putting things in and taking things out, and though I was intrigued by it, I never put anything of my own in it, just in case.
I don’t know what happened to the chest of a thousand drawers. After my grandfather died and my grandmother, mom and I moved to a smaller house, I never saw it again. I have to assume that it had served its purpose in our family and had now ‘moved on’ to another home where some other 11-year-old is rummaging through its drawers, their curiosity sparking over items they have no name for and coming up with stories to tell themselves about the piles of old letters and odd bits of partially carved wood.
At first glance the concept of writing a short story seems to be simple. You have a story to tell. You sit down, pull up an empty page, and write it. So, why is it that so many people get as far as sitting down and opening up a new document, but then freeze up? So many times an individual knows what they want to say, but when it comes to actually putting it down in words it gets stuck somewhere between the their imagination and the fingers hovering over the keyboard. So, how do you get from here (an idea percolating in your head) to there (a completed story)? One of the best ways to do this is to start by creating a synopsis.
Begin With a Synopsis
A synopsis is a short summary of the story that you are writing. In order to create a working synopsis, it is necessary to ask yourself some questions to help you get all of your proverbial ducks in a row. The questions can be summed up with the following five phrases: Somebody. Somewhere. Wants Something. But. So.
The Five Questions
1). Somebody: Who is the main character of your story? Describe them in detail. What do they look like? How do they talk? What do they wear? What are their good qualities? What are their bad qualities? Yes, I know that is more than one question – but all of them come under the umbrella of the “somebody” who is your main character. The more detailed your character is in your mind, the more real they will come across in your writing.
Example: John is 18 years old. He is tall and lanky with sandy brown hair and freckles to match. He has a slight backwoods drawl to his speech and mostly wears jeans and t shirts, though he will wear a button down shirt for special occasions. He has just graduated from high school. He is polite and thoughtful but tends to be forgetful and is sometimes so caught up in his own world that he forgets what it is that he is supposed to be doing.
2). Somewhere: Where does your story take place? Describe the exact setting for your story. Is it a real location? A made up place? When does the story take place? What is the weather like? What is the scenery like? Are there Mountains? Oceans? Prairies? The more detailed you can be, the more real your story will seem to yourself and your readers.
Example: My story takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, we will call it Hoboke. The town consists of just a few buildings, a town hall, a police station and a handful of stores, an elementary and high school and is nestled by a river that flows between rolling hills and while you can see mountains in the distance, they are a good ways away. The year is 1955. It is summertime and hot. The sidewalks are so hot they will burn your bare feet if you aren’t careful.
3). Wants Something: Every story is about someone that wants something. It can be as simple as that they are looking for directions on how to get to a specific location, or something as complex as that they are looking for world domination. Explain your characters goal or wish in the story including why it is that they want this particular thing.
Example: John has one great desire in life, and that is to go to travel and see the world. He would settle for seeing the United States, because he knows that there is more to life than one little Pennsylvania town, and he has to figure out a way to get what he wants.
4). But: If a person who wants something was able to get what they wanted with no problem, then there is not much of a story. A good story includes obstacles; challenges; hurdles that have to be overcome in order to achieve the goal. The BUT section is where you explain the problem in your story. Why is your character unable to meet their goal. What kinds of obstacles/challenges are they facing? Why is this a problem for them?
Example: In order to achieve his goal of seeing the world, John has to figure out a way to get what he wants. He does not have the grades or the money to attend college. He does not feel that he has the temperament to join the military. He has no real marketable skills that would land him a job if he were simply to get up and move to a new location.
5). So: Explain in detail how your character overcomes the problem/obstacle/challenge that they are facing. Be as detailed as possible.
