A lot of people who sit down to write a story are worried they don’t have any ideas. They think people who do have ideas are very special, or different in some way to people who don’t. It’s for this reason that authors are so often asked where they get their ideas from. The people asking think that the author will reveal the magical secret of their genius. But actually anybody can write good stories if they learn that there is nothing special about ideas. It’s the way the idea is organized that matters. 

Sense Memory

Everybody has a million stories already inside them. To pick one out, all you need to do is remember something. Memory is a natural story-telling device. It is our personal history. But a good story-teller knows that a reader pays attention to detail, particularly to the concrete detail delivered through our senses. A dog is just a dog. A dog with a white muzzle and a limp, holding something in her mouth, is a different matter. That dog is already wandering around your mind, becoming a story.

Warm up exercise

5 Minutes

If you would like to give it a try, think back to when you were very small. Perhaps you are six or seven years old, maybe a little older, whatever works. Now choose one memory for each of your five senses: something that you remember seeing, touching, hearing, smelling or tasting. For example, I can remember the taste of the toothpaste in my grandmother’s bathroom when I was little. It was pink and extremely powerful. 

Don’t worry about making the sentences pretty, just write down a few words for each memory and leave it at that. You should have all five memories written down in about five minutes. 

Main Exercise

20 Minutes

Now choose one of your sense memories and tell the story around it. Use the first person, present tense to give your reader the feeling that they are right there with you. Try as hard as you can to use only sensory detail. Your story will come from one sense memory, but when you write about it you can use all your senses, or just two or three. But avoid abstract description. If you keep it simple, honest, and give yourself just a moment to think about where you’re going to start and where you’re going to end, you will have written a story worth reading.  

For example, my story about my grandmother’s toothpaste will start with me watching her brushing her teeth in the morning, then putting up her hair and applying makeup, before going downstairs to make breakfast. When she’s gone, I try some of the toothpaste myself and it is so strong it makes my eyes water. I have never tasted anything so powerful. I think what sort of a woman my grandmother must be to brush her teeth with stuff like that, twice a day, like it’s nothing! And when I go downstairs to eat my boiled egg, I am still thinking about it. I keep this secret knowledge to myself as I watch her crunch her toast and sip her coffee until she asks me if she has grown whiskers.

That’s enough for a very short story. It’s also the beginning of a much longer one.

Roland is an award-winning author and illustrator. His biography of Arthur Ransome won a Jerwood Award from the Royal Society of Literature and the HW Fischer Prize from the Biographer’s Club. His illustrations for Lev Grossman’s best-selling Magicians trilogy were published in the New Yorker. Roland is currently writing and illustrating a series of novels for children.


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