Tonight our writers group did a writing exercise by randomly picking a sentence from a random book Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. We had 5 mins to free-write, starting our story with the sentence ‘Holding on to this drainpipe’. When finished, we each read our stories aloud.
We were tapping into the very first idea that comes into our minds, and we discovered some pretty interesting things about how we each develop our stories:
- The drain was a metaphor for depression (in fact, the drainpipe was an underground drainpipe, where for others it was a pipe on the outside of a building, some many stories up). The drain was a big black hole and the character was already inside, clinging to the grate above.
- The drainpipe was literal, and introduced a problem that had to be solved (a person hanging from a pipe, 6 stories up, and the person needed to find a foothold, or a way to be rescued). One of the key elements of a story is an obstacle that a character has to overcome, and being stuck on a drainpipe was that obstacle.
- The story developed around a recent event that we’d been discussing just prior to the exercise (the tragic death of Justine Damond). Justine was the girl in the story, and she was holding on to a drainpipe by a canal in America.
- The story was driven around characters. The author threw two characters and a drainpipe together, and the story developed around that. The author understood the personalities and drivers behind the characters, so their actions came naturally from there.
- The drainpipe was on the move. And the character was attached to it. It was a little quirky, a little humorous and got our palms sweating by the end.
This exercise made it clear that we all get our inspiration from very different places. As expected, our stories took very different directions, despite using the same starting sentence. However what was most surprising was the very different approaches we took to get those stories on the page.
What’s usually the approach you take when starting a story? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.