Example: After weighing his options, John decides that he is going to use his life savings to simply take a visit the closest large city to see if there are any other options. After arriving in Philadelphia, PA by bus he gets robbed of all of his money and decides to hitchhike home. He is picked up by a 21 year old steel mill heiress who has just come in to her money and is off on a road trip adventure to California before she goes decides what she is going to do with her life and she asks him to come with her partly, because she likes him, partly because she wants to tick off her parents. They have many adventures on the trip and end up falling for each other by the time they reach the west coast where they decide to elope, much to the girl’s parents’ chagrin. While he didn’t actively attempt to overcome his obstacles to seeing more of the world, John inadvertently overcomes them by taking the step to go to the big town and go with the girl when she asks him to accompany her.
Using Your Synopsis
Once you have answered the five questions above, you will see that, if you put them all together, you have a synopsis of your story. It’s that easy!
Once you have linked the answers to the five questions together, you can use your synopsis to refer to as you are writing your story so that your characters, settings, conflicts and resolutions stay consistent throughout the telling. In fact, the longer your story is, the more important having a synopsis is so that you won’t forget the details.
Words are powerful things.
Nearly every ancient culture has traditions telling of “words of power” that were used to focus divine power or harness specific earth energies in order to bring about a desired effect.
For millennia these words were closely guarded secrets. Only those initiated into a specific tradition were allowed to hear or write the word and learn how to direct its use. In fact, some cultures were so protective of their traditions that they forbade writing anything down and instead directed their followers to memorize all of their wisdom in order to prevent any uninitiated person from learning their trade secrets.
For generations, memorization and the oral tradition was the name of the game. Even once cultures became large enough that they needed to use alphabets and numbers to keep track of harvests and seasons and incomes and taxes, many mystery traditions insisted that their adherents only pass their secrets down by word of mouth.
As many mystery traditions began losing followers, either because of encroaching religions or invading armies, their adherents began using the written word to record their closely guarded secrets so that those secrets would not be lost altogether. But it was only with the invention of the printing press that major inroads into information previously passed down strictly through oral tradition began being made.
Today we tend to view the written word with a lot less wonder and amazement then did the people of ancient civilizations. In fact, everywhere you look there seem to be words written down; in books and magazines, on internet sites and online shops, on billboards and newspaper advertisements, on food labels and even the tags on pillows.
In fact, words in general seem to have lost so much of their power and ability to entrance and enchant, that many people find the written word to be boring. I mean, why bother writing down what you are thinking when you can do a quick Tik Tok, Facebook reel or Instagram video instead? But in spite of modern society’s blasé attitude toward words in general and the written word in particular, if you look carefully, you can still see just how much power those words still have over us.
Have you ever been moved to tears when reading a story about a child or an animal who had been abused or abandoned and then been rescued by some loving individual? Have you ever found your heart hurting as you read reports of death and destruction from whatever war or conflict is currently the center of media focus? Have you ever found yourself stirred to a love of your country by reading the transcript of a great leader’s speech, feeling annoyed as a politician recites everything that is wrong with society, or rooting for a specific cause after reading an activist’s plea? The stronger your emotional reaction to what you read, the more skilled you will find the writer of what you are reading.
Social media in particular is very much a public display of the power of words, even in a society to whom words in general are not of much consequence. With just a sharply worded comment you can cut someone down to size, shame them publicly, belittle them, or even goad them into committing suicide.
On the flip side, the right words can uncover the truth, help to bring peace, bolster someone’s self-esteem, encourage others to be their best selves and even save lives. Its all a matter of what we choose to do with the words that we use; whether we choose to use those words to spread fear and anger and intolerance, or to encourage love, peace and inclusion.
So, as you develop your skills as a word wizard, remember that the power of the written word is not something to be taken lightly. In addition to choosing your words carefully as you create worlds and the people who populate them, as you describe a product or a place or recall an event to share you’re your readers, remember to also think carefully before posting that scathing comment, belittling critique or sarcastic response.
Being honest or authentic in our responses does not require us to be cruel. It is quite possible that the words you choose, especially as you become skilled in how to provoke certain emotional responses from your readers, can have as much power as the ancients believed their own special, magical words to have on others and the world around them.
