Ruth E. Walker
There’s all kinds of courage and lately, we’ve been witness to so many types of bravery that it seems the well of human strength could very well be bottomless. Sadly, the well of inhuman cruelty seems equally deep at times. Add to the mix: natural disasters of epic scale and all the chaos is no longer extraordinary…or surprising.
And in the process, not only could you find a prompt for a story, it just might help you stay grounded in a troubled world.
The sanctuary of imagination
What would you do if what you thought were fireworks became bullets? Would you race away? Or stay to apply pressure on a stranger’s wound, never knowing if the next hail of gunfire would reach you? I’d like to think I would stay but there’s a small voice in the back of my head that whispers: who are you kidding?
If your neighbourhood is under military attack and you had only minutes to escape, what would you grab? Me? I’d like to think it would be our passports and survival kit but in reality, it would probably be some token, some useless item like a stone I picked up on vacation or a group family photo.
What if the water is racing up the basement stairs and the torrential rains outside show no sign of stopping? Do you move up to the second floor or head outside and hope to get to higher ground? And do you take anything with you — passport, wallet or a silly sentimental rock?
EXERCISE: Explore your characters: put them in a crisis situation and see how they handle it, watch what their hands reach for as the volcano explodes or the peaceful demonstration becomes a riot. Let the crisis arrive as if it is a film in your mind. And it is especially interesting when you use a crisis that is not what you or your character would expect.
When you have the crisis, begin to write freefall (see About Freefall in Seven Tips for Inspiration.) This works well if you don’t “direct” the action; instead, follow the energy of the scene. Don’t stop to edit. Keep writing and see where your character will take you.
The Human Condition(s)
Every time I follow the news, I am struck by the misery so many people endure. Mass migrations. Earthquakes. Civil wars (though what is civil about any war is beyond me.) The scale is always so overwhelming that I struggle to process it.
But then we see the people who respond with kindness. With practical help. With shining a light on it all so we living-room observers can somehow hope again. Uplifting!
But then we see the people taking advantage of the turmoil. Looting. Profiting. Victim-blaming. Depressing!
But then we see the survivors who, despite everything against them, rise up and move forward. Inspiring!
We are a contradictory, unpredictable, amazing, terrifying, confusing and incredible animal, we humans. Will we ever all learn to be positive, to be present and listen to others, to find a way forward that benefits the world?
EXERCISE: Take a walk in the science fiction and fantasy sections of your local library. Look for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The two titles show how from the darkest of times, one person can change the world when they take on an extraordinary burden. It is a theme explored in many works of these genres.
Consider the various Star Trek television series or any of the films in the “Star Trek” universe. The idea of the complexity of human behaviour is explored repeatedly in science fiction and fantasy. Any Trekker will tell you: boundaries are crossed. Preconceived ideas are challenged. There is hope.
Draft a plot outline or write an opening scene for a science fiction/fantasy story that explores human behaviour in an imagined world that is socially broken. Kick the editor off your shoulder and envision another world in chaos. Will you make room for hope? Surprise yourself.
The gift of the writer
Have you ever learned something life-changing from reading a story or book? Indeed, some of the best writing has altered thinking because it caused readers to question what they thought to be true.
Charles Dickens often wrote about the appalling conditions of the poor and working class in 1800s England. Because he created characters that readers cared about, he nudged more than a few into rethinking social responsibility. Consider this scene from A Christmas Carol where the wealthy protagonist is asked to help the less fortunate:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
EXERCISE: Cold words presented from a cold and unfeeling character can help readers take a glance into the mirror. Create a contemporary scene in which a character reveals disdain or disinterest in a social issue of today. Opiod addiction. Famine in a faraway country. Indigenous rights and reconciliation. You pick from the dozens waiting for your attention and write the scene without any emotional embellishment. Just like Scrooge: cold and steely eyed.
Later on, you can opt to give your character a chance to care. But not in this scene. Not one bit.
Remember: the world may be a mess but the pen, and the hand that moves it, can craft stories to change attitudes and ideas. The redemption of Scrooge is a timeless and hopeful tale that continues to resonate more than a century after Dickens put pen to paper.
DID YOU KNOW?
There’s a way to get a daily dose of positive. Upworthy is an online media company with this stated mission: Upworthy is on a mission to tell stories that bring people together — because we’re all part of the same story.
Here’s a Hallowe’en tale from 2016 that still holds power when two best friends of different faiths discover a way to celebrate their unity. Kids could teach us all.
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