​​How to Get Story Ideas for Fiction Writing: ​a​ Memories Graph

Updated on June 21, 2018
B. Leekley profile image

Brian's avocation is creative writing. His fiction has appeared in little magazines. He is the organizer of a critique writing group.

While my wife and I were living in Marquette, Michigan in the early 2000s, I took a creative writing class in the Arts and Culture Center in the public library. In one class, the instructor taught us this memories graph writing prompt technique.

A Memory of Mother
A Memory of Mother | Source

What Is a Memories Graph?

A memories graph is a way of identifying experiences in your life that for you were emotional highs and lows and then using one such memory as a prompt in depicting the central emotion of a scene in fiction.

The technique is, I imagine, similar to the "emotion memory" technique used in Method Acting. The Wikipedia article on that topic says, "In Strasberg's approach, actors make use of experiences from their own lives to bring them closer to the experience of their characters. This technique, which Stanislavski came to call emotion memory (Strasberg tends to use the alternative formulation, "affective memory"), involves the recall of sensations involved in experiences that made a significant emotional impact on the actor."

For a fiction writer, such a recalled experience might be a prompt for imagining an entirely new, original scene or incident—perhaps the memory of apprehension upon being left by your mother in a strange room full of strangers on your first day of kindergarten triggers your imagination to envision a young adult showing up at a work place for the first time, and you craft a scene from that notion and from that remembered feeling. Or perhaps the first day on the job scene is already in your story or novel and the "emotion memory" helps you to feel and depict what the point of view character feels.

One of my works in progress is a novella in which in an early scene a 12 year old boy learns that an unidentified person murdered his mother. Nothing of the sort ever happened to anyone in my family. Part of what went into my drafting of that scene was my memory of feelings of shock, loss, regrets, and grief upon learning, when I was 46 and she was 74, that a stroke had destroyed a large area of my mother's brain, leaving her hemiplegic and aphasic.

Have you been awed by a storm, by the Northern Lights, or by a grand vista of mountain, valley, sea, or starry sky? Have you ever known the joy of victory or the agony of defeat in sports, romantic love, or career? Have you grieved the death of a pet? Raged at being unjustly blamed? Felt on top of the world, like when that girl in grade school whom you secretly liked actually smiled at you? The emotional peaks and valleys of life are very personal. From them memories graphs are made.

Example by the author of a memories graph
Example by the author of a memories graph | Source

Instructions

1. Get a blank sheet of paper. The instructions are based on a standard letter size or A4 size. This is roughly as long as my forearm and as wide as my handspan. A different sized sheet of paper would work as well, I expect. Experiment if you like.

2. To create a grid where each column represents 5 years of your life:

* if you are 20 years old or younger, fold the sheet in half two times;

* if you are 40 years old or younger but over 20, fold the sheet in half three times;

* if you are 80 years old or younger but over 40, fold the sheet in half four times;

* if you are more than 80 years old, fold the sheet in half four times and where in the instructions below I say five year intervals, use ten year intervals.

3. Unfold the sheet of paper and then fold it in half once the long way.

4. Unfold the sheet of paper and then, with a pen, pencil, or marker, draw a line along each crease.

5. Turn the sheet of paper so that the long sides are horizontal to you. Now the sheet will have one line that bisects it the long way and three, seven, or fifteen vertical lines, depending on your age.

6. Near the horizontal line, label the paper's left edge with the next year that ends in 0 or 5 prior to your birth year. For instance, I was born in 1942, so I would write 1940.

7. Label each vertical line plus the right edge with a year counting by fives. For instance, I would write on the vertical lines near the horizontal line 1945, 1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020.

8. On the horizontal line, put a mark of your choice or a B approximately on your birth year and a mark of your choice or a C approximately on the current year.

9. Approximately when each happened, note on the sheet a sampling of more or less half a dozen of the best and worst, most joyous and most heart-wrenching, episodes or incidents in your life. The higher above the horizontal line, the more wonderful the experience was; the lower below the horizontal line, the more awful the experience was.

For instance, for me far down in the awful range would be my experience when I was a young man of getting jilted by my then fiancee. High up in the wonderful range would be my wedding day.

