I felt it only appropriate after the excessive ambition of my last post to give this one a similarly ambitious title.
Where do stories come from? I, as many writers, can write a story on demand, given a few basic ideas, or even no ideas at all. This is because I know what makes a story. Knowing what makes a story seems to have two elements, the academic and the emotional. The academic elements of a story are those that can be readily named, if not always easily described: plot, character, protagonist, antagonist, etc. The emotional element of what makes a story is a sense of when a story feels right. Part of this feeling is personal, but most of it is a shared feeling, shared between writer and reader in the same way that a play is shared between actor and audience. This means it isn't wholly subjective, and you can learn to judge when a story will feel right to more readers.
Often you can rationalize the successful story post-hoc in the hope of producing an academic explanation of why it works. Often this is spurious. Usually it is a waste of time. Sometimes it advances your understanding of what makes a story work. But not where stories come from.
When most people set out to write their first novel, they do so with an idea of the story already forming, perhaps completely formed. That idea has arisen from their experiences, upbringing, culture—especially, from all the stories they have read or heard or seen. It is especially common for people's first novel to arise from their experiences as child and adolescent; to arise from the difficult or traumatic experiences and relationships of growing-up. This is a pretty broad sweep—so much so that it could pass as a cold reading. But I stand by it because the more stories he writes, the more they will leave his personal experiences behind; the more the story itself will come from the writer's invention.
Most writers will have heard the advice given to first timers to "write what you know"; the apparent truth is that you can hardly avoid it; the story you have tapping away in your chest that makes you sit sown in front of the keyboard in the first place is a story that comes from you and will tell you. I wonder how many writers realize how much of themselves they have bound up in that first story. That's the major reason why it's so important to write that one before you get on with really developing your skill and art. That one story you've carried with you since whenever you were first aware of it needs to get out because it's holding you back.
Some writers (DH Lawrence, I'm looking at you) try to preserve the spontaneity, the emotional wellspring of that first story through all their stories. I find that even in the case of writers as good as Lawrence, they end up telling the same story over and over. (For goodness sake, man! The Rainbow is the same story as Sons & Lovers told three times in the same book!)
In telling that first story, you start to learn about how to get the story out of your chest and onto the page.
I think—tentatively—that subsequent stories are, at first, echoes of that first one. If the writer then tries to imitate others more consciously, whether imitating content, style or story, then other influences come to bear, and the stories diverge more and more from that first, personal story. Through this process, the writer develops more and more his awareness of those two elements of what makes a story; the academic and the emotional. Through this, he can develop the ability to develop a story from a few simple ideas, and as such begin to create as an artist.
More about the process of writing next time.