The Foundations of Story-Telling


90% of writers - those that actually get started on writing - sit down and simply write scene after scene straight from their imaginations. It’s a huge part of the attraction of writing as a career that this is a very pleasant and low-maintenance process - there’s something therapeutic about allowing the imagination free play in this way. It’s almost as though there are entire universes inside us, trying to escape into our outer worlds through the tiny keyhole that is our heads, in the miniscule amount of time that we permit that channel to open up.

You may have felt the ‘traffic jam’ building up in your mind when you don’t get to write. That’s uncomfortable but quite common. Having stirred our creative engines into life, they begin to knock on the door, no longer satisfied with a keyhole: they want out, they want to be a book!

Once you have something out of your head and onto paper - or more likely these days, onto a hard drive - there is often a sense of relief. But this is usually accompanied by a feeling that what you have written is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. The truth is that, in the rush to get something written, your creative heart hasn’t had much chance to put structure or order into what has emerged. There has been a flow, and that is good - it felt good, and it is good to see something in the shape of words rather than images or vague ideas in your mind. But now another part of that mind needs to step in.

This other part is a kind of internal editor. It is part of you, just as the creative part is, and what it has to do can be just as enjoyable as the creative flow. The internal editor’s job is to organise what you’ve written. There are several stages to this, and I recommend that you tackle it as follows (though you can pick and choose based on what works for you):

1. Let the creative flow happen for as long as you can, preferably up to about 200 pages if you are able to. That sounds a lot, but once you have that flow going it’s good to keep it going until you have amassed a substantial amount of wordage.

2. Read over it and see if you can summarise the whole thing in one or two sentences. This is worth spending some time on. The sentence you come up with is like the command, the intention, the core of the thing. Let’s say you’ve managed to write 150 pages of a war drama. You look over it and come up with these sentences: ‘Private Paul Hammersmith makes it through the beaches on D-Day but watches his buddy get killed in front of him. He then has to keep the promise he’d made to look after his friend’s family.’