The stuff stories are made of

About writing stories. (Not books.)

You saw that correctly. Up here in the image you see books. They contain stories. Stories however don’t emerge like that. Imagining that conjurs up a very painful experience. I don’t fancy ‘excreting’ such a thing, not even a small one.

No. Stories are made of different stuff. Hopes. Fears. Desires. Experiences. Those are a few examples that bring up ideas for stories. I sometimes compare those to seeds, buried in some kind of soil. If the seed is viable and the soil is nourishing, the seed will develop and  turn into a plant. In this case a story. As soon as the plant shows itself, I feel the need to start describing it. Notes emerge. The affair starts taking over most of my mind as I expand my view about it, get to know it better.

In thought

That’s when the real work begins. Many people who feel they need to write a book miss that point. They have an idea and they start to write. More often than not they get that first chapter or those first pages/lines down and then…

Chapter Two

And that’s all there is on that page. That’s the breaking point where the real work needs to take over. Not doing that crucial step in writing a story down (again, not writing a book but a story) will make most people come to an abrupt halt.

I once met someone who had a ‘great idea’ for a book. He was all on fire about it and started telling me the core of his idea. He was so eager to start. I asked him a few small questions. He had to think about the answers. Some came easily, some were “I’ll think of that later”. No. You don’t. You think about them beforehand, or you will either lose yourself in errors or you’ll find yourself staring at that blank page.

This doesn’t mean you need to know all the details. Those will pop up as the story grows and can easily be penciled in. Knowing the main road through the story however is important. It’s a bit like planning a trip. You don’t plan a trip to Boston by hopping on the train to Denver just because that’s prettier or easier or cheaper.

It’s hard sometimes.


Writing about the things that go on inside you can be hard. Oh, writing about the fun things usually isn’t, but I also mentioned fears up there. Writing about something you fear however means you have to face that fear. You have to get to know it, live through it, examine it from the inside. That makes writing an extraordinary means for self-reflection and even self-healing. Now I don’t say that this is easy. Sometimes a writer will need help with this as he or she faces those demons. After all, writers are human beings too.

Going through that process is an eye-opener. It helps a person grow. And growing through that makes it a special kind of stuff. That’s the stuff stories are made of.

4 thoughts on “The stuff stories are made of”

  1. I’ve never written a story (well, not since schooldays, which don’t really count!) If I did, I’d almost certainly follow Paul’s scheme, of having the “main road” clear before I did anything at all. But some writers don’t work like that at all.

    Last week, I went to an interesting local event where an award-winning author talked to a small audience about her work. She certainly doesn’t have set out a “road” first. For one of her novels, various random thoughts during a walk on a pebble beach got her thinking: “Hmm, pebbles”, “Ah, a man walking back to his cottage”, “Oh, yes, a cottage with lots of books”. She took those and other fleeting ideas and wrote Chapter One. Then she decided she wasn’t that keen on the man after all, and found his wife much more interesting, so wrote some stuff centred on her (with the cottage, man and books as setting). Eventually, a complete book emerged. Her “road” through the novel evolved (and early bits got pruned, changed dramatically or shifted elsewhere within the book’s structure) as different aspects of the lead characters and their relationships, drives, backgrounds, interests, etc, became clearer to her.

    This lady had started writing late in life, initially producing supershort stories for a cheerful local group which ran good-natured monthly competitions amongst themselves, then producing short stories for magazines, until one of her ideas, just a simple description of a scene with two people on the edge of a forest, sparked by a short paragraph in a newspaper, made her think that this ought to be worth pursuing for a lot more than short story length. Which proved to be fully justified.

    Mind you, this lady reckons it takes her two years from first spark to publication. Paul’s timescales are shorter!

    A week earlier still, I was entranced, listening to a poet who made me realise vividly what the world’s original story-tellers must have been like, back in the days of Homer and others when stories were invariably word-of-mouth, and invariably “performed”, not read. This brilliant chap has dyslexia, so his work is done in his head, not on paper, not on a computer, and he is (literally) unable to read his poems to an audience. I think he almost certainly works out a “main road” before the serious effort of composition gets underway.

    Find out what has been successful for others, then find what works for YOU?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Tim.

      I think the first steps on the writing path is to just write and see what you can create. As you go on, you’ll get a feel for something you can’t explain. How much time someone needs to create a book depends on so many things. As the seed I mentioned, books grow within me for a while, and once I start writing it all falls out of my fingers, into the keyboard. Some people write as the seed grows, I guess. Either way is good, as long as you’re happy with what came out of all that work. 🙂

  2. I appreciate this post very much, Paul. You are honest about the nature of writing, and how at times it is not just difficult but fearsome work as one confronts conflicts not only between the characters who visit the author’s imagination, but but also within the author’s own self.

    But this is difficult and even troublesome stuff for any writer to grasp at any level and in any genre. I think of the number of students to whom I have had to say, “Yes, this is a good idea. Now it is clear to me that you have within you an even better idea.” As Auden is reported to have said, “Murder your darlings.”

    Allen Ginsberg famously said, “First thought, best thought.” A writer friend says, “That’s the worst advice for a writer ever given.” It’s true that Ginsberg’s buddy Jack Kerouac sat down and wrote ON THE ROAD on a single roll of journalist’s manuscript paper, not even stopping to make paragraphs.

    Well, Kerouac got lucky. Maybe. He did come up with an American classic (that does include a fair amount of nakedness, but exploitative nakedness). But Truman Capote observed of the novel, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    So to your point, I think: what a literary artist finally publishes is the record of conflicts present in the artist’s own imagination. It’s the artist’s duty to listen to those conflicts and then report on them, even though to do so may not always be comfortable, or “fun.”

    But when the artist realizes that the characters, or at least some of them,who populate the imagination are naked, and themselves scarcely aware of the fact … well, that’s what makes “naturist fiction,” is it not?

    1. Great words, Allen.
      Indeed, what a person writes is only the end result of what goes on. Everywhere. Some rewrite a piece a dozen times and wonder if it’s any good. Others write something in one go and publish it and it’s great. It all depends on the amount of ‘digesting’ what has to go into the book, either beforehand or in rewrites. I think the former is the best way but that’s me…

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