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!
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’.
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?
Steve then introduced us to Vladimir Propp’s ‘basic narrative elements’:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Bonus tips for writing good dialogue:
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