Visioning Your Story
by Catherine Ann Jones
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Where do stories come from? Whether you create an original story or re-create a known one, you as the writer must still make it your own. And this requires a personal journey – both inner and outer. The outer journey of research and craft is merely the starting point. The best adaptations are never literal. Find the vision of your story from within, and it will guide you to the end. Invisible helpers will appear to light the way.
Sometimes story ideas may arise from what happens to us in our own lives – several of my early plays presented a starting point to a fictional story. However, even if they don’t, they should be emotionally autobiographical – connecting with something deeply felt within.
One idea came from a secondhand bookstore, The Strand, in New York City. I was teaching at The New School and would often drop in to browse. I found a slightly tattered copy of The Letters of Calamity Jane. Soon afterwards, I was invited to Ossabaw Island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia to write. The island proved the perfect setting for a story set in nineteenth century America. In this way, invisible helpers appeared to guide.
Some of my best story ideas come from dreams, so I always keep a journal next to my bed. One night I dreamt of an angel who was having difficulty adjusting to heaven due to missing the pleasures of an earthly life. Consequently, the angel could not earn her wings as the other angels. I jotted the dream down. Ten days later, a call from my agent said she had heard from Dolly Parton’s company. They had liked my earlier film, The Christmas Wife (HBO) and wondered if I had a story for Dolly. Bingo! I remembered the angel dream. I pitched it first to her people then to her directly and she loved it. (I had not consciously known that Dolly Parton loves angels, but my dream self must have!)
A few months later, Unlikely Angel aired on CBS and won the highest ratings.
Like dreams, creativity arises from the unconscious. We have to create an empty space in our conscious minds for the unconscious to emerge with its gifts.
Even before there are stories, there are images. Each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and that calls it to destiny. To discover the image of our theme or main character, we must enter the invisible world and allow it to carry us. Intuitive images occur, we cannot make them. All we can do is get out of the way, thereby inviting them to come through.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
— Old Chinese saying
A wonderful way to find story ideas is books of photographs, or Gallery and Museum Exhibits of photographs. You might find a character image or story idea. The coffee table books of Life magazine are particularly good examples. Or you might try a book of Dorothea Lange’s haunting images of the Depression in America. John Steinbeck was hired to write copy for Depression photographs in California of the migrant fruit workers. This inspired him to write the Grapes of Wrath. The film adaptation then drew on these photographs as a set up for several shots in the movie.
What makes them work as art is that the audience identifies with these images.
I was once hired to adapt a classical novel of Finland into a screenplay. It was set in the mid-seventeenth century. After reading the nineteenth century novel I was to adapt, the first thing I did was visit the library and look at paintings depicting that time. It gave me a sense and feel to the period. Later I was flown to Estonia where the film was to be shot.
We go to movies in order to feel – something we are conditioned not to do both in school and even at home. So consciously create the right images and mood to evoke emotion. The emotional power of a story is most often felt through visual images. Images are the natural language of the unconscious. Psyche is revealed through images as in dreams. The moment remembered in a great novel or film usually is visual, unspoken. Rosebud, a neglected sleigh, in Citizen Kane. How to invite your story through visualization? Story is ultimately a metaphor or symbolic image of what you are trying to say. It is through metaphor that the process of life and art can be seen as in a mirror. Look for visual metaphors in both waking and dream states. Awaken that part of the mind that generates images.