Make these notations quickly and impulsively, there being no need to ponder over each choice. Five minutes will likely be ample time for this step—under ten minutes for steps 1-9. The graph is a use and toss tool for your eyes only; it needn't be pretty or precise.

10. Choose one episode or incident. How you make the choice is up to you. The instructor who taught me urged the workshop class not to dawdle. Choose the one you feel most drawn to at that moment, or make a random choice, or choose one that is heavy on your heart, or choose one that makes your heart and face glow with joy, or whatever. If your choice inclination is a toss-up between two experiences, just pick one of them (maybe toss a coin); you can use the other incident another time.

Interlude

In this video, made a while back for an earlier draft of this article, the instructions are slightly different. There is more than one way to skin a gnat or to make a memories graph.


11. Take time to vividly remember the experience you chose. As best you can, in your memory, mentally see what you saw, hear what you heard, smell what you smelt, touch what you touched then, and most of all feel again the emotions that you felt while that experience was happening.

For instance, I might choose my experience as a high school sophomore of feeling helpless anguish as I watched my father drink himself out of a last-chance job in his then career and into a hospital with delirium tremen, and/or I might choose my experience of feeling pride and admiration as my father got on the Alcoholics Anonymous program, achieved and maintained sobriety, and advanced from selling vacuum cleaners door to door to starting, in partnership with my mother, their own antiquarian book selling business.

12. You could choose to write a memoir essay about the experience you choose, capturing in words what happened, what you felt, and what it meant to you. But for present purposes, we are using the memories graph as a fictional story writing prompt.

As you intensely recall what you felt during one of the emotional highs or lows of your life, imagine a fictional scene (whether on its own as an exercise or a component of a short story, novel, play, or screenplay you are creating) in which the point-of-view character (who may be different in many ways from you) feels the feelings you are recalling, in a situation perhaps quite different from the situation you once experienced.

Like, using my feelings when my father hit bottom as a prompt, I might or might not someday write a story from the perspective of a man whose daughter got in a serious rock climbing accident and got addicted to a painkiller.

13. During this writing stage, I recommend mind-map brainstorming character, situation, and plot possibilities. (To learn about mind mapping, Google on: mind map Buzan.)

Jot or mind-map some notes that you will use in coming hours, days, or weeks to write the scene whose core, prevailing emotion(s) replicate what you felt when a precious to you person died, or when you triumphantly caught that very big fish, or when your darling said yes, or when your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, or whatever the wonderful or awful experience that you have mentally and emotionally relived.

14. Write it. I recommend freewriting the first draft of the scene you have in mind.

Two Videos on Freewriting

The following two videos tell the what, how, and why of freewriting. The instructor in the second video seems to me to have discovered for herself uses of freewriting similar to Natalie Goldberg's "writing practice" teachings in Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind and to what Julia Cameron taught about writing "morning pages" in The Artist's Way.

Poll

This exercise of graphing emotionally strong experiences and then using the evoking of one of those emotions as a freewriting prompt:

See results

Have Confidence in Your Imagination

If you are thinking that nothing good or bad ever happened to you interesting enough to turn into a story, keep in mind that Marcel Proust's A LA Recherche Du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a series of seven novels whose structure of repeated themes and motifs is as beautiful as a symphony, begins with the memory of the exquisite pleasure of eating a madeleine (a small sponge cake) dipped in tea.

Like stepping into Dr. Who's TARDIS, ordinary on the outside but wondrous and vast on the inside, your boundless imagination can be entered with a thought about something quite ordinary and commonplace but for you emotionally significant.

In this online article, "10 Authors Share What Inspired Them To Write Their Books,"
ten authors each tell what inspired the writing of a novel. One author's inspiration was a combination of current news stories and childhood memories of feeling isolated and powerless. Another author, who has always liked to ask hypothetical questions, got her initial idea for a novel when she remembered a teenage incident when she asked her mother, “Would you believe me if I said I was a pregnant virgin?” Another author said about her novel, “It wasn’t a story I really felt equipped to write until the middle of 2014 when I had my heart broken for the first time…The book isn’t really based upon my personal experience, but definitely a lot of the emotions involved inform a lot of the characters' choices.”

