What if you have no clue what to write?

I was chatting with an associate today who mentioned that she’s often thought that she’d like to write a book, but she has no clue what to write about and feels that anything she might have to say would bore people to tears. She then asked me if I had any advice. Only having about 2.5 minutes to answer her, I felt my answer was rather lacking and it got me thinking that this could well be a good article topic and a timely follow-up on Riley Froud’s article from last week: Should you write what you know

I loved how Riley addressed combining different parts of what we know in order to create something unique – albeit perhaps not exactly new. I think she was spot on with that and I think it’s a concept that could also work well for the aspiring authors whose story hasn’t quite found them (yes, the story will find you, it’s rarely the other way around).

In my opinion, these days, it’s virtually impossible to come up with an entire storyline that is in all aspects completely unique and new that’s never been done before. There are simply too many stories out there and someone, somewhere will manage to find a parallel between your utterly unique story and one that’s already been told. But I don’t think that’s really the point. The question becomes can you tell it better? Can you change it enough to breath new life into it? Can you take different aspects of multiple stories and merge them together to create a new spin or perspective on something old?

One suggestion is to read – lots and lots – and watch movies… all sorts of different ones. Make notes on the parts of each one that spoke to you the most and on the stuff that you thought was an utter waste. Through these stories find your inspiration, find what connects with you most on the deepest level. It’s in there that you’ll find your passion and through your passion your story will present itself. And don’t worry about there being parts of your “idea” that are incredibly similar to another… you’ll soon learn that no matter how much you outline and plan a story, once you start writing it, it will often come to life and take on a direction of its own.

But worst case scenario, if you write your first story and realize that it has turned out way too much like an existing one you can always go back and make changes, or better yet, you can put that one aside and congratulate yourself for completing your first practice run which will now allow you to move on to the next and better one.

Another suggestion is to dig through your life and the lives of your friends and family (not literally, but through your memories). Look for moments in time when something even slightly extraordinary may have happened, and I do mean slightly… find those little nuggets and look for ways to modify them. Make them bigger than life, turn them into tragedies, give a sad story a happy ending… run the “what if” scenarios – you might be amazed at how much you’re able to expand on a simple piano recital of a 7 year old girl.

To watch a really great example of this process in action, I highly recommend watching the movie The Big Fish. Among other things, this movie covers the art of storytelling in a most moving way.

One final suggestion is to browse pictures. Ironically, I hated this exercise back in school! However, as an adult and now writer, it’s become one of my favourite past-times. I will often browse through Pinterest looking at random boards or doing random Google searches for particular terms – when a certain picture grabs my attention I study every aspect of it and I ask myself what exactly is going on in that picture at that exact moment – the picture will invariably tell me the story. This can also be done live with people – go to a mall and watch the people around you; hear them, see them, smell them (I don’t recommend touching them!) and let their movements and actions tell you a story.

Having said all of this, if at the end of the day nothing you try will bring a story to you, I’d actually recommend that you quit trying. For one, rarely does anything good come of something forced and it is possible that writing fiction just may not be your thing. Keep searching, one way or another you will find that which inspires you most.

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