The birth of a story

Recently I have been writing short fiction. The first story evolved after jotting down a very strange but vivid dream I had; the second was in response to a magazine’s themed submission call. The next two stories were also written based on a one-word theme suggested by a magazine. Not that I submitted either of them; they were far too long by the time they were finished, but I suppose you either write with a word limit in the back of your mind, or you keep going until the story’s told. I then went on to write a story from a phrase that I thought would make a good title that had been trotting around in my head for years, then another from an image, a girl walking barefoot on a beach.

Looking at all my stories, a pattern emerges: they all grew out of a single idea, a snapshot image or a good line. Sometimes it is a visual image like the girl on a beach, or a small boy stuck on an escalator. Sometimes it has been an idea, the exhibition of human remains in a museum, for example.

It made me wonder what creative process was at work here, and whether other writers functioned in the same way. Do we need something to jolt the creative impulse, a mere germ of an idea that once it is set down in black and white unfolds all by itself into a whole new world? Or do we do our research as the books suggest, fix on a market, aim at an age group, target a popular trend? Can that single, vivid first line become just the first step on a journey that will cover a whole series of books?

How do you create a story? Do you get an idea that encompasses the entire arc from that first, catchy opening line, to a satisfying end? Do you start like I do with a random image or a nicely turned phrase?


Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

6 thoughts on “The birth of a story”

  1. I’m beginning to think that you get to be a writer by catching onto a word or picture and wondering about what it means and where it goes. Often I’m not sure that what I’m writing is pure invention. I have doubts that it’s a story I already knew somehow.

  2. I love thinking of moments, scenes, and images that would make a good story; and some of the ones that occur to me do become stories. The ones that actually work are the ones compelling enough to also prompt some idea of a conclusion– some way that the image/scene could resolve. Sometimes I never find a resolution for my mental image, and so it never makes it as a story.

  3. That’s often the way it works for me too, though not always. For the girl walking along the strand, I wondered why she was there and where she was going, and I more or less knew the answers before I started to write. The child on the escalator though took a while to reach a conclusion, so the poor kid was a hell of a long time on the wretched thing before the why and the wherefore became clear to me.

  4. It’s a bit of both, really. One scene of my book actually grew from the false silence that you “hear” when you turn off the radio and the other sounds it was masking creep back into range. I was surprised by where that went.

    While I think most chapters, or even whole stories, can stem from a single idea there has to be a common thread to make them cohesive as a book. That’s where you have to bear down and work on the connections – probably the hardest part of creating a novel.

    1. Yes, I agree. And don’t you find that as you let the story go its own way and unfold that those threads do all pull together in the end, almost by magic? I am often astonished how a seemingly insignificant detail can become a pivotal element later in the story, and it seems even more natural because the detail came long before I even knew which way the story was going. You wonder sometimes if the story wrote itself.

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