Reducing Your Options: how to beat the blank page

– Mummy, tell me a story. About a princess, and a cat, and a … fridge.

– A fridge?

– An ANGRY fridge.

My kids used to ask me for these all the time. They’d pick three items from whatever drifted across their mind or vision – cows, trees, forks, balls, trains, the colour yellow – and wait expectantly for a story. (I don’t know why three, except it’s a natural storytelling number.)

It’s surprisingly easy to do. Not that The Angry Fridge and Other Stories is going to win the Carnegie, but once you start telling a story about a princess, and you know that a fridge has to play a role, and you consider why a fridge would be angry (because it’s empty? Is that because the cat ate all the food?) the story pretty much writes itself.

I’ve recently done some sticker storybook gigs. Each book has a topic, eg Monsters, and offers a few pages of stickers – various monsters, footprints, caves, monster grooming products, funny food, whatever. The idea is that the child writes a story and uses some of the stickers, rebus style. I was asked to do a couple of sample stories for each book. Pick some stickers and write a story round them. It was harder than the three-item story by an order of magnitude. The possibilities seemed endless. Is the monster nice? Scary? On holiday? At war? I could write anything! Where do I start?

And then we come to writing novels, where your sticker sheet encompasses all known and unknown creation, past present and future. That’s a lot of stickers to choose from.

This is why the notorious blank page is such a terrifying thing to writers. It’s not scary because it’s empty. It’s scary because it’s potentially full of everything in the world, and how the hell do you start from there? You end up flailing, writing half a dozen versions of the same scene, or not writing at all because how can you tackle anything of that magnitude?

And the answer is, reduce your options. Pick a sticker, and millions of options fall away. For every choice you make, you home in on the actual final shape of the story, like a sculptor cutting away all the bits of stone that aren’t the statue.

A small practical example. I’ve got a final showdown scene to do. Our heroes (soldier and spy) are outnumbered and in big trouble in a remote country house, with bad guys all round and a McGuffin to retrieve, and damned if I know how we’re going to get there. Is the showdown outside? Inside? Who’s getting killed, who’s folding? Is our spy actually going to be there or has he buggered off to manipulate events from behind the scenes? Are we talking about a siege or a capture/turnaround situation? Too many options!

So pick a sticker. Say the soldier has a shotgun that holds two rounds, while the villains have cutting edge semi-automatic rifles that chamber six rounds and shoot far faster than a shotgun. And immediately the shape of a scene springs out: this can’t simply be a shootout, the soldier is outgunned, the spy has to box clever.

Or pick a different sticker. The soldier has a revolver with six rounds, the villains have fowling pieces loaded with buckshot, we have a siege situation, this is the soldier’s big story moment…

Almost, it doesn’t matter what you pick (within reason – I’m not working an angry fridge into this). But pick something, reduce your options, and watch the shape of the story emerge from the fog of limitless possibility.

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