What starting a fire can teach you about writing a good story
The initial spark
When I was in the cub scouts I wanted my fire starter badge (that might not have been the name of it, it was probably something to do with fire safety, but we just wanted to get a fire going). Being able to get a proper fire started seemed like the ultimate survival skill.
First I learned that you need a spark, and one way is to strike a high-carbon steel against a flint rock.
A story needs a spark of an idea, and one way to create this is to strike one idea against another. The two ideas need friction between them, the steel and the flint.
Jurassic Park is dinosaurs in a theme park.
Hannibal Lecter is highly cultured and a cannibal.
The Hunger Games is children who are gladiators.
There are many ideas around, as many as pebbles on the beach. Ideas are not the problem, the difficulty is in finding just the right pair of ideas that when struck together can create a sufficient spark.
That initial spark has to then be directed against your tinder. You need something to catch that brief spark and create a small flame.
If you have a piece of flash paper you could get a very bright, brief, intense flame. This story equivalent is flash fiction, stories up to around 1000 words. They can be satisfying, but they are very brief.
If you want to create a longer story then you need something to build on that initial flame. You need some dry tinder. Green wood from a living tree is no good. You need some material that is dead, that has had time to dry out and is ready to rejoin the cycle of life.
In story terms, you are looking to build on the flame with some mature ideas. Something that has been niggling at you for a while and has had time to dry out. You are not looking for something spectacular here, just enough to keep the flame of the idea growing.
Let it build
The danger with your small flame that you have built up is that you now swamp it. Dumping a giant log on your fire will cut the oxygen to the heart of the fire and put it out.
With your story you must be careful not to dump a huge pile of exposition on your story early on. Let the flame dance and build with smaller pieces of narrative. There is a delicate balance. You need enough fuel to keep the fire going, but not so much that it is swamped.
You have a choice with how to build your bigger fire.
In England we celebrate bonfire night on 5th November when we remember Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the houses of parliament and burn an effigy of him on the fire. All good family fun!
For days beforehand we create a giant pile of flammable material into a huge cone, careful to make sure that the structure is sound and not likely to collapse in on itself.
A story built like this will have a planned structure before the writing begins. Once your flame is lit, you know that you have a structure that will keep it alight and material enough to burn.
There is also a danger here, however, that the fire will go out. Buried under all that material your flame might not be strong enough to survive. If that happens then you will have to pull the bonfire down and rebuild it. Sometimes when planning out every detail of a story, you find that you have lost the initial spark of the ideas that started the story in the first place.
Adding fuel to the fire
Alternatively you could build your fire as the flame grows. Once your tinder is alight you carefully add fuel to the fire. Starting with smaller twigs and branches, you add more as the flames build.
This is more like discovery writing. Letting the story build itself as you add more material. There is a danger here that, as the structure is not planned in advance, it could collapse in on itself, smothering the story. It is more likely that the fire might get out of hand and spread to areas you didn’t intend — the story might go off on tangents and be more difficult to control.
Keeping the flame alive
As the fire builds and burns brighter, the logs need to be packed tightly enough that it will keep going, but not so tight that there is no room for the fire to breathe.
Stories need variety in the pacing. The reader needs an opportunity to draw breath, some more reflective passages, gaps between the action.
Pass on the flame
As the fire burns at it brightest and then dies down, the embers may burn long into the night. Before the fire is extinguished completely, you might want to reserve an ember to start the next fire.
You hope that your story will stay with the reader long after they turn the last page. If you hope to write a series then you should make sure that you have left some embers burning at the end of the story that you can use to start the sequel.
In summary, thinking about a fire can help write a good story:
- Find two ideas that have friction between them to create the initial spark.
- Use mature ideas that have had time to dry out so they become good tinder for that spark.
- Don’t swamp your story with too much exposition early on, let it grow.
- Either build a solid story structure in advance, or add pieces carefully to your growing story. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
- Keep some more reflective spaces in your story between your high impact scenes to allow the story to breathe.
- If you want to write a series, make sure you leave some embers alight at the end of your first book and use them to start the next one.