I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until it’s finished.
– James Patterson
Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.
– Terry Pratchett
Over at Creative Nonfiction there’s a great post explaining Susan Orlean’s notion of Tiny Masters.
It’s a brilliant idea and the perfect answer for writers who feel, each time they see the advice write what you know, that they don’t know ‘anything.’ In short, you probably do, you just haven’t realised it yet.
Here’s an example of how it works, taken from the Creative Nonfiction link above:
Make a list of 10 things of which you’re a master. Include talents, skills, hobbies, qualities of character. I’ve created many lists over the years, and they surprise me every time: Making enchilada sauce. Building fires. Finding beach glass. Crossing rivers. Writing thank you notes. Collecting maps. Procrastinating. Teaching tricks to my dog.
Next, you incorporate a mastery into a story or character. It’s pretty much that easy!
Tiny Masters is useful because the kind of ‘smaller’ detail you’re using will add depth to your work, and because you the writer are confident in that mastery, your writing will naturally have an assured tone or ring of truth to it.
Now, to answer those of you thinking, ‘wait a minute, I’m writing in a speculative fiction genre and I don’t personally know anything about so and so’ (maybe it’s ‘space’) then not to worry.
One answer might be that while you don’t know a tonne about space, you do know about cooking. And so in your story, your character is a cook. Your knowledge of cooking becomes part of the authenticity, and what you choose to do with space, remains the speculative aspect.
Try it out!
Evoking the familiar in fiction is important – vital even.
But just as often, you want to do something unexpected, to surprise or delight the reader. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid using cliches. Old advice, we know. And certainly not all cliches can be avoided in all circumstances.
Here’s a great list of movie cliches, which are exactly the kind of cliches that appear in fiction too.
So, how can you use the cliches to get a good story idea? Well, try this – choose one or two cliches from the list and try subverting them. Maybe flip a cliche on its head by changing something about it. Take this movie cliche from the Animals section:
Dogs always know who’s bad, and bark at them.
A cliche, right? Not to say this never happens in real life, but try subverting this.
What else could a dog recognise? Good people? People about to die? Rich people? Liars? Celebrities in disguise? The list goes on – it really depends on the needs of your story.