Moving Forwards

(As opposed to the alternative)

Hi again,

I’m teaching technical students at the theatre school I work at how to care about storytelling by “writing” a film with them. Last time we met we were watching some movies and picking them apart. This time they found out I was teaching them again and asked, brightly, “Are we going to be watching movies again this time, Phil?”

“No,” I said smiling, “we’re going to be writing one.”

Ok we aren’t really actually writing them, just getting the stories to a point we could, in the space of a simple three hour session. The lesson ran along these lines, first I told them about my blog “How To Be A Creative Genius” and how the need to compose something means that you have something to say and you go about saying it in the most effective way possible. That IDEAS and lots of them need to be generated and glued together under their own pressure. That the style in which you tell your stories comes from your own taste; you like thrillers? You tend towards thriller stories. You like Sci-Fi? You like romcoms? We all filter our ideas through our own personal taste and come up with a story WE would like to see or hear.

To give them a first taste of what it’s like to generate and marshall ideas into some sort of shape, I evolved this simple game. Take three random pictures and three random words. This gives you a juxtaposition of not only ideas but also a mood.

As human beings, we can’t help but try and make sense of any random collection of things we’re presented with. Give us three random things and our cute little monkey brains will try and make connections. We can’t not do it. For example:


See, already you are making a werewolf story.


This combo caused a lot of sniggering.


A number of childrens stories came out of this.

So after those warmups we decided to run the test. Three pictures and three words. We used a photo library catalogue but you could just as easily use FLICKR or WIKIPEDIA to get to a random word or picture. What we got was TEHRAN, ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE, SAMURAI and the pictures of a BAR in DUBLIN, a fuzzy picture of a COMPUTER and another fuzzy picture of a TRAIN STATION.

This gave us the feeling of an espionage thriller. We discounted cliches right off the bat. No cliched Middle Eastern types, no IRA, no tacked on relationships. With young people you have to get through a lot of useless posturing before you get to some workable ideas, but after a lot of talking back and forth and careful steering, we lit upon the idea of a couple of young guys working in a cybercafe in Dublin, where they pass the time intercepting emails coming into the computers. They see one which relates to a current news story about a bust of an alcohol smuggling ring in Tehran, which turns out to be a much more sinister plot. One of the guys gets killed and the other is pursued and through a few plot turns he is linked with a young woman who may or may not be what she seems. The trail leads them to Tehran and not as you would think terrorists but American white supremacists in the desert (what better hiding place?) who are hatching a plot to add a poisonous substance to aircraft fuel to which only the select few have an antidote.

Throughout the story busking process I had to keep reminding them, writing is like hypnosis. You have to lead people in (you are feeling SLEEEEEPY) and not break the spell.You have to make each thing lead neatly to the next so as not to distract them or to conceal something you don’t want them to see. And all the way you have to ask questions. Who is this guy? What does he want? Why? Who are the baddies? What do they want? Why? And so on. Then you have to answer those questions in a satisfying way that doesn’t break the spell.

At each stage you have to ask “why would someone care about this?” and “why would anybody DO that?” To make our protagonist do the things we needed him to do we had to first find out the setup of our story, then let it play out a bit,to see where it was going. Then we had to figure out what would be big and scary enough to be worse than terrorists. The enemy within, it’s not those guys over there it’s our own who are after us. As I said to them you need to up the stakes all the time or nobody cares, but be careful not to up them too high so nobody believes.

Once you have enough ideas and a structure to hang them on, and a style within which to play out your ideas, then you start having the makings of a story. It was a very productive session and I think we all learned a lot. This is a fun game and is a great way to get starting points for your own stories.


I know I’ve already mentioned that writers write, and scared you with the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, but I’m living proof of both of these concepts. I earned my wings writing for magazines day in day out for ten years, writing a mind-boggling amount of words, I figure over a million. There was a time for a few months where I was writing for three magazines and also writing a book and was cranking out 30,000 words a MONTH. That’s a staggering amount of text. But I learned so much from it.

If you are a writer then write every day, no excuses. Write a blog, write a journal, write a poem, write a list of reasons why you can’t write. Just do it every day, and you’ll become a better writer because of it, almost automatically. The writers who fail or have no ideas or can’t get a book finished are the ones who don’t write every day.

Would you be able to be an athlete if you didn’t train? A teacher if you didn’t read or study? A musician if you didn’t practice? No. Writing is no different. Writers write. Every day. End of story.


6 thoughts on “Moving Forwards

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