This is kind of a basic question everyone who’s ever wanted to write a story asked themselves a few times. I’m sure that several readers wonder how their favorite writers came up with such entertaining stories that keep the audience turning pages or scrolling down the screen.
How does it happen? Is there a kind of fairy visiting us in our sleep and injecting ideas in our minds via a speck of colored sparkling dust? Or we’re just born with a few stories hardwired into ourselves and ready to be unleashed out in the world? To me, the answer is much simpler than that. Stories come from the observation of the real world.
When we’re walking in the street, alone or talking with some friends, we’re living a story. When we tell our parents what we’ve been up to one day at school, we’re telling a story. Of course, the same story we tell our parents or our friends about how our day at school went won’t have the appeal to entertain a full audience of people all around the world, but it could be closer than we think.
The point is that when you observe the world around you with the writer’s mindset, there is a question you keep repeating in your head over and over again. Just two words: “What if?”. This is explained quite well in Stephen King’s book “On Writing”1, and knowing that I’m in full agreement with the Master himself about this (and about being a helpless pantser) soothed my heart in more ways than one. One day I’ll work on reducing my adverbs, too, but that’s a story for another day.
Many of the stories we’ve enjoyed started off as a normal slice of life until an extraordinary event set everything in motion and made it interesting. That extraordinary event is the “What if”. To be clear, it doesn’t have something too extreme such as aliens invading the Earth, or supernatural entities appearing in Maine every 27 years to feast on small kids and on their fears: even the smallest slide in the protagonist’s everyday life can turn a plain and boring day into a page-turner.
An example? The protagonist goes to school, same as everyday of their life. As soon as they enter the class, they see a stranger in place of the usual professor, who tells them that the professor is home sick and he will take his place for the time being. Nothing too uncommon until this point, just things happening every day. But what if the new professor, under that young and charming aura, involves the students in something big and twisted? What if he’s taking the usual professor hostage, and the kids are the only ones who can save him?
Ok, this might be too biased by my insane love for mysteries and conspiracies, but it could be something more “everyday life”-like: maybe the missing professor was the protagonist’s favorite professor, while things with the new one get rough quickly and the protagonist needs to struggle to maintain their grade standard and to be admitted to college. Or maybe it was the other way around: the new professor kickstart a newfound love for their subject in the protagonist, who goes from being a struggling D+ to an A- in weeks. Until something else happens…*
I’ve been a bit carried away by this exercise, but it proves my point. Observation plus tweaks are the keys to come up with something interesting and relatable. A while back I wrote a piece on Medium about an exercise I took from the book I selected as my “Storytelling bible”2: the authors ask to write down 10 characters, 10 qualities they might possess, and 10 situations they can find themselves in. Such an exercise is clear proof that stories potentially begin inside us, from how we’re able to process the real world and the things that happen there. The advice they gave in the book was to start with a “common” person as the protagonist, then put it in an uncomfortable situation, not to come up with the most incredible thing you could think of.
This might sound like a piece of vague and general advice, but as of now, it’s the best I could come up with: as in many other things in life, it’s about maintaining an open mind. Stories are just around the corner, waiting to be told.
P.S. Stay tuned to find out how I came up with the idea for my first novel “We gotta get out”. I’ll reveal it in the next few days.
* The professor example didn’t actually come up by chance: countless years ago, the night before my High School finals, I had the dream about our Maths professor being the chief of an alien tribe who planned to enslave my entire class and bring us all in their underground spaceship (whatever that meant, I woke up before I had the chance to see it). Stressed student mindset, right?
- King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
- Bryant, Robert Denton and Giglio, Keith. Slay the dragon: Writing Great Video Games