Thursday, April 23, 2009

From Inspiration to Story: Where Do You Start?

Most of the writers I admire say that a story has to be inspired by character. You can also start a story from a situation and write something more plot-driven. But what are the things that inspire you? Can you start a story from anything else?

For me, Alice Munro is one of the greatest living authors. Even though her writing isn't about three-headed polar bears, they are strange works. I read one story, "Open Secrets" where I thought to myself: How did she get away with this?

It wasn't a bad story. In fact, it is one of my favorite stories by her. But, it was so unusual that I felt like she had broken some major storytelling rule. (Without ruining the story, "Open Secrets" is a murder mystery, and the in the end, the mystery is solved in a very strange way.)

It seemed like Alice was cheating and still making it work. How did she do it?

I read an essay that she had written where she said something that revealed her technique. She talked about what inspired her to write "Open Secrets." It was something incredibly mundane, something similar to seeing soap bubbles in the kitchen sink. She had written a story inspired by soap bubbles! Then she said something that was truly helpful to me. She said that the longer she writes, the more successful she is as keeping the story focused on that thing that inspires her. And it can be anything. That's what made this story so unusual. It wasn't focused on character or conflict. Instead, somehow, this murder mystery was about soap bubbles. (They weren't actually soap bubbles, but I don't want to give away too much.)

This has really opened up new avenues of storytelling for me. I get inspired by everything. I used to discard a lot of these points of inspiration because I couldn't fathom how a story could be built around it. Now, I'm more open to experiencing the world and writing based on anything that excites me. And, in the end, isn't this the heart of making art? Don't we want to portray what inspires us instead of showing that we are good at following rules? I used to tuck the non-character driven inspirations somewhere in the background of my story. I wanted those things (such as the soap bubbles) in the piece for my own satisfaction, but I also didn't want to write something that wasn't "a story". Now I dare to place my inspiration in the foreground. I write to explore my inspiration rather than to construct a story just to contain it.


  1. AH!!! You make me want to read this story SO BAD!

  2. Interesting question. I start with an image and a phrase (which usually ends up being the title). That image is not necessarily translated into a sentence or paragraph, but it does represent the quiddity* of my story.

    (PS I'm sorry I missed your discussion on Immanence versus Transcendence)

    * new word I'm practicing!

  3. I'm inspired by everything; a cat meows and a street urchin forms in my mind, a man coughs and a plague emerges from my pen, etc. If I let my mind wander, I waste a lot of time.

  4. Davin, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for this post! I have been trying to decide if I should focus more on what initially inspired me to write Monarch (something VERY mundane), and now I really think that I should. It will make the story so much better in the end!

    This was so well-timed, thank you.

  5. Inspiration comes in many shapes and forms, from personal tragedy, to inebriated stupor. It finds unique times and places, from walks in the woods, to traffic jams.

    The real key for me is to recognize it when it strikes and to run with it before it slips away, even if it's a scribble on a napkin for a premise.

  6. Davin, this is not really on point but... Earlier today, to further avoid my MIL, I took the long way home from a friend's house--meaning I went to the bookstore and was probably purchasing my first Munro book as you were posting this. They didn't have Open Secrets (!!!) so I got The View from Castle Rock. Have you read any of it?

  7. My book is inspired by the MC, but I'm crazy in love with symbolism so usually a little of that gets thrown into the inspiration too.

  8. When I first started photography, suddenly everything around me got so interesting. Now that I'm a writer (note, I called myself a writer)I get the same sensation. One of my favorite part of the day is when I'm driving home after having dropped off my son at school. There is so much happening on the streets that catch my eye. I have a whole collection of stories in my head. But as Rick says, I have to write them down before they slip away.

  9. Either everything reminds me of everything else so when I look at pure white clouds against a deep blue sky I instantly turn it into a metaphor which makes me think of writing a story, or it's true that writers have only one story they tell over and over and everything reminds me of that story. I don't know. Possibly I'm presenting a false dichotomy.

