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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: http://www.writers-village.org/free-writing-ideas.php