The choice of how you use your words is, of course, always up to you.
Most everyone has heard some version of the story of Rumpelstiltskin; where the miller bragged to the king that his daughter was so clever that she could spin straw into gold? The king of course, being the greedy sort of ruler that he was, had her immediately imprisoned in a cell filled with straw and a spinning wheel and commanded to spin the straw into gold before morning on pain of death. She can’t. She cries. A weird little man appears and says he’ll do it for her if she gives him her necklace. She gives it to him. He spins the straw into gold. The king wants more and the demand is made again and again, day after day, until the girl has nothing left to give but promises the little man her firstborn child. At this the little man spins so much gold that the king immediately makes the girl his queen and then they have a child and the weird little man reappears and demands his payment.
It is a strange story, full of disturbing issues such as, why would you agree to marry a man who imprisoned you and threatened you with death if you couldn’t live up to your father’s bragging about you? What did the weird little dude want with a human baby? How did the little guy actually turn the straw into gold? The last one is not so much disturbing as it is fascinating (at least to me) because it deals with the concept of alchemy.
It was once believed that when practiced, the art of alchemy could turn everyday materials, such as lead (or straw) into gold or could be used to find a universal elixir that would provide eternal (or extended) life. And isn’t that exactly what writers do every day?
The Alchemy of the Written Word
The practice of Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt and the city of Alexandria that was a center of alchemical learning in the first few centuries AD. The written word has been around far longer than that.
Creative writing is all about turning ideas into words. If done correctly, these words take an idea, a world, characters that only ever existed in your imagination and make them come to life. If you spin your words well, that story, those characters, that world, your idea will live forever. And if that isn’t real alchemy, I don’t know what is.
Think about it, we have an idea for a story; an inspiration if you will. It may grow in our minds over time or arrive completely intact, in one instant. In whatever way that it arrives, that idea then has to be spun in such a way that it becomes real to the reader and that entails finding the right words.
All the ideas in the world do you absolutely no good unless you know how to put those ideas down into words. You can sit there staring at your computer all day and will have nothing to show for it but a blank screen and a headache. So how do you bridge the gap? How do you get the ideas out of your head and down onto paper in such a way that they will actually make sense to someone else? It begins by collecting your thoughts.
Bridging the Gap between the Idea and the Reality
The bridge between the ideas that you have and the words that you write is actually quite simple. It consists of learning how to collect your thoughts. Just as the miller’s daughter couldn’t make gold (or have her little visitor do it for her) without straw, so you cannot create a story worth remembering unless you are able to put your thoughts down in a coherent manner.
Many people believe that their thoughts and ideas are coherent; that they make sense. And in their minds those ideas may seem perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, there usually comes a time between having of the idea and getting it out on paper where something important gets lost. Somewhere you misplaced the nuances that made your topic so appealing when you first thought about it. The following five tips can help you in collecting your own thoughts in order to more easily bridge that gap.
- Keep a Writing Journal. Not only should you keep a writing journal, it should stay with you at all times. This doesn’t have to be a large journal. It can be a small, pocket sized notebook if need be. And yes, it can be an annoyance to always carry a journal around with you. However, being able to write down your thoughts as they occur can be a lifesaver, especially if you are in the middle of something else; like a meeting at work or a family activity.
- Write Down Everything. It isn’t enough to just have a writing journal; you have to get into the habit of writing everything down. I don’t care if it is just a fleeting thought; you need to write it down. You need to write everything down. Get used to putting your ideas into words and make sure that when you re-read what you have written that it makes sense to you as well. If you look back through your journal and find that you can’t understand what you were talking about, then you need to refine your note taking style.
- Re-Write Every Day. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but at the end of every day you need to go through that day’s pages of your writing journal and take those ideas that you have written down and copy them into a working notebook or even type them into your computer. This will not only help to keep your ideas fresh in your head, it will also help you to begin a working copy of your idea; one which you can adjust and adapt as need be.
