The secret ingredient that turns a notebook of ideas into something more…

One of the first exercises that we were assigned during my writing studies at UNC Asheville was the “circular story”. In a page or so, we were to write a complete narrative. The caveat, of course, was that the story had to begin and end “in the same place”. With limited space and the requirement of a circular structure, this exercise prompted us to hone in on the single most vital element of story.

In my last newsletter, we talked about gathering inspiration: where to find it and how to harvest and cultivate it. And yes, a flourishing writing practice relies on a bounty of ideas: lines of prose and character quirks, bits of dialogue, setting details, and plot points that make you scream or swoon. But when it comes to organising all of those ideas into a narrative, we realise that a story requires one thing more than anything else:

Change.

At their core, all stories are about some sort of change, whether that change happens within the characters or within the world of the story. Indeed, the best ones leave even their readers in a different place than where they first started. And when you apply this knowledge to a circular structure, a story becomes a moment of change, a transformation that leaves us looking at the same place through different eyes.

Finding the Change at the Heart of Your Story

Hopefully over the last month, you’ve been busy collecting all sorts of ideas. But once you’ve filled your notebook with this bounty, how do you go about creating a story out of all of it?

Over the next few months, I’m planning to talk more about my own process when it comes to writing, from first drafts to self-editing to preparing manuscripts for submission or publication. But for me, the very first step of any story involves identifying the “turn” — the vital change that lies at the heart of whatever story I’m thinking of writing.

Often, this turn ends up becoming part of the climax of the story: a life-changing choice that’s placed in front of the main character at the height of the conflict. Sometimes, it can take the shape of a reveal or other twist that surprises the reader or the character (or both).

For this month’s exercise, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to identify this central change and help you shape your ideas into the concept for a story. For each question, feel free to answer it directly, or use it to inspire a vignette or other freewrite.

  1. Where is your character at the beginning of the story? What is their normal world like?
  2. At the end of the story, is the character or their world different? How does this contrast to life at the beginning?
  3. What will have shifted in your reader’s understanding of the character and their world by the end of the story?
  4. Are there any themes or topics that seem relevant to the ideas that you want to develop?
  5. What difficult decisions do your themes or ideas point to that could signal a vital change for your characters or their world?

In the end, after all, every story is a shift — in a person, in the world, in our perspective — nothing more, nothing less.


Bonus Quest (250xp)

Write a circular story.

In a page of no more than 500 words, write a complete narrative — in prose or poetry — that begins and ends in the same place. This “place” can be an echoed line, the same moment, a mirrored image. For some inspiration, check out The Great Silence, Backwards, or War of the Clowns.

I’d love to see what you come up with!


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