Skip to content

How I Let My Characters Tell Me Their Story

2 August 2010

I have read numerous times in pieces about writing, usually written by successful writers, that the best way to get a story out is to just start writing. Let the characters tell you where they are going and what will happen to them. I always marvelled at that idea, thinking how magical it would be if that actually happened!

Well, it’s not so magical, but it does happen. This afternoon I finally started writing about these two characters that have been playing in my head for a few months–ever since April, actually, when they sprang to life from a poem I wrote for NaPoWriMo. I decided I was ready to write them today after reading what is probably the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard.

Anne Lamott, in her book “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her of what she calls “short assignments.” Her idea is that when writing gets overwhelming and she feels like she just can’t move her story ahead, the picture frame reminds her to focus on one tiny aspect of the story–one scene, for example. Even though there are many scenes leading up to that one that haven’t been written yet. She says, “it reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.” Her point is that you don’t have to be able to see the whole story from start to finish. All you have to do is write one thing, the part of the story you can see directly in front of you. Once you’ve done that, you can feel successful. And then you can move on to another one-inch picture, until finally, someday, all those little picture frame scenes can be stitched together to make a story.

So, I did that today. I sat down at a café in town and wrote the scene that has been playing in my mind since April. And guess what? That scene was a lot longer than I imagined. And it led to another scene. And two more. See, what I’ve read about letting the characters tell their story is true. But it’s not magic–at least, it doesn’t feel like it when you put it to practice. It’s just how writing works. When you actually let yourself sit down and write, your brain automatically puts pieces together and builds your characters. You just have to give it the opportunity to do that.

I don’t want to sound like some practiced writing handing out sage advice about writing. I’m just saying that from my experience this afternoon, if you put your pen on the paper and start writing your idea out, your one little scene or description, you will probably be able to keep going.

No comments yet

Say something

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s