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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 10: Playing with Story Material

Once you’ve collected some material for stories, you’ll probably need to play with it for a while before you understand how to proceed. It’s certainly possible that, as you collect your material, you suddenly see how you can use it to create a story; more likely, though, you’ll need to play with the material in different ways first. Here are some things to try:

Look through the material you have collected and mark anything that stands out for you. (Feel free to add new material if anything comes to you.) Now take each bit of material and put it into your imagination: turn it into one or more pictures. If additional pictures or ideas come to you, by all means write them down.

It’s important to do this practice, because a story takes place in the imagination, not the intellect, of readers. If you want your story to come alive in their imaginations, you must first make your material come alive in your own.

All successful writers know how to make use of the subconscious, the faculty that mulls over our ideas and material while we are doing other things. So once you have put your story material in your imagination, let your subconscious mind take over. Don’t think about your material for a while; do other things—take a walk, clean your house. You may need to wait for some time before your subconscious makes suggestions about what you can do with your material. Sometimes you can encourage it by doing freewriting about the material; often the movement of fingers on keys, or pen on paper, brings things out of the subconscious.

Good stories are usually born of disparate elements. So practice selecting two or more bits from your material and asking, “What if?” What if the elderly man who still flies a kite met the woman who bakes chocolate chip cookies every week? What if the street musician you observed on one of your “observing expeditions” had a father who was the prominent businessman whose obituary you collected from the newspaper? Bring some disparate elements together, ask what if—and imagine what would happen.

You may not want to write the stories that emerge from these practices. You don’t have to. All you are doing here is developing your story-making muscles. You are freeing yourself from the confines of the way things happen in real life and getting used to playing with how things happen in the world of story.

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