Idea Generation: What Stories Can I Tell?
You may already have an idea of an important experience in your life about which you could tell a story. Although this might be a significant experience, it is most definitely not the only one worth telling. (Remember: first idea ≠ best idea.)
Just as with description, good narration isn’t about shocking content but rather about effective and innovative writing. In order to broaden your options before you begin developing your story, complete the organizer on the following pages.
Then, choose three of the list items from this page that you think are especially unique or have had a serious impact on your life experience. On a separate sheet of paper, free-write about each of your three list items for no less than five minutes per item.
This exercise will help you develop a variety of options for your story, considered especially in the context of your entire life trajectory.
First, brainstorm at least ten moments or experiences that you consider influential— moments that in some way impacted your identity, your friendships, your worldview— for the better or for the worse. Record them in the table below.
Then, rate those experiences on a degree of “awesomeness,” “pleasurability,” or something else along those lines, on a scale of 0 – 10, with 10 being the hands down best moment of your life and 0 being the worst.
Next, plot those events on the graph paper on the back of this page. Each point is an event; the x-axis is your age, and the y-axis is the factor of positivity. Connect the points with a line.
Finally, circle three of the events/experiences on your graph. On a clean sheet of paper, free-write about each of those three for at least four minutes.36
Experimenting with Voice and Dialogue37
Complete the following three exercises to think through the language your characters use and the relationships they demonstrate through dialogue. If you’ve started your assignment, you can use these exercises to generate content.
1) Choose any two professions for two imaginary characters.
2) Give the two characters a secret that they share with one another. As you might imagine, neither of them would reveal that secret aloud, but they might discuss it. (To really challenge yourself, you might also come up with a reason that their secret must be a secret: Is it socially unacceptable to talk about? Are they liable to get in trouble if people find out? Will they ruin a surprise?)
3) Write an exchange between those characters about the secret using only their words (i.e., no “he said” or “she said,” but rather only the language they use). Allow the secret to be revealed to the reader in how the characters speak, what they say, and how they say it. Pay attention to the subtext of what’s being said and how it’s being said. How would these characters discuss their secret without revealing it to eavesdroppers? (Consider Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as a model.)
4) Draw a line beneath your dialogue. Now, imagine that only one of the characters has a secret. Write a new dialogue in which one character is trying to keep that secret from the other. Again, consider how the speakers are communicating: what language do they use? What sort of tone? What does that reveal about their relationship?
1) Go to a public space and eavesdrop on a conversation. (Try not to be too creepy—be considerate and respectful of the people.) You don’t need to take avid notes, but observe natural inflections, pauses, and gestures. What do these characteristics imply about the relationship between the speakers?
2) Jot down a fragment of striking, interesting, or weird dialogue.
3) Now, use that fragment of dialogue to imagine a digital exchange: consider that fragment as a Facebook status, a text message, or a tweet. Then, write at least ten comments or replies to that fragment.
4) Reflect on the imaginary digital conversation you just created. What led you to make the choices you made? How does digital dialogue differ from real-life dialogue?
As you may have noticed in the previous exercises, dialogue is about more than just what the words say: our verbal communication is supplemented by inflection, tone, body language, and pace, among other things. With a partner, exchange the following lines. Without changing the words, try to change the meaning using your tone, inflection, body language, etc.
After each round, debrief with your partner; jot down a few notes together to describe how your variations changed the meaning of each word. Then, consider how you might capture and relay these different deliveries using written language— what some writers call “dialogue tags.” Dialogue tags try to reproduce the nuance of our spoken and unspoken languages (e.g., “he muttered,” “she shouted in frustration,” “they insinuated, crossing their arms”).
Using Images to Tell a Story
Even though this textbook focuses on writing as a means to tell stories, you can also construct thoughtful and unique narratives using solely images, or using images to supplement your writing. A single photograph can tell a story, but a series will create a more cohesive narrative. To experiment with this medium, try the following activity.
1) Using your cell phone or a digital camera, take at least one photograph (of yourself, events, and/or your surroundings) each hour for one day.
2) Compile the photos and arrange them in chronological order. Choose any five photos that tell a story about part or all of your day.
- How did you determine which photos to remove? What does this suggest about your narrative scope?
- Where might you want to add photos or text? Why?
To consider models of this kind of narrative, check out Al Jazeera’s “In Pictures” series. In 2014, a friend of mine recorded a one-second video every day for a year, creating a similar kind of narrative.