“A useful exercise is to think of an image, a thought, a small moment, or a place.”
Of writing fiction, many authors have described the process by which they arrive at a story. The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez once noted that for him a story always originates as a “purely visual image.” A story may be inspired by a phrase or an event. He relates how one day he mysteriously arrived at a story: one evening in Barcelona when he had visitors, the lights suddenly went out and he sent for an electrician. While the electrician was working in the apartment, García Márquez, who was holding a candle for him, asked him: “‘what happened to the light?’ ‘Light is like water,’ he said, ‘you turn a tap and out it comes, and the meter registers it as it comes through’” (42). At that moment, he had the complete story of Light Is Like Water:
In a city away from the sea – Paris, Madrid, or Bogota – there lives on the fifth floor a young couple and their two children of ten and seven. One day the children ask their parents for a rowboat. One night when their parents are at the cinema, the children break an electric light bulb and the light begins to flow out – just like water – filling the whole house. Passersby in the street notice light streaming out of the windows and flooding the street, and they send for the fire brigade. When the firemen open the door they find that the children had been so absorbed in their game that they had allowed the light to reach the ceiling, and are floating in the light, drowned.
García Márquez’s story and the anecdote he relates tell us about the beginnings of fiction, which I would like to explore as a process of exploration beyond what you know and as a way of reenvisioning a story in light of what you know or learn. The goal is to help you start a story and to discover the story that you were meant to write.
Though your story may draw on real events and experiences, it has been changed and metabolized through the process of writing, of sifting through the strands of what you have lived and exploring other possibilities. Real life is a rich source of material, especially as you contemplate particular moments, because it offers what we know and the possibility of creation and inventiveness. Write what you want, what you would love to read. One option is to write about what you know, particularly events, characters, or locales. I have found that writers write what they know powerfully but, by writing what you know, you do not have to limit your creativity and imagination. The product may be a story of your characters that is not your story but you know the world they inhabit. It is a story that you have probably been contemplating for years. Often fiction contains much truth – in images, sensations or thoughts – and, though you may write what you know, this often means that you may draw on your own experience, not to follow the events as they happened, but to identify what is unique and original in a moment, a thought, or an image and to explore new possibilities and interpretations, so that the writer’s life is but an inspiration. What is important is creation, not veracity.
Many aspiring writers have carried around a thought, event, image, or the bare outlines of a story that they feel the compulsion to put down in fiction. As you write, you will not know where you are going but you can start with an image or a moment in the middle of your story and advance through the events or action.
A useful exercise is to think of an image, an event evoked by a certain phrase, a thought, a small moment, or a place. Think of an image that you have carried, an early memory, or a turn of phrase that describes more than the meaning of the words and has different associations for the characters, or describes things in ways they have never been described before, and follow the threads of the image, event, or thought.
One way to start your story is to think about an image, thought, or situation you wish to explore, with careful attention to detail. In a short story, the protagonist has a desire that will move events forward, while an obstacle will complicate things, heighten tension, and culminate in a crisis. Though you may have an idea or the seeds of a story, you will rarely know the full threads until you set to work. One way of writing convincingly is to imagine being the characters you create. At a later stage, you will think of the movement or development of the story, but in the meantime, revel in the start of a story and the creation of a world from a powerful image, thought, or desire.
In the process of writing fiction, you will think beyond what you know – parts of an experience, image, or thought that have eluded you or that you discover as you write. I have always been inspired by Hemingway’s injunction to write what you don’t know: “If it is any use to know it, I always write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story” (Hemingway). Or you will think about what you know in what you don’t know, or what the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon does when he researches a ritual of washing the dead of which he knows little for his novel The Corpse Washer.
Once you have started a draft, you can go back and consider the focus and development of the story. To discover what your story is about, you need to finish it and revisit it to make choices about content and structure.
An important stage of writing fiction is reenvisioning or reworking a draft. One example of reenvisioning fiction offers us the magic and sudden bursts of illumination of writing and completing a story. The accidents as it were. For example, García Márquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold was inspired by the true story of an honor killing in his Colombian town, or the sacrifice of an innocent man. He had thought of writing a novel about the event, but his editor advised him to let the events settle and his mother did not want her relatives in the town to be the focus of his book (Bell-Villada 207). He had also not found the structure or design through which he could rework the novella and he often felt that the plot was incomplete. Decades later, a friend suggested that he add a love story and at that moment the novelist discovered the essence of his novella.
Before 2011, I contemplated and began a novel about a young man who returns to Cairo and the remnants of a family press in a house on the borders of the sprawling city. I was certain that the central events in the novel would be set in the 1970s and 1980s but, beyond the two decades, I could not envision the future of my characters or events. An accumulation of events from 2011 has offered me the strands to envision the development of the novel, though this is by no means a novel about 2011.
Finally, after you begin (and finish) a story, intuiting characters, events, and scenes as you move along – these will be discovered in the process – perhaps you will be fortunate enough to reenvision the draft. Whether you imagine – and these are examples I draw from some moments in my own work – someone who reads a novel about infinite bridges on a balcony, as the street looks at him, or someone who starts a story in his youth and, much later, thinks of a contest to complete the story the way he had envisioned, or a painting of a fencing lesson, or a father who returns from Chile laden with books steeped in rain and rivers, or a carte postale of verdant hills and fields of golden wheat, you will have stumbled upon what you do not know.
All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.