- Be Your Own Worst Critic. It is not enough to simply write your ideas down, nor even enough to re-write your ideas so that they flow smoothly. Sometimes you have to pull the entire structure apart and re-build it from the ground up. Even though the idea may have sounded good the first time you wrote it down, it can always be better! Write and re-write your ideas out until they say exactly what you want them to; until you can see the picture that they paint in your mind.
- Use a Sounding Board. It helps to have a sounding board; someone who is willing to read your work and give you their unbiased opinion. It will not be this person’s job to edit your work. You simply want their reaction to how the words are written; what sort of picture that it paints in their head. If you do not have a friend or acquaintance who is willing to serve as a sounding board for you, there are other options, such as websites out there that allow you to post your work and have readers critique it for you or creative writing coaches that can help you work your idea into an actual completed project.
Just as with any skill, successful getting your ideas down where you can see them and work with them takes time and practice. You may not immediately start turning straw into gold as a writer, but eventually you will see the alchemical process begin it’s magical work.
Just like the concept of working from home, creative writing gets a bad rap. I can’t count the number of times I have told people what I do for a living and watch as they fight to keep from smiling. Some don’t even try to fight it but just flat out laugh. It’s a joke to them; a poor excuse for someone who just can’t find or keep a ‘real’ job.
I still remember one lovely person who, when I told her that I was a writer said “are you serious?” and then laughed as if she had never heard anything so funny. When I asked her what it was that she thought Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts did for a living and she wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes as she said “but sweetie, those are real writers.”
Well, she’s wrong. I may not yet be a popular writer (note the use of the qualifying word “yet” as the key part of that last phrase). I may not have my books on the best seller list. But they are published and they do sell. I may currently make the bulk of my writing income by writing blogs, giving creative writing seminars, creating newsletters and informational eBooks or by providing creative writing coaching to those who find the written word challenging, but that does not make me any less of a writer than those who are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars per book contract or who are getting assignments that pay thousands of dollars a pop.
Unfortunately, this is a concept that many aspiring writers find distinctly difficult to grasp, and, when confronted with those who would belittle or criticize their claim to be a writer they become depressed over their seeming lack of recognition and sometimes even give up writing altogether.
Perhaps they give up because, in the back of their heads they have the expectation that their talent will immediately be recognized and that they will go from being a total unknown and unpublished writer to an overnight success at the top of the New York Times best seller list. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is quite a bit different.
Yes, there are a few rare individuals who have extraordinary talent and who are in just the right place at the right time and get recognized immediately, but most writers have to work at their craft. Like any other talent or skill, writing has to be honed, practiced and refined and this means writing on a daily basis.
Most writers start out by honing their writing skills while maintaining a day job. Those who are truly addicted will make a point of trying to find a way to work on improving their writing skills in whatever way they possibly can, writing on lunch breaks, weekends or late into the night.
Personally, I got started in writing for a living by helping fellow college students refine their papers. At first I would sit down with them for free and go over their reports and papers, helping them to tighten up their prose or making suggestions as to new ways to approach the subject. Then someone made the suggestion that I could actually make money by offering my services for a small fee. As your standard starving student, that sounded good to me! And sure enough, there were enough fellow students who were desperate to make suggestions for improvements to their papers that they were more than willing to pay a small fee to have me go over their work, especially when most times it resulted in a jump in letter grade.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a writer since I learned out to write. As a kid I scribbled stories in my spare time. I was on the newspaper staff in both high school and college. As a young adult, I submitted bits and pieces to local newspapers and local writing contests, but I didn’t realize that I could actually do this as a regular job until I actually was.