    One of my favorite stories is one I wrote about a woman who whispers to the ocean through the drains in her kitchen and bathroom. The inspiration for this came from someone complaining about litter in storm drains. "That all washes out to the ocean," she said. Which made me start thinking about how every drop of water on earth is part of a great cycle beginning and ending in the seas.

    I seem to get distinct images in mind that spark short stories. The two novels I've written were inspired by characters, though. I don't have a central image for my current book, but I have certain symbols that thread through the narrative. Which is not the same thing at all.

  10. Great post! Definitely something to ponder! :-)

  11. I think we all have our inspirations and as Rick said, they come in all shapes and forms.

    For instance I am inspired by the weather, by pictures, but the city skylines and so on. Inspiration whatever it might be can keep your focused and take you a long way.

  12. I am inspired by something if I have emotional reaction to it... and I craft around the central inspiration. . . usually idea- or character-driven. But an exercise to use an object would be a fun starting point. :)

    Most of my ideas are born from my emotional response to an idea or belief, and the characters who are best at living that inspiration just come to me.

  13. Beth, You should go read it! If you don't like it, I owe you a haiku. That's my haiku guarantee.

    Ann, that's interesting. I guess sometimes I start with a phrase as well, but I don't think I've ever been able to make that work for me!

    Justus, Would you ever just focus the story on the original thing, like the man coughing? Write a story about a man's cough!

    Lady Glamis, I feel like I strayed in my first book, and I do think that there is room to try to get to the source of the inspiration in a second attempt. I have a feeling it would feel like a completely different book.

    Rick, great point. Yes, those little flashes of inspiration often get away from me.

    That's cool, Jennifer! I haven't read that one. I've read a probably a dozen of her short stories from several different collections.

    Mariah, Sprinkle in those symbols! :)

    Krisz, Yes, doesn't it make the world more exciting when you can extrapolate what you see to make a whole story? Suddenly these little things become so much bigger!

    Scott, Thanks for your comment. It's interesting. I wonder if your drain story strayed very far from what first inspired you. My book is not a character-driven book, but it started with a completely different source of inspiration that is no longer even there. I like the book, but at the same time I wish I could own that original inspiration. I feel like I lost a beautiful thing, even if it's replaced by something else that I still think is beautiful.

    Thanks, Litgirl!

    Crimogenic, I think even if you end up losing the source of inspiration, it has done it's job in the sense that it inspired you.

    Shephard, Yeah, the last thing you said really resonates with me. It's not something I can do well, but I'm trying to get better at it. I feel like some sources of inspiration can be turned into a story while others can't. But, I'm starting to think that if I become a better writer, I'll be able to make more things into stories, if that makes sense.

  14. Those mundane things can make amazing stories. It takes a real craftsman to keep moving the reader forward though.

    Generally it's characters and people that inspire me.

  15. Davin,

    I think writers of literary fiction could get away with a story about a cough, but I could not.

  16. I have to write my little inspirations down or they are forgotten by the time I get home from the park or wherever. So, as a result, I have a pile of words and images scribbled on napkins, post-its - even the back of a gum wrapper, on my desk. I'm not anywhere talented enough to make a whole story about soap bubbles. Maybe some day...

  17. This is a really great post. (and can you tell I'm catching up on your posts?) I have been torn lately between trying to make my YA novel more exciting and, I don't know, query-ready? But I'm also remembering how it felt when I first started it, and I think it was more quiet and serious.

    What you said Alice Munro said about the longer she writes, the more she stays focused reminded me of when I was (briefly) studying creative writing in Australia. We read The Secret River by Kate Grenville, and she spoke to our class and said she usually starts with a question, and as she's drafting, she just tries to keep going back to that question to stay focused, and she will also compile quotes and passages and bits of music, anything that makes her think of the question, and that guides her to stay true to the original idea.

    I often get inspired by music, usually the sound and mood of it, and I haven't yet figured out how to write stories from these feelings. But your post makes me feel like I can take the time to figure out how to write these stories. These are feelings and images I keep coming back to, so there must be something there!


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