Writing Tip 6: Finding Stories. The Bowles Effect

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Writers find their stories in all sorts of places, from the daily newspapers to under their rugs. People comb their own past, our national history, and all kinds of bars and unholy places looking for their story. Sometimes, frustratingly, we become aware that there are stories all around us, every moment, we just can’t always catch them. ‘Find your emotion and you’ll find your story,’ says Hemmingway. That’s one way. Even newspaper personals: For recycle: baby’s booties (pink), unused.  Wanted: Woman for farm work, must have own tractor.

There’s a story in everything.

But what we often forget is what I would call the Paul Bowles effect: it is the act of writing itself which is the major generator of ideas.

 Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When asked where he got his ideas from, Bowles replied that writing was the sole source of his ideas. ‘Now that I’m not writing, I have no ideas,’ he said. He described his method. He would begin with an image. Lets say, a man standing at the edge of an empty swimming pool, looking down. Okay, so who is the man? Where is he? Why is the light so bright? Why is the pool empty? And, oh, who is that standing the shadows of the open doorway behind him?  A woman. His wife perhaps… And so it builds, bootstraps itself into existence from a single image.

Even if you begin a story derived from elsewhere, the Bowles Effect can still kick in, sometimes to the point of steering your story in a direction you didn’t intend, exactly.

Another writer to use the Bowles Effect is Nobel Prize winning dramatist Harold Pinter, master of pauses and implications. In his Nobel acceptance speech he spoke briefly of this method, which is an extreme application of the principle. He will begin with no more than a single word, or phrase, and builds from there. A word is spoken. Somebody is speaking it. Somebody is listening. Somebody replies. And by the way, who is the woman standing by the window…

You may have a firm idea of the story you want to tell, and that’s all well and good, but allow yourself time to just generate a word or two, an image, a piece of dialogue out of nowhere – and elaborate. Let it go where it will, define its own direction. Modern commentators speak about the intentions of the text. Well, what are they? They are yours, as a writer, to discover. This kind of story discovers itself from the inside out, not the other way around.

This is a very handy exercise, and can be fun, even for the most diehard planners and forward plotters. You just have to hand over the reins to the story itself. Easy-peasy.

Ah… and the woman in the doorway by the window is wearing a red scarf!