Questions & Answers

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      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        9 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        If you remember, Nell, please say in another comment or send me an email. I asked Google but didn't get an answer. I did come upon an interesting YouTube video: "Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories".

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        9 months ago from England

        We used to call it a particular name, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was! Thant was when I went to a few night classes to learn creative writing. I think I came away with the one thought, we write the way we do as individuals, but these are great ideas.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        10 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        And then edit and revise as needed. I look forward, Nikki, to reading the result.

      • nikkikhan10 profile image

        Nikki Khan 

        10 months ago from London

        It seems Very useful hub for writing fiction or non-fiction in freestyle mode.Would give it a go for my next fiction to imagine and shape characters of my story.Then expand it by adding more content and to finish with a good conclusion.

        Thanks for sharing this freestyle writing to get a perfect piece of work.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Good plan, phoenix2327. "Spitting out" the first draft also captures the "first thoughts" raw emotional energy of the writer, according to Natalie Goldberg. [WRITING DOWN THE BONES page 9] It is tricky not to lose that in the revising process.

        The opposite mistake also easily become habitual— that of never getting around to editing first rough drafts. I wonder how many annual NaNoWriMo participants have a drawer full of first drafts of novels waiting to be edited.

      • phoenix2327 profile image

        Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

        2 years ago from United Kingdom

        This is quite timely for me. I'm in the midst of finishing a story I started at my writers' group. The only time I use this method is at the writers' group because we are only allowed a set time to come up with something. No time for backtracking or editing. You shoot from the hip. I find some of my best stuff comes from this. I'm glad I ran across this and I will use this method when I'm at home. I do tend to edit as I go and maybe that's why I don't seem to be getting very far. I need to get used to spitting it out now, make it pretty later.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        I hope you will find it helpful, Glenis.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        I'm glad you like the exercise, Marlene. Experiment to see if it, or some variation on the general idea, works well for you.

      • Glenis Rix profile image

        GlenR 

        3 years ago from UK

        I like the idea of a mind-mapping graph as a tool. I recently wrote a very short account of my childhood in the 50s and need to expand it, so will definitely be preparing a graph soon. Thanks.

      • MarleneB profile image

        Marlene Bertrand 

        3 years ago from USA

        Oh my gosh! This is such a wonderful exercise. I have a lot of trouble letting go and somehow I feel like I could be inspired to do so if I used your graph idea. Thank you for sharing this with us.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Gishanth, what is "cainllg"? A typo? Anyway, I'm glad the change, whatever it was, worked for you. As for writing notes and outlines, I recently starting using Tony Buzan's mind mapping technique and am loving it.

      • profile image

        Gishanth 

        3 years ago

        I like #1 and #2. Years ago, I stopped cainllg my notes outlines. It made a difference in my own willingness to get thoughts on paper. Outlines have such a negative memory from 7th grade english class!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        I hope the technique is useful for you, AliciaC.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Yes, I agree, truthfornow -- at least for the first, rough draft. And I've liked all of Natalie Goldberg's books that I've read so far.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This hub contains some great ideas. I appreciate all the tips and examples, as well as the video. I'll try your technique for free writing. It sounds like it should be very useful!

      • truthfornow profile image

        truthfornow 

        4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

        I like the idea of free writing. The graph exercise is an interesting approach that I hadn't thought of. Wild Mind seems like a cool book. Writers' Block seems to come when we think too much about writing and do too much self-editing. Just let the creative juices flow . . .

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks for commenting, DrBill.

      • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

        William Leverne Smith 

        4 years ago from Hollister, MO

        Well done... I got kind of tired, just reading it... but, I'll bet it works. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks, Faith Reaper. I hope the memories graph exercise is of some help. I see it as an exercise in writing stories with strong positive or negative emotions by recalling the highs and lows in one's own life and how they felt.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        4 years ago from southern USA

        What an interesting method to get those creative juices flowing freely! I found this article very helpful and I look forward to trying this exercise. I need to try something, as I have not published anything in three months, when it was I used to publish at least twice a week.

