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

Story Lesson 12: Invention

Selection and Invention
Inexperienced writers often find it difficult to “patchwork” with material collected from their own lives. But the ability to remove story-elements (events, people, etc.) from their original context is an essential skill for writers who want to be good storytellers.

I know that these days, in many writing classes and books, the main emphasis is on “being honest,” or “telling your truth.” But the best stories reveal truth, not by obsessive fidelity to every detail of an experience, but by the selection and arrangement of the most important details. To become skilled at making good stories, you need to know, not only how to collect material, but how to select from it.

Choose a personal experience to write about. First, run it in your mind, like a film. Next, collect all the details you can. Now, looking through your collected details, mark the ones you want to use in your story. With these selected details (plus anything new you want to add), write your story. What do you notice in doing this?

Once you’re comfortable with selecting details and combining them in a way that makes a good story (even if it’s not the absolute “truth” of how the experience happened), it’s an easy step to inventing and making things up.

You can do this practice in two ways: start with an existing story, like a folk or fairy tale; or start with a personal experience. As in the previous practice, go through the process of, first, collecting material, and then selecting from that collected material. Now add another step: look at your collected material and change some of it—or add things that you simply make up. (For instance, you could change a personal experience by turning yourself into a character, with a new name, by changing what happened, by changing the setting, by changing the other people involved, and so on.)

Now write a story based on your new material (selected and invented).

What do you notice in doing this practice?

One of the things I hope you will notice is that you need to subordinate the details of “what really happened” to the demands of story. I also hope you will feel excited about the possibilities that open up when you bring your power of invention to bear on collected material. I encourage you to do this practice regularly, so that you become more comfortable making things up.

One practice writers frequently use when working with their materials is to ask “What if?” What if this character were not so self-pitying? What if this character were ugly instead of handsome? What if Sleeping Beauty refused the prince?

Try this with some of your materials or practice stories. Read them over and then write down all the “what if?” questions you can think of. If you like, take one or more of the questions and use them to re-write a story.

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