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

Story Lesson 20: Thinking in Stories

“Thinking in stories” sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? What could thinking and stories possibly have to do with each other?

In school, when (supposedly) we are taught to “think,” we are taught what is known as “abstract thinking,” the kind of training of the intellect that provides the foundation for all academic disciplines. While skill in this kind of thinking is necessary for those who want academic careers, and while it has its uses in ordinary life, it’s not of much value to imaginative writers—in fact, if you want to write creatively, too much training in abstract thinking can handicap you.

Unfortunately for all of us, the belief that abstract thinking is the only kind of thinking pervades our educational system. The tyranny of the intellect, as purveyed by school, prevents most people from developing other essential mental faculties. One of the most important of these is the use of the imagination, the ability to “think in pictures. “

Thinking in stories—also known as narrative thinking— is one kind of thinking in pictures. While academics sometimes acknowledge that narrative thinking exists, they look down upon it as a “primitive” form of thinking much inferior to abstract thought.

I strenuously disagree with this view. Narrative thinking gives us an important way to understand life; we abandon this tool at our peril. And if we want to make stories, narrative thinking is a tool we must know how to use. Here’s a practice in narrative thinking--we could also call it narrative “picturing”--that you can use both to gain experience in using this tool and to come up with ideas for stories.

Sit down with your writer’s notebook or at your computer, relax, and let your imagination give you pictures. Choose one of them to begin with and write it down as the first sentence of a story. For instance, if you picture a snowy day, write something like, “It was snowing hard that morning.” Now stay with that picture for a bit and see what new picture appears. What happens next? Perhaps a car arrives? Or a child steps out of a house to see the snow? Write down that new picture as the next sentence of your story. Now go back and forth between pictures and words until you have come to the end. Keep it short; try to get an outline of a story in ten sentences or less.

As you do this practice, you may find that sometimes your story-sentences appear before your images, that once you have written one sentence, you are led on to the next. That’s fine. If that happens, though, see if, while you are writing those sentences, you can also keep your imagination involved enough to give you pictures, even if they are faint. You may find that it’s easier to do this practice if you write your sentences in present tense.

The purpose of this practice is not to write a fully-detailed story; its purpose is to help you use your imagination as you play with possible ideas for stories. What you will end up with after your practice session might be a story summary (sometimes called a story synopsis ) or a scene from a story--or perhaps even an entire, very short, story. Here’s an example from my own practice;

It’s snowing. A deer is looking into the windows of the cottage. One of the children looks out and sees him, wants to bring him in. The others say he won’t come, but the child opens the door and the deer comes in and lies down by the fire. They pet him and feed him. Then he speaks, to their astonishment, and tells them a story of how he was once the pet of a Queen, but he got lost. So they decide to keep him. Then one day the Queen comes by and sees her deer. The children are so sad to see him go. So the Queen takes them to the palace with her, and they live happily there with the deer.

I recommend that you try to write as many of these as you can. You will not want to develop all of them, nor do you need to. The practice will make you more comfortable inventing stories (or recalling them, if you are working from memory). Try putting these story summaries away for a while; then, when you look at them again, you can see if any of them call to you. Those are the ideas you will want to spend time developing into full stories. You may find that there are bits of your summary that you want to use, instead of the whole thing.

Try, as you do this practice, to relax and have no expectations for what emerges. Remember that this is a practice, and that one of the things it is designed to do is to help you learn to trust your imagination. If you constantly criticize and reject what it gives you (as I could easily have done in the above example: a talking deer? Get serious!), it will stop providing you with the pictures that are your primary material for stories.

At the same time, remember that you are in control of this practice, and you always get to choose which images you want to put into your stories. If some images scare or upset you, you can, if you wish, just let them slide away and wait for different pictures to appear.

If you like, after you have done this practice once, make some notes to yourself about how you want to do it next time.

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