In October 2016, Leicestershire author Steve Bowkett delivered a Help For Writers workshop as part of the Everybody’s Reading festival. Steve gave lots of useful writing tips and introduced his Story Grids technique for taking your mind by surprise and overcoming writer’s block.

He started with the premise that the harder you try to have an idea, the harder it is – a feeling most of us know only too well! One technique to get over that block is to make a collection of random images and choose two of them. If you were going to use those two things in a story, what would it be about? Summarise it in one sentence. Sometimes just the process of linking two ideas that were previously separate can generate a ‘seed thought’ that you can grow into an interesting story.

You can do the same with three or four of the images – or even all of them!

  • Tip: be conventional to start with. Get to know your genre. When you know your genre, then you can be unconventional and break new ground.
  • Tip: it helps to go away for a while and not think things through – let your subconscious mind do the work.

Once you’ve had a go at that exercise, introduce ‘big ideas’ as well as images – words such as ‘truth’, ‘loyalty’, ‘happiness’, ‘power’ and other important abstract concepts. As well as the two images, pick one of the words and include that in your story ‘seed’.

  • Tip: in order to have your best ideas, you need to have lots of ideas. Don’t inhibit yourself by judging your ideas at the point of origin. Remember, ‘beginning, middle and end’ is only what a story looks like when it’s finished!

Story Grids Workshop

In the workshop, we moved on to using what Steve calls ‘pre-inventive forms’ – abstract images and shapes. This is a bit like a Rorschach inkblot test! Ask yourself, ‘What does this remind me of?’

You can use the pre-inventive forms as a way of thinking about your characters. Ask yourself questions like, ‘If this image said something about my character’s good/bad qualities (or their past/ambitions … etc.) what would it be?’

Now on to the Story Grids themselves! Story Grids consists of a grid of 36 boxes (6 x 6). In each box there is an image, a word or a pre-inventive form (you can use all images or all words if you prefer – in our exercise we used a mixture). Include some words that have multiple or ambiguous meanings – examples given by Steve included words like ‘set’ and ‘cross’ – and even words you don’t know the meaning of! Some of the images should be things you would conventionally expect to find in your genre; others can be more random.

This is a variation on the first technique, except instead of choosing two items from the grid yourself, you use dice to choose them at random. Roll a number and count along the bottom of the Story Grids, then roll a second number and count upwards. The square you land on contains your first image, word or pre-inventive form. Repeat the process to land on a second square. Once you’ve got your two items, link them in one sentence to create a seed thought.

Then you can ask an open question, roll the dice twice again and use the resulting square to generate the answer. For example, if your first two items were a horse and a mountain, your seed thought might be that the hero of your story is riding into the mountains. The question might be ‘Why is the hero riding into the mountains?’ If you land on a square with the word ‘freedom’ it might take your story in a different direction than if you landed on a square with a picture of a snake, for example! This method enables us to think unanticipated thoughts. You can even use this method to get an idea about how the story will end – once you’ve got this idea it’s much easier to fill in the middle.

You can also flip a coin to get yes/no answers to straightforward questions about your story. For instance, is your hero male or female? An adult or a child? What about the villain?

  • Tip: remember the yin−yang symbol when thinking about your hero and your villain. The hero should have a flaw and the villain needs a redeeming quality.

Story Grids workshopSteve then introduced us to Vladimir Propp’s ‘basic narrative elements’:

  • Hero
  • Villain
  • Problem
  • Journey
  • Partner
  • Help
  • Knowledge/power
  • Object

The central problem is usually created by the villain, and the hero needs to solve it. This means going on a journey, which may be literal or metaphorical.

  • Tip: a partner to the villain and/or hero enables you to make the story more interesting with the addition of subplots and different locations and points of view.
  • Tip: use coincidence sparingly or readers will find it hard to suspend their disbelief. Ideally help should come from other characters within the story rather than by coincidence.

Knowledge and power often take the form of gaining and losing the advantage, and the ‘object’ could be a physical object that needs to be, for example, found and reunited with its rightful owner. Or it could be fragmented and need to be put back together, or dangerous and need to be destroyed … the only limit is your imagination.

Create a Narrative

You can use Story Grids and dice rolls to ‘find out something about’ each of the basic narrative elements listed above. The phrase ‘find out something about’ is deliberately vague!

Steve then outlined a basic narrative template that we can all use:

  1. Call to action. The hero feels the need to sort something out.
  2. The hero is reluctant to become involved.
  3. First brush with danger.
  4. The hero enters a new realm of new dangers and experiences. This is a threshold point, and in some genres there is a ‘threshold guardian’ – perhaps a person, creature, location or event – that tests the hero’s mettle.
  5. Point of lowest ebb. The hero is overwhelmed by feelings of defeat.
  6. Things appear to be getting better. Complacency creeps in.
  7. The hero is on top of the world – the ‘point of false hope’. But then they are plunged again into threat.
  8. The hero’s qualities are tested again.
  9. Twist in the tale. A shock that jolts the hero out of their complacency.
  10. The hero returns fully to their ordinary life.

Steve pointed out that Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies, looks at this template and observes how many successful films follow it across all sorts of different genres.

Watch Steve Bowkett’s workshop here.

Bonus tips for writing good dialogue:

  • Don’t attempt to write in dialect.
  • Listen to the way people talk in real life.
  • Use dialogue to enhance the plot, not for description.

 

Visit Steve’s Amazon author page.

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