For years writing was just a second job; a secondary source of income that helped to ‘fill in the gaps’ so to speak; gaps left by my “bread and butter” day job. Now writing and helping others improve their writing is my bread and butter, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do I still have my eye on the New York Times best seller list? Of course, I do! I have great hopes for my current in-process novel. Doesn’t every writer? But in the meantime, I write. I write because I can’t not write. And that need to write, to tell a story, that is what defines a real writer. By that definition, no matter what that long ago lady once said, I am very much a real writer, and if you love to write, you so are you!
As long as mankind has had writing we have been recording our ideas and thoughts in written form. From the temple priests of ancient Egypt to the philosophers of ancient Greece to the Victorian writers who took sixteen pages and a bottle of ink to describe a sunrise.
Indeed, there has always been a driving desire among writers to get their words out of their heads and down on paper, or vellum ,or parchment, or, in the case of the Mesopotamians, bricks. But only in the last two decades has the idea of putting words down in a non-tangible format actually become something that would seriously be considered.
In fact, there is something of a debate that is still going on regarding the need to save a hard copy of all of your online work or ideas that are stored in electronic format. Those against saving a hard copy point out that with so many backup systems available, the chances of losing your online work (or the work stored on your computer) is slim to none while those for it say that electronic documents are nothing more than an illusion and that, given the right set of circumstances, you could end up losing all of your work.
Oh, did you think that your online blog is the equivalent of hard copy journals? Let me ask you this, what would happen if your webhost had a complete system failure? Well, hopefully you would have backups on your hard drive (or thumb drive) right? Well, let’s hope, for your sake, that the webhost’s system failure wouldn’t go hand in hand with an electronics failure (such as could be expected in a major solar storm) or even just a system crash on your own computer due to a nasty computer virus.
The point is, while you can take multiple steps to safeguard your information on the Internet and even on your own hard drive, the fact is that you are recording your ideas in cyberspace, it may look as if you have a page of written words, but it is really an illusion, and if for some unforeseen reason you no longer had access to electricity (as I did one memorable summer when dealing with two hurricanes on top of each other) you also have no access to any of the work that you have done as well. And then there are the dangers of confronting the cyber-dog.
ATTACK OF THE CYBER DOG
Wait, what was that about a cyber-dog?
Well, you remember that old excuse that kids used to give to their teachers, the one about the dog eating their homework? Well, in today’s world of electronic communications the culprit is an electronic dog, one that eats bits instead of kibble and whose byte is annoying as it can take great chunks out of your stored information.
How many times have you sent an email, or uploaded a picture from your iPhone, only to never have it go through? That’s because the cyber-dog ate it. Of course sometimes it shows up hours (or even days) later maybe Fido was playing fetch. Ok, so it wasn’t the cyber-dog, it was actually it was because all the pieces or Packets of information that got sent out failed to get reassembled at their destination. While most online systems have safety features in place to help prevent this, sometimes it’s just impossible for the information you sent to get to where it’s going. Mind you it doesn’t happen often that all of your information completely disappears, but it can happen. This is another reason to always make copies of everything that you’ve written.
In fact, there are at least three layers of protective “clothing” you should be wearing to protect yourself from the bite of the cyber-dog:
1). Always save a copy of your work on a separate hard drive or thumb drive. While this may seem like overkill, especially if your computer has a great deal of storage space on it, remember that accidents do and can happen.
2). Never write your blogs or written work directly on the website or in an email. If you write a regular blog or upload written material directly through an online uploading system, at least write it out (and save a copy of it) on your own computer. This will prevent needless re-writing should your document go missing in cyberspace.
3). Print out a hard copy of any work that you particularly value. Trust me, if something unforeseen happens, you’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t.
I’ll never forget the completed and corrected version of my book that I blithely sent off to the publisher via email (without printing it out) only to find that it never arrived. And when I went to retrieve it off of my computer I found that a worm virus had eaten through the bulk of my stored copy. I had a copy of the uncorrected manuscript on a thumb drive, but I had lost three months worth of editorial work and had to start from scratch. Try explaining that to your editor.
