by Dan Moynihan
“DON’T THINK. JUST DRAW.”
That’s what I’ll tell you in one of my collaborative story-making events. That’s our motto as we set forth to create a wild batch of picture book stories in about an hour. There’s no time for self-doubt or self-editing, so just draw, just write, just create. There’s no preparation of ideas, and no plan once we start, but we somehow create amazing stories that are joyful, surprising, and at least partly coherent. We’re not sure where we’re going, but we’ll get there together!
You’ll start off with a blank, 12-page booklet in which to begin a story—just to begin it. It could start with a single sentence or a bit of dialogue. It could start with a character or object in an environment. It doesn’t really matter what it is. The important thing is just to start. Just start moving your pen if you don’t have an idea yet. There’s a lot of power in just starting.
And you don’t need a plan. When you begin the story, you don’t need to know the end of the story yet or even what will happen next. In fact, in this case you can’t know. Because in just a few minutes, you’ll be passing that booklet to the person on the right, who will continue the story that you started.
When you pass that booklet, you let go of your story. It’s in someone else’s hands now, and you have no control over where it will go. But that’s the whole fun of this activity—you get to see the unexpected places that an idea can go. So when you’re working on your own stories, don’t hold on to them too tightly. Don’t be afraid to let them do anything they want to do. Don’t be afraid to explore a possibility just because you don’t know where it will lead.
Just as you passed that booklet to your neighbor, you will receive another booklet. This one already has a story started in it, with characters, setting, and action that someone else created. Now it’s up to you to continue the story.
What will happen next? Again, you don’t need to know the ending or even what happens in two more pages. Just one step in the story.
Despite being limited by the story that someone else started, most people find the second step to be easier and more fun than the first step. With a blank booklet, you had total freedom. But when anything is possible, it might be that nothing feels particularly right. Having something to react against focuses your creativity. That’s why I love writing and drawing prompts. Paradoxically, arbitrary constraints make us more creative.
When I feel stuck on one of my own stories, I imagine that I’m actually in the midst of one of these collaborative picture book events. There is no longer a story that I’m struggling with, but a story that has appeared before me out of nowhere. I’ve got two minutes to come up with the next step in the story—not the whole story, just one step—without thinking at all about where it is leading. I come up with something, and then move on to the next step.
I often find that my imagination will not allow me to see step two until I have taken step one. I try to see the path ahead in my mind, but I can’t. But I don’t get frustrated. I just start drawing, because I know that the story will only take shape through its own process of creation.
Look at that story that you’re stuck on. What would you do if you had to come up with something—anything—for the next step of the story? Forget about plans. Just take one step. Anything is better than nothing. Then repeat. This process might take your story just where it needs to go. Or it might lead you down a cul-de-sac, but it keeps you moving. Just go back and try again. What else could have happened? And then what? Eventually, you’ll find the right path for your story.
Ideas and stories take shape through action. Don’t wait for them to form in your mind. When you don’t know what to do, just keep writing and drawing!
Dan Moynihan is the author-illustrator of HIDING DINOSAURS, which was named a Must-Read Picture Book by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. His comics have appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine and Heeby Jeeby Comix. He also enjoys teaching watercolor painting and illustration classes at Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Dan lives in Boston with his wife Cathy and an orange cat named Butters. Visit him online at danmoynihan.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter
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