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

Story Lesson 6: Story Materials 3

Ideas and material for stories can come from anywhere: from our own experiences or those of our friends; from history or current events; from tales told in our own cultures or in other places around the world; from our observation; from our imagination. If we want to write stories, all we have to do is pay attention, and stories will come to us.

At its most basic, story is very simple: it is a telling of events ordered in time. When a friend asks us, “What did you do on Saturday?” and we answer, “I went for a run, then did grocery shopping, then took a nap,” we are telling a story (though not a very interesting one). Since most people (including most writers) lead fairly mundane lives, our own experiences may not provide us with the best material for stories. Fortunately, there are lots of other ways to collect material.

By the way, one of the most common ways in which beginning writers get stuck is to insist on writing stories exclusively from personal experience. Why is this a problem? Because although real life can certainly provide us with materials for stories, it rarely gives us an entire story ready-made. Beginning writers often fail to realize that a story is a made thing. “But that’s the way it happened!” they protest, when told that a faithful reproduction of a personal experience doesn’t make a good story. Alas, life and story are not identical. In order to hold the attention of readers, we must work with our materials, shape them, in ways that life almost never does.

If you’ve been doing collecting practices on a regular basis, you have the skills you need to collect material for stories. Here are a few ways to do that:

Browse your favorite newspaper, especially the human interest articles and the obituaries, and see what catches your interest. An old man who still flies a kite? A woman who’s baked chocolate cookies every week for her entire life? A town where there are more cats than people? Don’t collect everything from a single article—just take note of the details that stand out for you. Do this with as many different articles as you like, and write down in your notebook the material you want to collect.

Browse a book of folk or fairy tales, legends or myths, and see what stands out for you in the tales. A prince who marries a frog? A golden goblet that is always filled with wine? Trees with silver leaves? As with the previous practice, you can extract anything from the tales that appeals to you. Collect this material in your notebook.

Look through the collecting you have already done in previous practices. Is there anything there—something you observed or imagined or remembered—that might be material for a story? Collect all that material into a new place.

What did you notice in doing these practices?

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