Because of Mama

The Art of Storytelling...

Finding Your Story

What is Your Dramatic Moment?

Who Are Your Main Characters?

What is Your Big Idea?

What is Your Story?


The Art of Storytelling: Exercises

Here are a few exercises that are designed to help you come up with your story.

1. Every how-to book on writing will give you the same advice: write what you know. In order to look for stories, turn first to your own experience. You can start by keeping a writer's notebook. Focus your writing on some one aspect of your experience - for example, memories from childhood. Set a goal for yourself - for instance, write out one complete memory from childhood each day. As you write, let yourself discover new elements: new details, new feelings, new connections, whole new memories, even. The best writing is writing that discovers something new.

If you don't want to explore your own life, you can find stories in other places. Consider the newspaper, or history books, or old letters: any of these can be a source for story. But even if you choose to mine these sources rather than your own life, remember: most writing is autobiographical. You are choosing these stories for a reason. It's not a bad idea to use a writer's notebook to explore why a particular story interests you. In the notebook you can write your way to new understandings of your story.

2. Analyze your notebook writings. When you wrote, you were crafting your memories­choosing to emphasize some elements, eliminate others, and so on. When you analyze your writing, ask yourself questions like:

  • What themes dominate your writing?
  • What details did you emphasize? Why?
  • What details did you eliminate? Why?
  • What's the predominant tone of your writing?
  • What phrases or words tend to recur?
  • What moments do you think have the best dramatic potential?

3. When you think about using your own experience as the basis for a story, you need to fictionalize. In other words, you need to rework your life experiences, making up details, changing the emphasis, or shifting the point of view, so that the drama is enhanced. Choose one of your memories and consider how you might fictionalize it in one of the following ways:

  • Change the point of view.
  • Change the tone
  • Create a new detail/character/etc.
  • Back up a few years, or move ahead a few years. What are the characters doing? (In other words, what place does this story have in the bigger story of their lives?)

4. Choose a character and write a short biography. Begin at the beginning - with birth - and touch on all the important life moments. Be vivid, make good use of detail, but also try to limit your detail to what is absolutely relevant.

5. Consider your main character. What can you tell me about that character? List some things that are true. Then, list ten things that MIGHT be true about the character, but aren't. In other words, fictionalize. Construct your character.

6. Choose two different genres, and think about how the story would be different in each genre. (If this task seems difficult, imagine that Stephen Spielberg comes to you and says, "Great characters. But I'm looking to produce a horror story. Can you rework it?" What do you say?)

7. Write a short proposal for your story, stating what your dramatic moment is, who your characters are, and what your big idea is.

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