As writers, we know that ideas are all around us. Once you get in the habit of noticing them, that cute thing your kid said, the funny thing your dog did last week, even the memories you have from childhood, are all fodder for the story mill.
In fact, stories based on things that happen in our real lives can make the most relatable stories. And yet, it can sometimes be hard to move beyond that initial story spark to come up with something truly unique. When ideas come from real-life events, writers can get bogged down by real-life details and outcomes. It can be hard to envision a different ending, different setting, or different characters when we’re telling a story based on our real lives. Often, the key is to push our storytelling beyond the boundaries of what really happened, or even what really could have happened, while still keeping the emotional truth behind the idea. Below are a few tips to help you do that.
I remember the precise moment I started the story that became LULU & ZOEY: A SISTER STORY. I was picking up my son from preschool and he complained about his baby sister, who was singing loudly in the car. “She’s ALWAYS too loud,” he said, with his hands over his ears. I replied that she wasn’t ALWAYS loud. Sometimes she was loud, and sometimes she was quiet. All the way home, we made a list of other things, good and bad, that sisters sometimes are. I continued thinking about those ideas, and soon a first draft was born. I revised the draft a few times and even submitted it to a children’s magazine, but it wasn’t accepted.
Then I put it away for six years.
In that time, I learned a lot about picture book writing, and wrote many other stories. When I finally came back to this one. I was ready to look at it with fresh eyes. Instead of a general list of sisterly traits, I knew I needed to create two specific characters, and include a story arc – some specific conflict and resolution that they might have. Because so much time had passed, I was no longer emotionally tied to the actual events that started the story in the first place, and I felt free to make changes. I changed the characters from the brother and sister--mirroring my two kids--to two sisters, and I changed many of the details from the initial draft. What I kept was the emotional heart of the story: that siblings sometimes have ups and downs in their relationships, but they’re always a part of each other’s lives.
You may not have time to put your story away for that long, but even a month or two can make a world of difference – especially if you spend that time immersed in other projects. Both the time and the shift in focus to new projects can give you the emotional distance you need to make changes.
My book HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE, TIME FOR SCHOOL! was also based on real life events and emotions. Ironically, the spark for this story also involved picking my son up from school. This time, it was during the daily pick up from elementary school. My daughter, then 4, would be dragged along with me. Of course, it was at the worst possible time in the afternoon when she really needed to be resting, and so getting her ready to go was a huge chore. I felt like I was constantly saying, “Hurry! Hurry!” and pushing her to go faster than her natural, tortoise-like pace. The story idea grew out of this experience, but I knew that a story about a mom yelling at her daughter to hurry wouldn’t feel unique or sustain interest across 32 pages.
I turned to animal characters to help me get some separation from the real-life inspiration for the story. In the book, Little Tortoise really wants to be on time for school — maybe even the first one there — but, as one might expect, she is NOT built for speed. In a twist, she encounters her new teacher, Mr. Sloth, who similarly struggles with being on time. Using animal characters enabled me to push the story into the realm of fantasy while still keeping the heart of what I wanted to say — many of us struggle with being on time, adults and kids alike, and we can show each other grace.
When thinking of characters and settings in this way, think REPRESENTATIONAL and LARGER-THAN-LIFE. What animals, objects, or mythical creatures best represent the characteristics you are trying to portray? What settings might allow you to explore your topic even better than a real-world setting? The beauty of picture books is they can be set anywhere — under the sea, outer space, inside a refrigerator — and those places are fun to see illustrated as well.
It’s tried-and-true, but — as your 7th grade English teacher told you — brainstorming is a great way to come up with ideas. However, sometimes when you are too close to the real events that your story is based on, it’s even better to brainstorm with a partner or group. Find partners who are NOT invested in the true story-behind-your-story. If possible, I’d suggest not even sharing the backstory behind your idea. Then spend 10-15 minutes coming up with new characters, plot twists, endings, whatever you need to push your story outside the realm of the real.
Once you have a list of ideas, pick one that resonates with you, start a NEW DOCUMENT, and rewrite your story from scratch based on the new idea. I know it sounds hard to throw away everything from your previous drafts and start over, but I promise, those old words are still there. You can always go back to them if you need to. But starting something completely new, while keeping the heart of your real-life story in mind, might help you break through to a story that truly shines.
I hope some of these ideas help you grow your next story from the real-life spark into a light that makes it unique and memorable while still being relatable to readers.