Of course then there was the time that I not only lost an article that I had emailed to the magazine I was writing for, but the thumb drive that I had the copy stored on literally broke in two and my IT dude was unable to retrieve any information off of it. I lost the commission from the article because I missed the deadline (the editor didn’t like the cyber-dog excuse). But I certainly learned my lesson. I now have stacks of hard copies of my completed work. They take up a whole corner of my den (and probably a small forest), but it certainly beats the alternative.
So yes, while computers, computer storage systems as well as online uploading and online blogs can be marvelous tools for today’s writer, keep a wary eye out for the cyber-dog. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the cost of printing off a hard copy of your documents definitely beats the sinking sensation you get when you realize that it is gone for good and probably buried like a bone under some virtual reality shrub on a back street in Second Life.
Creating Believable Fictional Characters
Creating believable fictional characters is detrimental to creating a successful story. In truth, without a character that comes alive in the reader’s mind, you will find that your entire narrative may fall flat.
Have you ever read a piece of fiction where the characters seemed two dimensional? Perhaps the protagonist seems like a cliché, perhaps the conversations seem stilted, the decisions made by the characters are predictable, the plot itself is boring or the description of the character is done is such a way that you feel as if you were dealing with paper dolls and not living, breathing characters.
By learning to create believable people for your stories; believable people with believable personalities and voices, you can literally make your work come alive.
Below you will find some techniques to help you in creating believable characters. Each of these can be expounded upon in far more depth, but for now, consider this an overview of how to create story people who come alive in the mind of the reader.
Chances are, you know what you want your character to look like; tall, short, petite, full-figured, stocky, specific hair and eye colors, skin textures, the works. In fact, the overall description of your characters may be a very important part of your story, but the way that you convey this to the reader is even more important.
Knowing what a character looks like, in detail, is important for you, the writer. But in story crafting it is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their minds.
One of the biggest mistakes in story writing is to create a scene where the character is described in detail. Usually this is done as the person is introduced, or views themselves in a mirror, or is observed in detail by someone else. These approaches are predictable and often-times wordy to the point of ridiculousness (who considers their own lips to be “full and luscious” when looking in the mirror, or, upon meeting a new acquaintance, goes into raptures about their muscular body and likens their hair to the color of wheat?) Quite frankly, short of a classic romance, where the description is part of the appeal, this kind of description can be a put off to the reader.
It is better to let the reader create the full image of the character in their own head. Of course, you don’t want them to get entirely the wrong idea about a person, which is why referencing their description in more subtle ways can convey your view of the character without forcing the full description of them on the reader against their will. The best way to do this is in working bits of their description into the narrative. Instead of saying a character is short, you could say something like “Joan was startled to find that when she was toe to toe with Frank the top of his head came to her chin.” Indeed, by working in references like this throughout the story, you guide the reader to your view of the character without making them feel as if you are forcing the issue.
Create a Back Story
In order to write a good character, you have to not just know what your character looks and sounds like, how they dress and what they like to eat, you need to know why they do those things. The best way to do this is to create a back story.
A back story is the history of the character. While aspects of the back story may be mentioned or referred to in the narrative, it will usually not play a big part in the actual telling of the story. Its purpose is to flesh out your own personal understanding of the persona you have created and help you to make them relatable and find their unique voice.
A back story helps you to discover how they became who they are, why they do what they do. It explains what events impacted them and turned them into who they are today. This doesn’t have to be a book-length endeavor, just a paragraph or two can do wonders in helping you to understand who your character is and how they became that way.
Make Them Relatable
One of the most common mistakes in creating story people is to make them unrelatable. If your readers can not relate to the characters in your story, if they cannot see a bit of themselves in one or more of your characters, the chances are that they will lose interest in the story altogether.
