How to Give Your Stories Impact

Have you read the latest Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Whether or not you find her relentless use of the present tense a thrill or a turn-off (I was underwhelmed), nobody can deny that her style has punch. Vivid little phrases. Shock images. A surprise in every line. And above all… a freshness of perception.

How can we achieve that?

Every serious writer keeps a notebook in their pocket. Or blank file cards. James Joyce used dozens of notebooks to record the trivia of his wanderings in the Dublin streets. He turned his notes of grocery bills, maternity wards and lovers’ gossip into Ulysses. He found nuggets of stories everywhere: ‘little epiphanies of the ordinary’. Each one a fresh fragment of perception.

Here’s a powerful idea.

I run creative writing classes at a university. At my first class each year, I send the students into the coffee shop. (This assignment is very popular.) I tell them to stop anywhere at random and to look hard at whatever is in front of them. They must not only see it but also hear, smell and - so far as propriety permits - touch and taste it. Then I ask them to describe what they perceive as if they had never seen it before.

The results are often remarkable.

For example, here is how one student described a mop leaning against a wall: ‘the mop was like an old man with a long white beard, watching his life go by’. Another student recounted the moral dilemma he met when buying a drink at the coffee bar: ‘the lady said "You have to pay on the other side". And she frowned at me like a hellfire preacher’.

Another student wrote ‘four red chairs seemed to be chatting up a shy round table. It didn’t know which way to turn’. Yet another remarked, having studied the noticeboard: ‘I felt the despair of a poster which nobody ever looked at’.

These examples were notable because the students had taken a fresh view of some very mundane experiences. And they had also added conflict to them. So each incident became, in itself, a tiny story or ‘fabuleme’. And each fabuleme might then have been used as an emblem, within a greater story, to sum up the mood or theme of the narrative.

Any trivial thing can be made vivid and evocative of some deeper meaning if we look upon it with the non-judgemental eyes of a child. The Russian critic Shlovsky called it ostranenie - the trick of defamiliarising the familiar. It’s the master ruse of art.

I once went into a modern art gallery where some wag had hung an empty frame against the bare brick wall. Puzzled, I stared hard at the bricks. As I stared they became objects of numinous wonder, glowing with magical colours and textures. (Try it for yourself!)

Tip: wander anywhere. Stop at random. Disengage your critical mind. Look, hear, smell, feel (and even taste) what you perceive. Note down your immediate thoughts, and then the imaginative places your thoughts lead you to.

I pledge, whether or not you win the Booker, you’ll never again be short of fresh vivid perceptions to inspire your stories.

Of course, if you’re really serious about creative writing, you’ll transfer these notes periodically to a computerised database, and cross-reference them under keywords!

For a 'little university' in story writing ideas, with complimentary enrolment, please go to:

Also see... Tested Ways to Beat Writers' Block. Click here.

Comments 10 comments

tradingxyz profile image

tradingxyz 6 years ago

Be can humans creative how me amazes always it

John Yeoman profile image

John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England Author

denizens Hub of genius this deny I can?

tradingxyz profile image

tradingxyz 6 years ago


saddlerider1 profile image

saddlerider1 6 years ago

An associate once said to me unless you have read the classics you can never become a good writer, do you think there is any truth in that remark? Can one still have something to say, write and contribute without having read deep and wide others works? I stumbled into your Hubs and so glad I did. I want to read more and learn, De Greek and I are fellow Hubbers and enjoy writing or attempting to write. I am here to learn even though I am in semi retirement from work, but not from life itself hah.

Joni Douglas profile image

Joni Douglas 6 years ago

Excellent advice.

John Yeoman profile image

John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England Author

Thanks, Saddlerider1 and Joni. Is reading the classics a prerequisite for writing success? In the days of Matthew Arnold, the answer might have been: Yes. Today, when few read the classics, I doubt whether a familiarity with the Aeneid or the Aristotelian Unities would impress an agent. (But then, not much does.)

But... there's no denying that the great epic tales are an endlessly plunderable source of plot ideas. As I've suggested on a separate Hub, Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is essentially a reworking of classic myths, for example, Theseus and the Minotaur. If we can believe Christopher Booker, there are only seven basic plots anyway. And all can be found in the classics.

Remember, minor writers invent, great ones steal. (And I've just stolen that phrase too...)

saddlerider1 profile image

saddlerider1 6 years ago

Thank you John for your insight and pearls of wisdom. I respect your teachings and I am listening. I am a wannabee write like many on HP however it has laid dormant for many years. I was an avid reader in my younger years. English lit was never my favorite subject in school so my grammar suffered, although my expressions are hidden beneath my desires to write. I will read your instructional hubs and hope to learn more from your teachings. Thanks John and peace.

John Yeoman profile image

John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England Author

Thanks, saddlerider1. Nice to meet you here. The story's the thing. I wouldn't worry too much, at least in a first draft, about wrestling with grammar. Jack Kerouac did quite nicely without it :)

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

I loved the examples you gave to illustrate your point. I do believe that a good writer will be a passionate reader first (and not because it needs ideas for inspiration, but because it needs to indentify with someone and find him/her self). I read the classics, but I identify mostly with Oriana Fallaci so in the end I will be more of a journalist or non-fiction writer

John Yeoman profile image

John Yeoman 6 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England Author

Funny you should differentiate between journalism and fiction. In my own own creative writing classes, many of my students want to be journalists. I tell them: learn to write great fiction now, because you'll be writing it as a journalist for the rest of your life! (Some of them get the point, others just glower at me...)

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article