I recently was asked to write a short play inspired by a work of art.
I had about 100 works to choose from, and I selected a watercolor that got a gut reaction from me. The story I created was fun and produced a feeling for me that reflected the painting. But I didn’t end up with a need to work on something longer or to explore my experience or ideas more deeply. I think this is typical for those who get challenged to respond to a prompt. Whether they are based on pictures or ideas or a few words, getting a reaction that can be shaped into an amusing vignette can succeed in a valid, playful, and entertaining way.
But I think storytelling — especially with longer works, like novels and feature film scripts – requires something more than a prompt… with one exception. When real-life touches deeply, it can create a prompt that can launch a writer into a compelling story.
It doesn’t happen every time.
Not every moment of bliss or rage or embarrassment or thrill can inspire a longer work. And often, the writer needs to spend time away from the confusion and the swirling biochemicals of the emotion of the experience long enough to provide perspective. But having what I call passion prompts at hand increases the chance that magic will happen. I’m sure non-writers have asked you, where you get your ideas? This may be one answer.
Life, art, conflict, dreams, and memories assail sensitive people on a daily basis. Some of these and rich moments, but some promise more. As a writer, the ones that create insights or strong emotions or force tough decisions may offer storytelling possibilities. So the first step is to notice that these could be valuable. As a human being, it’s great to live in the moment and to participate, but a writer needs to observe and reflect. So cultivating practices that alert you to what’s special will keep important moments from fading.
Once you realize something vital and valuable has entered your life, you need to write things down. Usually, this isn’t drafting the story. It’s making a lot of one-word notes that capture ideas, feelings, actions, and reactions. Once the pages are filled with everything that’s percolating in response to the experience, it’s time to put down some complete sentences. These could be descriptions or explanations or explorations. The point is to create enough detail so that you can communicate the experience to a future self, and perhaps to an audience.
By the way, the notes you take should be created and stored in a way that’s accessible. At the moment, you may need to jot down something on the back of the grocery slip. But as soon as possible, it’s important to put these jottings into a notebook or file or onto index cards. Dates are important. Keywords or classifications might be required. It’s not a bad idea to conclude notetaking by adding an entry to your calendar on when you will revisit this passion prompt. It might be the next day. It might be years later. Headline events and deeply personal life events usually take more time to transform into art. Time provides new perspectives.
At some point, your notes will need to be interrogated. Some questions may become part of the notetaking process. For instance, I usually like to put in a sentence or two about why I need to write a story associated with this passion prompt. “Who is this story for?” may also be a question that has immediate answers. Some, definitely come later. “Have my feelings about this changed?” “Is my life better or worse because of this experience?” “How did this incident change other people’s lives?”
It’s good to have a standard reference list of the questions that help you to explore and develop ideas. “What does this prompt suggest as character wants and needs?” “What’s the most vivid image that could be attached to this story?” “What impossible decisions or sacrifices might need to be made?” “In story life (not real life), what might be the best outcomes? The worst outcomes?” “Who might be the most unlikely or critically challenged protagonist?” “What’s the biggest, most compelling reason why anyone could care about this story?” “What’s my connection to this story? What do I bring that provides a reason why I, and not someone else, should tell it?”
Now imagine having a notebook or a file filled with passion prompts, each claiming a part of your emotional landscape and presenting a spectrum of possibilities for your imagination.
You have referred to your file or your notebook as directed by your calendar, and now you’re using the prompts (or two that seem to fit together in a surprising way) to propel you into a story that you must tell. From personal experience, I can tell you, you’ll have a terrific starting point. It doesn’t mean that some parts of the storytelling process won’t be a slog. There always are days when the muse doesn’t show up or life gets in the way. But having a passion prompt supporting your storytelling helps ensure the pieces will come together to create a draft, and it will be more likely that the resulting story will be one that is authentic and enriching.
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