Where do stories come from?
There isn’t a writer out there who hasn’t been asked by a non-writer where their ideas come from. How do you answer such an abstract question? With an abstract answer, of course.
Storytelling is something all humans do. We do it through words, through pictures, through gestures and tastes and sounds. A story is much more than just a jumble of letters forming words and sentences on pages. It is an experience.
And in order to create a believable, immersive experience through storytelling, you first have to acquire a story. Exactly how you go about doing that really depends on who you are as a person.
Sometimes I like to imagine that writers are explorers who roam around the world collecting stories and ideas, gathering them up and gently placing them in a bag slung over their shoulders.
I don’t know why I love this visual so much — maybe it’s the completionist gamer in me who has spent an embarrassing number of hours going around and collecting items in a world until my inventories frustratingly reach maximum capacity.
We don’t think about it often enough, though, how we are more than just the tellers of stories. The stories have to come from somewhere. And if you read many works by the same author you notice not only that their stories are inspired by others’ previous work but contain common elements and themes from their own previous stories.
Why does this happen? Because writers are travelers, and along their journeys from here to there they collect stories and save them. This happens so often in so many different ways that we hardly even realize when we have added another tale to our catalog — at least not until we are writing and recall a story we have saved and use it to shape the one we are putting together in front of us.
Stories come from talking with and spending time around other people. This is one reason why writers need social circles, no matter how big or small. For the purposes of health and well-being you always need to be surrounded by some degree of family and/or friends, but being able to gather stories from social interactions is certainly an added benefit even for introverts exhausted by these events.
But there are plenty of other places we collect stories from — books being the most obvious medium. There are also articles and blogs, social media posts, movies, and TV shows. Stories are everywhere. Stories entertain and fascinate, inform and inspire us. Every story we write comes in some part from a story we have previously collected.
So if you want to be a better writer, if you want to expand your creative horizons and tell stories that impact people and promote positive changes in the world (as so many of the creative minded do), you have to collect stories in a variety of different ways. Especially since different stories are told best through different mediums — the best stories I’ve seen on television, for example, may not have had the same impact if they had been written as a book.
(Debatable, I suppose, but for the most part, stories are written differently depending on the medium they are being presented through.)
Though you may be drawn to certain themes or kinds of stories, there are benefits to varying your options and experiencing stories that are completely unfamiliar and new to you.
Don’t be afraid to collect stories that challenge your beliefs (notice I didn’t say “change,” but this is also possible), offer you different perspectives on certain issues than your own and persuade you to stand up and do something in the real world that can make a big difference.
Also don’t be ashamed if you tend to gravitate toward one type of story or prefer to return to your favorite stories again and again. There is a reason I have friends who have read every Harry Potter book a dozen times or have rewatched every episode of Friends on countless run-throughs. Our favorite stories tend to make us feel a certain way and there is nothing wrong with seeking out that feeling — it’s not the worst coping mechanism out there.
But if your primary goal is to grow as a storyteller and challenge your creative comfort zone, aim to collect as many stories as possible, not just the ones that are most familiar to you. This year I have read many books that I was hesitant to spend time on because they weren’t normally what I would pick up. But they have been some of the most impactful things I have read in a long time, and I now carry them with me and will likely use what I have learned from them on future projects of my own.
You will never collect all the stories that exist in our world — sorry, fellow completionists. Despite the fact that all stories are technically based on an original handful of ideas, there are so many unique versions of tales that you could spend your whole life seeking them all out and never get to even half of them.
Enjoy this experience. Remember that you aren’t just someone who tells stories to other people — you are someone who is, first and foremost, inspired and motivated by stories. Collect to your heart’s content. Experience and re-experience the stories that mean the most to you. But most importantly of all, use what you know to tell the stories you want to see in the world. If in all you have collected you have yet to find a story that fits exactly what you would hope to read or experience, that’s it. That’s the story you have been called to tell next.
Go. Go forth and tell it, and someone else will collect it and carry it with them forever, and that is the purpose of a story. To connect all of us, to remind us that despite our differences we are all people with stories to know, and plenty more to share.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.