The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

On Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” — Wikipedia.

In my book, Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, the protagonist, Open, likes to read. He reads “about anything and everything”. (Open: pp 7). He would sometimes consult Wikipedia when he wants to find out things. He also perceives his world differently from the rest of us. For example, he describes his feelings in relation to one of the five senses—taste. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, where Open talks about how he feels on learning that Mama may be leaving him to work in New Zealand.

I will not be seeing Mama for a few months when she goes to New Zealand. It will take more than 10 hours to reach Auckland by plane. That’s very far away. I will not be seeing Mama every day.

“When will you go?” Papa asks.

“They’re still deciding…”

“It’s just that Open…”

“Oh Ben,” Mama sighs. “I don’t know, Sky. He’s not getting better and I don’t know what to say to him.”

I am tasteless inside.

Some people, like Open, are synesthetes. They often experience one sense using another part of their sensory organs. For example, listening to music can trigger a vision of bright lights in some people. In another case, known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, letters and numbers are seen as colours or coloured. Open experiences his world in a lexical-gustatory way, where certain tastes are experienced when hearing certain words or when certain people are associated with particular tastes. In chapter 7, Open feels “tasteless inside” when he hears his mother uttering “Oh Ben”. Like many lexical-gustatory synesthetes, Open expresses his feelings, sadness in his case, through tasting it.

A well known synesthete was Wassily Kandinsky. He experienced visions of colours in motion when listening to classical music. The moving colours correspond to the movement in the music. In his paintings, you will often see dashes of colours—sprays of blues, swirls of violets, glares of yellows, circles of reds, lines of black—rendered in watercolour. Take for example, his Composition VII (1913), the canvas is a mess of colours, distracting to look at. But in this piece, Kandinsky is expressing a profound sense of the spiritual. He often associates and ascribes certain emotional qualities to certain shades of colours.

Wassily Kandinsky is a Russian artist (1866-1944). He was also an art theorist, often talking and discussing art with his friends and in lectures. Kandinsky is credited with being the first artist recognised to have painted the first work of pure abstraction.

Kandinsky is very grandiloquent in expressing the processes at work when painting: “Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” (The Guardian, 2006)

Emotions are too abstract to describe in real terms. Associating an emotion to a certain taste or colour, often helps us picture how we feel concretely, in my opinion.

I would be happy to hear what readers have to say about synesthesia. Please leave your comments below. Remember that this blog may be read by children who have read Open and want to discuss the book here. Do remember to be polite and mindful that young minds may be present in this space.

If you haven’t purchased your copy of Open – A Boy’s Wayang Adventure, you can buy it here. For Singapore readers, the book is sold exclusively at Popular Bookstore until April. To review Open, you can go to Good Reads where the book is listed.

To participate in Instagram, take a picture with the book and hashtag #OpenEveryChildMatters, @evawongnava, to share about your reading journey. I would love to hear from you.