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

Story Lesson 5: Story Materials 2

To make a story, you need ideas and material, just as a cook who wants to make soup needs vegetables and salt and stock. It’s impossible to create a story out of nothing. Where do these ideas and material come from? They can come from outside you—from your reading or your observation—or they can come from inside you—from your memories or your imagination. In both cases, if you want to be able to discover and use this material, you need to collect it.

Collecting is an essential first step to making a story. Many inexperienced writers don’t know how to collect; they have a mistaken impression that real writers simply sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper (or screen) and write a story. So they write a few sentences, stop, look out the window, write another sentence, get up to make coffee…and the story never gets written.

There’s a much better way! Professional writers are always gathering material, either in notebooks, or in their minds. Then, when they want to write something, they have a large storehouse of “stuff”—places, people, actions, and so on—to draw on. While it’s possible to do this kind of collecting entirely in your head, it’s much easier to use your notebook. Here are some ways to do that.

Read a story you like, and then jot down in your notebook everything that stands out for you in the story: a character, a detail, a phrase or sentence, and idea—it doesn’t matter what it is. Read through your list and mark anything that strikes you as interesting, as something you might make use of. Make notes to yourself about how you might use this material, if you like.

Read another story, and listen for its content materials: what is it made of? (There’s a fox that turns into an arrow……there’s a warrior who kills a dozen men in battle…there’s a magic pot that feeds a village…). Write down the title of the story, and then list its contents. Do this practice for a few stories.

Now take a look at your list. What do you notice? Are there any materials there that you might want to make use of?

People who study tales from oral cultures have identified several hundred “motifs” which figure in tales all over the world. For example: the ring that confers invisibility; the faithful servant. You can find a list of these motifs in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature. (And if you like working with folk motifs, Thompson's One Hundred Favorite Folktales is an excellent source of tales.)

If you’re interested, collect some of these motifs in your notebook, and then mark the ones that seem especially interesting to you.

Now, look through your lists again, paying special attention to the items you marked. Select a few of these items, and write them down in a new list. Now see if you can write a very short story (a few sentences is fine) using these items. You can tweak the material any way you want to (A princess with a green nose? Sure!) Afterwards take a few minutes to reflect on what it was like to do this. What did you notice?

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