One of the best ways to make a fictional person relatable is to give them a human failing, a fault or characteristic which, when it presents itself, makes people say to themselves, “ha! I know exactly how that feels!” Think of a private detective who has a problem with body image, or a clumsy personal assistant, a psychiatrist who has anxiety, or a music aficionado who can’t carry a tune in a handbasket.
We are all human, making your characters human can go a long way towards endearing them to your readers.
Give Them a Voice
If you are an avid fiction reader, you will understand what I am referring to when I say that the way an actor verbalizes and brings to life a fictional character can make or break a movie that is based on a book. If the actor, producer and screen writers are worth their salt, the movie version of a well-loved book character will bring the written character to life on the big screen. If not done correctly, it can leave you feeling seriously disappointed, for the character that seemed to live and breathe on the page falls flat on the screen.
Giving your characters a unique voice of their own is one of the most important parts of creating a believable persona for your story. A living, breathing voice can make the difference between an “okay” and an “amazing” narrative.
Character voice can be defined as a fictional character’s unique way of expressing themselves both inwardly and outwardly. The voice is told through the character’s personality, their thoughts, their process of reasoning and evaluation, even the way they talk and the kinds of choices that they make.
One of the best ways to create a truly unique voice is to ‘listen’ to your character as if they were a real person. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and close your eyes; imagine that the character as you see them based on their description and back story is sitting across from you. Now, ask them questions about their life, their needs and desires, friends, hobbies, anything. Write down the question and wait for them to answer, then write down the answer as you “hear” it in your head. Soon you will start to get a feel for your character’s unique voice.
Once you have the voice for your various characters, you will find that writing dialogue between them becomes easier and their decisions and actions within the story line become far easier to write. In fact, there may come a point where the characters become so well developed that they begin taking on a life all of their own.
But that is a topic for another day.
Being a writer is about tapping that inner wellspring of creativity, not just now and again, but consistently. Every day I talk to two kinds of people; those who want to become good writers and those who are already good writers but want to become better. At some point even the best of writers asks me “how do you keep coming up with topics to write about?
It’s true that even the best of writers; people who can create vivid and animated characters; people who can write prose that is full of wit and wisdom; sometimes find themselves stumped when it comes to choosing a topic to actually start writing about.
It doesn’t matter if you are a blogger, a screen writer, a feature writer, a poet, a web content writer, a playwright, a short story writer, a novelist, or if you just write for your own personal pleasure; the desire to write is only going to get you so far if you aren’t able to generate ideas to write about.
So where do you begin? How do you generate ideas that will turn into the stories and articles that you need to produce in order to go from wanting to be a writer to actually writing? The following five concepts have all proven to be effective idea generators both for me and for other writers, so why not try one or two – or all of them – and see if we can’t get those creative juices flowing!
Five Creative Writing Idea Generators
#1: The Daily Journal
One of the most important aspects of a writer’s idea arsenal is their personal journal. I’m not talking about a blog. Blogs and journals are two different things. Unfortunately today the concept of blogging has become synonymous with journaling with blogs being touted as “online journals.” And while that is all fine and good, there is, however, a big difference.
When you blog you are (usually) sharing your ideas with people around you and this exerts a certain kind of pressure on you to deliver. When you journal, it is for you alone and you can feel freer to write whatever comes to mind without having to live up to someone else’s expectations.
In order to be practical, your journal should be small enough to carry comfortably in your purse or backpack or even in a coat pocket or briefcase. Use your journal not just to record your daily events, but also to jot down any ideas that you might have during the course of the day. Write it all down – no matter now trivial or mundane. You never know when one of those seemingly ‘trivial’ ideas will generate the next great American novel – or at least your next blog entry!
#2: Stream of Consciousness Writing
Stream of consciousness writing is very effective when you are at your wits end as to what to write about. The short version is that you are letting your inner self out onto the page – no holds barred. Sometimes it is quite amazing what you will find when you let this happen. Simply sit down with a blank piece of paper (or a journal dedicated to stream of consciousness) pick a subject, and start writing about whatever comes into your head.
