Monday, 5 March 2012

Ideas for Writers

One of the standard questions for a writer is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' The simple answer is that everything has potential as a story idea - what you had for breakfast, the funny incident you saw in the supermarket, your relationships.  It's all material, but at an anecdotal level.  To make it something other than an anecdote it needs something else.  

You can always ask two questions about stories: what's it about?  what's it really about?  What's it about is the anecdote bit, what's it really about is what transforms it into a story.

An incident I remember from primary school was being told off for talking, when it wasn't actually me, it was someone else.  That's what it's about, and a fairly ordinary experience, I'd imagine.  If I was writing it up as a story I'd have to dig a bit deeper for the what it's really about.  

What if the story became about friendship?  Let's suppose it was my best friend talking, who stood by and didn't say anything when I was punished - would our friendship survive?  Or perhaps it's about self-sacrifice - my friend might have had warnings about their behaviour before and they'd be in real trouble if they got told off again, so I claimed to have been the one speaking.  Or it's about injustice (I go on to be a campaigner as an adult) or scapegoating (how teachers pick on one child).  

In that example the what it's about doesn't change but the what it's really about could be all sorts of things.  Ideas are all around us, but it's up to the writer to work out what they're really about



Graham said...


I LOVE your distinction between 'what it's about' and 'what it's really about'. I just applied it to my own work:

Recently, as part of a writing course I'm undertaking, we had to eavesdrop on a conversation and then write it up into a short story.

I chose a middle-aged couple who were drinking coffee in a cafe. That's what it was about, but there's no story there. Once I'd added inner conflict, character, dialogue and back story, I could tell you that my story's REALLY about a problem in their marriage.

Your definition is a great and succinct way to put it across.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Graham! I think it's a really important thing to take on board and bang on about it to my students. It's the essence of story, really.

Anonymous said...

I thought this the most brilliant definition and am applying it to the characters in the Anya book. Already it makes a difference. Thanks, Sarah, Jacky

Sarah Duncan said...

You're welcome Jacky. (Still pondering your Q from Friday BTW.)