Friday, June 3, 2011

Four Words, Endless Possibilities

I came across this image on the internet a few weeks ago, and I was immediately inspired.

Four magical words, several blank lines and a pencil.

The reason these four words are magical is that they have served as the beginning for every single story that has ever existed. Non-fiction, fiction, and stories that have not been written down or even thought of yet - all of them begin with these four words, whether it appears so or not. If you take any beginning of any story and strip away the fancy wording or the hooking intentions, these four words are glowing underneath.

And their glow does something amazing: it heralds a world of adventure, of fantasy and of dreams, of dynamic characters that we relate to, and of events that grip us, of themes and insights and love and life and hate - everything a great story is and has. These words set up a stage upon which anything can happen.

So, when I saw this image, I felt that I was being called - no, begged - to pick up that pencil and fill in those blank lines. I thought of everything that pencil could do, and all that those lines could hold, and all that those magical four words could be the precursors to. You think about it: if you were to pick up the pencil, what story would you write? How would you explore the world of endless possibilities?

And the possibilities truly are endless. Somerset Maugham once said, "All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary - it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences." How many words are in the dictionary? According to the Oxford Dictionary, between 250,000 and 750,000; and considering that a single word can be repeated thousands of times in a single novel, is it really worth trying to work out how many combination of words (of novel-length) there possibly are?

Christopher Booker wrote a work of non-fiction that reduced fiction to only seven plots - laid out seven sets of rules that fiction plots may follow. I remember coming across this when I was just starting out on my novel-writing journey, and how with time I deemed the idea to be a little off the mark. A plot cannot be described in one word. A plot cannot be paralleled with rules. Plot structure, yes. Theme, yes. Conflict, yes. But not entire plots. Plots are the way that themes and structures and conflicts and so many other elements are connected - that's why people write novels, not single words.

John Carey criticised Booker's volume, saying, "If there are only seven plots, you ought to be able to describe it in fewer than 700 pages. What's the point of reducing an infinite field?"

To be honest, I agree with him. The field is infinite. The possibilities are endless. And to think that they all stemmed from just four magical words.

So pick up the pencil. Fill in those lines. Write something that you can be proud of. Take chances. Connect ideas in ways that have never been done before. Find those worlds out there, those unknown chains of events, strange rituals and mysterious people. Use your imagination. Delve deep into that bottomless pit of ideas. Drink from the cup that never empties.

Here, I'll start you off:

Once upon a time ...


  1. What an inspiring post. I think sometimes we get so hooked on the mechanics, we forget about the magic. Storytelling, at its basic level, is a way of weaving magic out of everyday things. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  2. You just summarized every reason I love to write. Oh the possibilities!

  3. This is a very inspiring post, Nick. As a former teacher, it is so refreshing to see someone this motivated and passionate at such a young age. You write with the voice of someone well beyond your years. You are off to a great start, my friend. Keep writing. Keep learning. And keep dreaming. I wish I was writing at your age. I wish I had the expertise you have when I was your age. You would get an A+ in my class!

  4. Thanks everyone - I really did feel inspired by that image, and I'm glad I could pass on that inspiration to you :)

    @Paul: That's so encouraging, thank you. I'll make sure I keep it up :)


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