Like any other profession, or endeavor, I have to keep my storytelling skills sharp. A baseball player will spend hours in the batting cage, a quarterback will spend eons throwing passes and memorizing plays, and welders will bind countless pieces of metal together until they are happy with their ability to weld. These practices and drills never stop. Much like them, the moment that I become complacent with my abilities to tell stories is the same day when my skills become stagnant and begin becoming irrelevant.
As a writer, I am constantly looking to explore the reaches of my imagination, and put my creative brain center in a place where it has to operate under certain levels of duress — essentially, I am training my brain to come up with the most compelling and entertaining stories in the shortest amount of time. Like going to the batting cage, I’ll engage in writing exercises to get those parts of my brain active, functional, and ready for immediate use.
One of my favorite exercises is called “Exploring the W’s,” which I did not invent …I think I ripped it off from Stephen King. Essentially, it’s taking an idea that you have and running it through the gamut of five W’s: what, when, why, where, and what if? I really like putting on music and then going through the W’s — half-listening to the song and letting my subconsciousness grab a line and sparking an idea.
[WARNING]: You need to be VERY careful to not intrude upon the idea or concept of the song. That is copyright infringement and plagiarism!
For example: “How Soon is Now?” by the Smiths. I remember watching the show “Charmed” when I was getting my degree. “How Soon is Now?” is the theme song to that show. The line “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” That’s pretty straight forward, right? Except, I didn’t hear “son and heir,” I heard “sun and air.” In my head, the line became “I am the sun and air of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” That sparked the idea of an elemental creature who was mocked by the other elementals for being timid. Vivid, right?
Let’s take it through the W’s:
What? An elemental creature that is timid, which is mocked and shame amongst their elemental people.
When? An elemental creature is most likely one that has inspired myth, during a time when oral traditions were passed down, before written language. A very, very, long time ago — perhaps before modern humans.
Why? These elemental creatures control the very forces of nature that fostered and destroyed life. What could an elemental creature have to fear, especially from anything that walks the Earth. These creatures are proud and confident in their raw power, so they’ve grown arrogant in their time being alive. For one of them to be shy and timid is an insult to their very being. Perhaps the mockery and shame is meant to bring this sun and air elemental out of his shyness and have them realize their birthright in power.
Where? For creatures to have grown that arrogant, it means that they are the top of the food chain — or at least they believe — and no other life has ever checked their cockiness. I’m thinking “big fish in a small fishbowl.” We’ve already established they are ancient, perhaps predating life, so any planet would suffice. They have the powers of the elements, so they have likely shaped the form of planets, so lets say that they exist in our solar system and have shaped the planets like we know them today.
What if? Let’s postulate, for a moment, that the elemental creature of the sun and air isn’t shy because they are afraid of an exterior threat, but perhaps of the power they hold within. This elemental being has the power of the sun and the air — those two attributes combined means they would have dominion over how each planet heats and cools, as well as how fast the wind would blow, or not blow at all. If they had control over the sun, that would mean they could make a star go supernova and completely eradicate life in an entire solar system. Knowledge of having this power would mean they’d need to keep their temper in check at all times. This creature, likely having a conscience, knows the implications of their power. So, what would happen if this elemental creature were to cut loose on their tormentors?
Understanding the basic structure of a story:
- Life as it was
- The catalytic cause
- The resulting conflict
- The resolution
- The new normal
Let’s apply that structure to the idea we’ve fleshed out:
In the pre-historical universe, as our solar system was still forming and taking shape, a collective of elemental beings roamed the space surrounding our sun. One of the elemental creatures was shy and timid, blasphemy among their people, and so they were tormented relentlessly for their unseemly character. This creature had spent its entire existence keeping its emotions in check because of the great power over the sun and wind it possessed. The constant torrent or mockery and shame had pushed the elemental being out of control over their rage and the creature lost control. Lashing out at their tormentors, the creature superheated the planet and wreaked the havoc of tornadoes, monsoons, hurricanes, and tsunamis over the planet their people had taken so much time to shape to their liking. The entire planet had been laid to waste and ruin, driving all of the other elemental beings to evacuate to other planets in the solar system. The creature, morose over how it lost control, decides to spend out the rest of its days on the planet it had ruined, denying themselves community as penance. The creature named its exile home “Mercury.”
A very basic outline of a story, but meeting all the requirements of a basic plot. I went from a single line in a song, taken out of context, and created a complete plot by going through my five W’s.*
I hope this exercise helped! If you have any comments, critiques, or additions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit me up on Twitter @Millerverse.
*Author’s note: the plot I came up with in this blog was done in real time. As I was typing, I came up with the ideas mentioned — proving it an effective writing exercise for me. It may or may not work for you, but half the fun is in trying.
Until your next trip across the Millerverse!