All Forms of Inspiration
Okay, so I was sitting in my room and trying to think of some amazing advice to share with people. Maybe some inspirational quote or a list of books that might help people open their minds and thus expand their storytelling capabilities. Of course, that is a conceited idea but I do like to be helpful.
Admittedly, I felt a little defeated. I’ve got deadlines coming out of my ears and a whole list of stories that I’m delayed in telling until at least August. It’s frustrating. So I popped on a movie, Kung Fu Panda (there’s no shame), and pretended I knew what I was doing. Then, suddenly, an essay I once wanted to write re-emerged in my brain—and I’ve probably touched on it before. It was triggered in a discussion I saw between other writers on the books that inspire them… but why does it have to be books?
Movies like Kung Fu Panda are quick to digest, and some people retain the information they see over things they read, which is why it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s still a form of storytelling and it certainly has a lot of stories to tell. For example, in Kung Fu Panda you have Master Shifu and Master Oogway, red panda and turtle respectively, who are fully developed characters. They have history (as any character should) before the story starts. Their personalities are perfectly defined in the first scene you meet then, when Master Oogway is prepared to blow out a hundred candles individually, whilst Master Shifu is impatient and uses his kung fu to do it in one go. Master Oogway is at the end of his character development before the start of the film, it is why he is most respected, and why, unfortunately, he needed to leave in order for Master Shifu and Po to grow.
Another plot element in Kung Fu Panda is self-fulfilling prophecy. Master Shifu’s paranoia that Tai Lung would escape his imprisonment is what leads to Tai Lung escaping his imprisonment. A protagonist’s character flaw kicks the whole plot into motion (quite beautifully might I add). This is all character-driven plot development, and why couldn’t that be applied to learning how to tell a story? Sure, it won’t tell you how to find voice, but it can go towards building plot or kick starting an idea.
If you’re not sure how a film manages its magic, there’s always reviews. Ones that focus on the positives of storytelling in films can be a lot less daunting for new writers. Focusing on the negatives in critically acclaimed works has certainly stopped me from writing before (briefly, but still) so look for high star ratings.
Sticking to the visual mediums, the natural evolution from movies would be to television. Several sites regularly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of storytelling in a multitude of formats, from role-playing games to television shows. Not only have I found a wealth of new books, games, movies and TV shows to look at through these, I have also had a good giggle whilst I found them.
Books, although great, have become increasingly commercialised. This means, in short, if vampires are in, that’s all you’re gonna get. Yes, people are getting bored of Dystopian YA female protagonist driven stories, but they are a multi-million dollar industry. Yet, someone’s got to be the one to move the trend on, surely? Fairytales are rarely boring, only the re-hashed ones are. If done creatively (like in Once Upon A Time), they can stick out from the shameless number of retellings, or if you’re prepared to be that little bit braver, I recommend finding some lesser known fairytales, folklores and so forth to jumpstart your inspiration exercise.
Such as, fancy writing a scary story about ghosts? Did you know there are accounts of a ghost dog called Black Shuck who has been haunting Norfolk, Sussex and Essex? These accounts have been documented for centuries of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes. In some tales he is an omen, in others just a trickster playing a cruel practical joke on weary travellers. In fact, sightings of a ghostly black dog have been recorded here in Thanet. There are lots of lesser known folklores based around our little British Isles, and then so much more across the world.
For the film Moana, screenwriters and the directors visited different islands across Oceania, such as Fiji, to build up the inspiration for the blockbuster. It meant researching legends that aren’t necessarily well-known to those who live outside of the continent, but it also meant a story that wasn’t a standard re-hash of a Brother’s Grimm tale.
History Channel’s hit show Vikings is based on historical fact, legends and myth, and as not a lot is known about practical Viking culture, they were able to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. There are also plenty of female figures throughout history who have not had the fame they deserve, you know, if you’re looking for a strong and/or terrifying female character. As a seed of an idea, there was Ching Shih, a prostitute turned pirate turned warlord, who commanded a fleet of over 200,000 men, women and children, and was asked to retire (a luxury for pirates) by the Chinese government. She is still regarded as one of the most powerful pirates in history. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know will light a fire under your cheeks.
Well, Ching Shih is popular in China… not so much in the Western world, but hopefully the seed has taken root and the branches lead you to stories untold (or not told here).
Okay, so we’ve done visual and historical inspiration ideas, my last one is quite simple: music. I’ve said before how I often listen to songs and end up building a ‘trailer’ in my mind for a story to it. A walk home listening to music can help me develop a whole plot from scratch. All I’ve got to do is listen to those songs again and I can start to sharpen the images in my mind before putting it all to paper.
The other way is much more literal. See, one of my favourite songs is by a band Savage Garden. Two Beds and a Coffee Machine follows the story of a woman who flees her abusive partner with her children, desperate to break the cycle, but… unfortunately, knows she will have to return home. The tone of the song, the atmosphere in the music, inspires a very different image from a later song, by the same singer (Darren Hayes) about a young boy who witnesses his mother’s abuse and daydreams of murdering the man to make his mother happy, (Neverland, great song), which is eerie in tone, almost uncanny to the ears. Again, Nickleback’s Never Again, while featuring a similar theme of an abused mother, has an altogether much more aggressive score and rage in the instruments and the vocals, conjuring entirely different imagery. All three of those songs have inspired three different stories and/or character biographies for me.
As a species we love music and we love storytelling, so why wouldn’t we combine the two? Ed Sheeran’s hit A Team offers such a raw but innocent look at a world some people aren’t that familiar with, while his song Small Bump is gut-wrenchingly beautiful and about a very common, too common, tragedy. Songs like these can open up a writer to experience emotions without living through the moments, such as writing about abuse if you’ve never yourself experienced it, or a miscarriage (particularly hard if you’re a man, I hear).
So, there’s some seeds for you to either throw away, consume or sow, up to you. Don’t get bogged down on whether the idea is original or not, because, well… it isn’t. Then again, there are tonnes of zombie films and stories and yet The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey is considered refreshing in the undead lit scene.
Yes, your seed may grow a tree, but it’s how you treat and nurture it that will decide whether it will grow mighty, whether its blossom will bloom and whether it will bear more fruit to eat and sow. Remember: there is no secret ingredient.
© 2017 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.