        Voted up +++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks, Nell. Both actors and fiction/drama writers need to get adept through practice at emoting and expressing the feelings of characters.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        4 years ago from England

        This is really great info, and something we should all do, I tend to write down feelings etc, and when I did a writing course back in the nineties we had to do something similar, nell

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks very much, tobusiness.

      • tobusiness profile image

        Jo Alexis-Hagues 

        4 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

        Brian, this is a very informative and useful article, I'll be keeping it for referencing. Loved the video, I'll certainly try the writing prompt. Nicely done, up and sharing.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks, ChitrangadaSharan. I'm glad you like this hub. I've heard that writing in a diary or journal is good practice for writers. I've started posting journal-type entries to Bubblews.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        4 years ago from New Delhi, India

        Great suggestions!

        I am in the habit of writing in my personal diary. More or less I follow the same ideas in writing there, which you have mentioned here.

        Very interesting ideas, worth following. Thanks and have a good day!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thank you, kerlund74.

      • kerlund74 profile image

        kerlund74 

        4 years ago from Sweden

        I really enjoyed reading this, great idea, sounds like a fun way to keep writing or get started. Voted!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Yes, the subconscious is amazing. And let's each get a story done and out into the world this or next month. Thanks for commenting.

      • Mark Lees profile image

        Mark Lees 

        4 years ago

        I love free writing as an exercise (although I rarely do it, my back catalogue of unfinished stories is full enough as it is).

        Few things help us develop an idea more than letting the subconscious take over and it never ceases to amaze me how the ideas and themes seem to hold together without concious planning.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks for the suggestions, DreamerMeg. I'll find out more about Elbow and Posusta.

        Ever since I read your mind mapping hub article the other day, I start just about everything I write, even this reply, with a mind map. I've started to experiment with mind map fiction free writing. It's amazing.

      • DreamerMeg profile image

        DreamerMeg 

        4 years ago from Northern Ireland

        What an interesting concept. I have never heard of a memories graph before and I will have to try that sometime when I am doing creative writing. I use free writing all the time for academic writing. It is recommended also by those who teach doctoral students, even if you are writing factual stuff. Another good proponent of free writing for creative writers is Peter Elbow and he also has some good ideas for writing this way when you are on a deadline. Also Steven Posusta uses it for students who have a term paper to write. Both interesting writers.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thank you, DDE.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Using a Memories Graph to Choose a Freewriting Prompt to Generate a Story Idea has informative and interesting ideas indeed. A well explained and thought of hub on this unique topic.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thank you, Writer Fox.

      • Writer Fox profile image

        Writer Fox 

        4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

        These are truly interesting ideas for writing prompts. Your personal examples were helpful, too. Enjoyed!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks for clarifying, cygnetbrown. I'm glad to get the verification that these techniques and exercises are worthwhile.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks for commenting, tipoague, and for sharing your experience. You make the case for keeping the tidbits of text produced journaling or freewriting.

      • tlpoague profile image

        Tammy 

        4 years ago from USA

        Great ideas and very helpful. I have been journaling like this since I was in high school. I wished I would have kept all of them, but only have a few from the last ten years. I found that it does help a story line or two when I feel a bit of writer's block and go back to review them. I will have to try out your suggestions here. Thanks for posting them.

      • cygnetbrown profile image

        Cygnet Brown 

        4 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

        I was talking about both B. Leekley. Thanks!

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks, billybuc. Your example inspired me to make the video. My first hub video is crude but a start. I told about that experience in a Facebook post this evening, about my first experience using video editing software. Do you edit your videos? Also your hub on figures of speech inspired me to include several of them, scattered through the text.

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks for commenting, cygnetbrown. By "this" do you mean freewriting in general or do you mean specifically using a strong emotion from one's own past experience as a freewriting prompt? Either way, perhaps you could write a hub about it some time, if you have not already,

      • B. Leekley profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Leekley 

        4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        Thanks, Ericdierker.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Great idea, Brian, and you led by example which helps...and...a video by you. An added bonus for sure. Well done my friend. Have a great weekend.

      • cygnetbrown profile image

        Cygnet Brown 

        4 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

        This is a great way to avoid writer's block and avoid the same old same old story lines. One of my favorite tools!

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Very interesting.

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