And 7 Other Ways to Work on a Story
When You Aren’t Actually Writing
by Janie Kronk
Don’t call it procrastination.
We read stories, and we write stories. Even when we aren’t technically at work, we are busy watching, noticing, and remembering details of the world around us. We are busy enjoying elements of story in everyday life. Often these elements creep up in our own work over time.
Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams is exactly what it sounds like -- a record of each night’s dreams, meticulously recorded for mood and detail. A table in the front of the book lists the characters from his dreams, alongside the names of characters in The Dharma Bums, On the Road, and other works that originated from these nocturnal personas.
Aside from enjoying some spicy food at bedtime and keeping a pen handy to record the vivid dreams that ensue, here are my seven favorite ventures (mostly) unrelated to writing that help me better understand the art of storytelling:
1) TAKE AN ACTING CLASS (backstory, character)
This activity encourages thinking about a character’s objectives and motivations; it promotes thinking with your body, to explore a character’s actions and expressions
2) TALK TO PEOPLE IN THE STREETS (character)
Everyone has a story to tell: the homeless woman who believes she was used by the government for 25 years; the guy from Chicago who has been driving in circles for hours and can’t seem to find the museum; the old man walking a pot-bellied pig through the park, hoping to be noticed.
3) MAKE THINGS (detail, craft)
Creativity yields creativity. Working in a visual medium is another way to stretch the right side of your brain. Visual arts communicate ideas using many of the same devices found in the writer’s toolbox: metaphor, evocative details, pattern and motif, form and structure.
4) READ WRITING LIFE STORIES by Bill Roorbach (remedies for writer’s block)
Wait…wasn’t this supposed to be a list of activities unrelated to reading and writing? Several exercises in this book actually fit that criteria: drawing maps, making diagrams, and other unconventional ways of finding stories which are important to us.
5) HEAR DAVID SEDARIS SPEAK (voice)
Simply put, it’s a treat. And while on the topic of stories being read and told aloud, I highly recommend the following: thisamericanlife.org, themoth.org, storycorps.net. Listen enough and you may unleash an inner narrator that travels with you throughout your day.
6) DO ANYTHING STRESSFUL WITH YOUR FAMILY (conflict, resolution)
I’m being facetious, yes. Still, any time you find yourself a little too close for comfort, just consider yourself an impartial observer of human behavior.
7) TRAVEL (plot, setting)
Some sources say that all stories adhere to one of seven basic plots. Other sources say there are ten. Even others say, “There are two basic plots: A man goes on a journey… or A stranger comes to town…” So if you think about it, travel plans are stories waiting to happen. The journey can take on many forms. A friend of mine applied to live in a Mennonite boarding house outside Manhattan, even though she is a Catholic-raised agnostic from Pittsburgh. Another friend once ran with the bulls in Pamplona.
In the end, it is curiosity--about people, places, and experiences--that is the crux of what storytelling is all about. Why else would we keep turning the pages?