One way to simplify the topic you will be writing about is to open up any news website and pick the first topic on the headline list. Another topic source is a dictionary or encyclopedia. Simply open the book at random, put your finger down on an entry, then start writing about it. Give yourself 10-15 minutes (timed by setting the alarm on your clock or computer) and simply write, without stopping, until the timer goes off.
With stream of consciousness writing you do not have to stick to your subject. What you write doesn’t even have to make logical sense. Instead, you use the subject as a launch pad for other ideas and thoughts that are probably bottled up behind concerns about your everyday worries and responsibilities. Chances are that when you’ve stopped writing you’ll find that you’ve uncovered at least a half a dozen ideas without even trying.
#3: Using Mundane Activities as Springboards
You may think that mundane activities such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, getting your oil changed, shoveling snow from your driveway or driving your kids to school may not be very inspiring activities, but in truth, you can find as many writing ideas in the everyday and ordinary daily activities as you would in the more glamorous adventures most people associate with generating creativity.
Be on the lookout for ideas even in the most boring and routine things. Usually these ideas will occur as a question in your head. For example, “this toaster pastry tastes like cardboard; I wonder why so many people eat them?” Ta-da! You’ve just uncovered an idea. Take out your journal and write down “why are toaster pastries popular?” in your journal. Did you find yourself staring at that dress in the store window and wondering how long it took it to get from the factory in Indonesia to the sales floor? Congratulations, you may have just discovered a feature article on international supply chain management.
#4: Tap Your Inner Child
One great way to get your creativity flowing is to tap into your inner child. Seriously, sit down with a piece of paper (or your journal) and make a list of those things that you loved to do as a child. Did you like riding your bike? Were you really into dinosaurs? Did you have a tree house? What was your favorite music? What kinds of things did you not like? What foods did you hate eating (and why)? What things did your parents make you do that you absolutely detested? Good, now take a look at your list. You’ve just uncovered an entire world of writing topics.
You can also use childhood games to generate ideas for writing topics. For example, the game “Never have I ever.” This game is a version of spin the bottle where the kid who the bottle points to has to answer the question “Never have I ever _____” and fill in the blank with something that they have never done. This is supposed to be embarrassing, especially for teenagers when they admit that they have never done or tried something. Do this yourself, and then research those things that you have never done and write about them. Gosh but letting your inner child out is great for your creativity!
#5: Create a Book of Inspiration or a Pandora’s Box
Is there a writer or author that you really admire? Perhaps you find yourself drawn to particular photographs or artwork; things that fill you with the desire to be creative and to do your best. Creating a book of inspiration filled with beautiful pictures, a special quotation, short pieces by favorite authors, lyrics to favorite songs and anything else that gets your creative juices flowing can be a great idea generator.
If you are more hands on oriented, you may want to opt for a creativity box. I have one, I call it “Pandora’s Box” and it’s filled with all manner of things that make me smile. New crayons, a Rubik’s cube, brightly colored post cards from all over the world, bits of fabric (silk, denim, corduroy, leather), an assortment of interesting stones, ticket stubs, pins, bumper stickers, a glass doorknob from the bedroom door of the house where I grew up, and much, much more.
Many times when I am stumped for an idea, I simply open my box and start rummaging. Before I know it an idea has usually popped into my head and I find myself writing furiously, determined to get it all down.
Whatever you do, don’t be afraid if you find that one or more of these ideas breaks through a sort of dam in your mind and the ideas just start pouring out. It can be overwhelming at first, but just keep that journal ready! Write everything down as it occurs to you but do not feel as if you have to pursue that particular line of inquiry right then and there. There will be plenty of time to follow up on your fresh influx of writing topics. Soon you may have more ideas than you know what to do with. But that’s a good thing, especially for a writer looking to generate inspiration.