I love the word “storycatcher.” For me, it says what we writers actually do. Not create stories. Not think them up. But wait for them. Nurture them when they come to us. Release them when they are ready.
But what happens when they don’t come? When we feel like we’re walking through a story desert, where nothing will grow? It happens to beginners and veteran writers alike. It can frustrate the hell out of you and, if it goes on for a while, that frustration can turn to panic or despair.
Fortunately, we aren't helpless when stories don’t come. There are very clear, specific steps we can take. If stories don’t come to us, we might just have to go tracking them.
The basic technique I’m going to suggest today is something I call “springboarding.” The basic idea: start with what you have, then springboard yourself to something different. Here are three simple ways you can use springboarding when ideas aren’t coming:
Observe people. My grandmother loved people watching. She did more than watch—she analyzed. “Look at that family at the table in the corner,” she’d say in a restaurant. “The man and woman aren’t married—they’re brother and sister. See? They have the same nose. And those kids are his, not hers. He’s the one making sure they eat.” One day, after a trip to the bank, she said, “Did you notice that woman in line in front of us? She was sad about something. Not a romantic problem. She didn’t have a lover’s quarrel look. Maybe she lost her job.”
You don’t have to be spying, prying, or eavesdropping to observe people. Just be around people.Whenever you're at a coffee shop, a park, a supermarket, notice the people: the arguing couple, the mom playing with her child, the man in a suit walking his dog. There are stories in those relationships.
Note: You are NOT trying to tell the story of that particular couple or mom or elderly gentleman. You are springboarding off of observations from everyday life.
- You meet an elderly gentleman with a fluffy white cat at the vet’s office.
- An elderly man adopts an abandoned cat after his own children abandon him.
- An adult brother and sister feel so guilty neglecting their mother, they give her a cat—then continue to neglect her.
- An elderly woman has a large, active, and engaged family but decides she likes her cat better than any of them.
Delve into small memories. The previous technique takes you outside yourself to find stories. This one turns inward.
Go back to a small memory. Set aside the life-changing ones for the time being and focus on the little. The small triumphs and humiliations of childhood. The embarrassments and stumbles of our daily lives. The little victories. Pick one and springboard it.
- Your friends all went out without you in junior high, leaving you heart broken.
- A boy gets revenge on the friends who snubbed him.
- A girl takes up guitar to fill her loneliness and discovers a great talent.
- Two lonely misfits become best friends.
Spring off from other people’s work. “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I don’t think I have to remind readers that you can’t and shouldn’t actually steal from other writers. But you can use other writers’ works as a springboard to your own ideas. For example, you absolutely do NOT want to write a novel about a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a school called Pigwarts. But here is how you could springboard from Harry Potter:
- A girl discovers she’s an elf and goes to live with elf relatives, whom she detests.
- A boy is the only nonwizard in a magical family and has to find his own identity.
In my own career, I’ve found springboarding—from the work of others, from my own memories, and from observing the world around me—to be one of the most fruitful ways of “catching” stories. In fact, most of my best ideas have come from using this technique, and I'm never without fresh material because springboarding is a never-ending source.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...