I can’t paint, but I invented a painting in my mind, because I wanted to see if I could put a narrative into a single static image. My idea features a large park in glorious summer sunshine. There’s a playground. Children clamber and run. Jumpers for goalposts. Kids throw bread for ducks on a pond. Café. Cyclist. Ice cream. Frisbee. Picnic. There is a tennis court. There is a young lady inside the court. She’s dressed for tennis, but she is a lone figure. She leans on the fence as if trapped by it; racket down to her side. She looks wistfully across… at the children in the playground and the parents chatting.
Now you have found her in the painting what can you tell me about her life? Can you invent her backstory? I feel sure you can. Sit back and have a little think about her before you read on. Focus on her. What does she look like? What is she thinking? What do you think her life is like?
The setup in the painting gives us her story; I’m guessing you have the same starting point as me. She has no kids and she desperately wants them. There’s only so much tennis you can play in an unfulfilled life, and despite her career, money, time, parties… she wants a child. Now go deeper. Think about where she lives. The people in her life. What she does. What she wants. What are the conflicts in her life?
Or maybe she’s more than happy not to be tied down to the hard work of parenting. She’s hugging herself that she has all this time for sunshine and tennis. Her friends are coming. It will be a day of tennis, friends, gin and tonic, and a night out tonight. She’ll be very happy if she never has to give birth. Now dig deeper. Now where does she live? What does she do? Who is in her life? What are the conflicts this time?
And this is the game. Writer training. Next time you are driving along, or sitting in a coffee shop or waiting for a train, look at the people going by. Notice them. The lady at the bus stop. The man at the chemist. The couple walking together – what is going on with them? And do three things:
- Make up a backstory for them.
2. Ask yourself what it was about them that caused that particular backstory to come into your mind? What was in their clothes, expression, actions or attitude that created the story in your mind?
3. Then ask – what is it that is causing them difficulty? What are the conflicts in their lives? Notice how that works – and use it in your writing.
I do this as a game with the kids in the car. We look at passers-by and invent their story. Then go deeper, asking then what? And what made that happen? Deeper and deeper. Who caused that? What then? What then? It is great fun, interesting for story development, and brilliant exercise for the imagination (although sometimes a little scary in terms of what you find out is going on in the minds of your own children!)