Let me tell you something at the outset. I have never received any professional training in writing stories or writing anything for that matter. All I have relied upon to learn the art are some books and guidance available online. Rest of it comes from within.
I firmly believe that everyone has their own process.
If you come across something on the internet which says, “10 steps of becoming an author” or “How to write your bestseller?”, then, in my firm opinion, it is most likely not the only thing which can help you.
What can help you is finding your voice and then following it truthfully. And getting started. I mean, without getting started, without even writing your first story or your first manuscript or you first screenplay, and then putting it out there, how can you even know that it is in fact, what is commonly called a ‘bestseller’?
Now, getting straight to the point – next I will outline some of the methods I follow while writing my own stories.
Trust me when I say this, this is the most time consuming and painful part of the process. Finding an idea, your idea. And it has to be convincing, not for anyone else, but for you as a writer. Because all that effort that you will put in the next steps has to feel justified to you, at every step of the process.
In my opinion, there is no great idea nor is there any original idea (nothing which can singularly come to the human mind). And history is full of examples. The ideas which are considered unique or original are mostly a result of our mistakes, mistakes we commit in the process of finding the idea or finding a solution to a problem we are facing.
To know more about what is an idea or how it originates, I studied the writings of some of the greatest philosophers, including Decartes, Aristotle, Ptolemy etc.
And the single biggest conclusion I came to was that any unique idea seems unique because it is a result of a confluence of many not-so-unique ideas.
For example, when I finally stumbled upon the basic idea behind Pratidwandi, I had already explored two not-so-unique ideas: a story revolving around martial artists and a story set in the backdrop of the revolt of 1857, both of which are already quite common.
But when I mixed the two, I arrived at a unique idea: the story of a band of Indian martial artists fighting the East India Company in the backdrop of the revolt of 1857. Honestly, for me, it was unique enough to convince me to jump right into it.
But how did I even come across the two not-so-unique ideas? That I will cover in the next part.
Unlike how it sounds (very technical, I know :p), research does not necessarily mean that you have to sit in front of your system and read articles or make notes or head to a library and pick up books and start reading. I mean those can also be a part of the process but not a necessary part or not the only part.
Research, in my opinion, is multi-dimensional. It can be conversations, experiences, thoughts, dreams, memories – in fact, it can range from anything and everything. And there is no one answer to “This is how you should research”, nor are there “10 ways to research while writing”.
Honestly, there are no ten or twenty or even a hundred ways of researching. To repeat myself, everyone has their own process.
What is important is – when that idea or that thought or that experience pops up in your mind or happens in front of you, are you ready? Are you ready to observe, absorb and understand?
That is a crucial part of the process. Crucial, again, not necessary. Honestly, I feel I’ve let go of more ideas than I’ve noted and understood. Happens. No pressure. Maybe I shouldn’t have been as drunk as I was when that barfight was happening :p.
What is important is that one should keep trying and the single biggest way, in my opinion, is to stop being judgmental. Stop talking and start listening. Just let go of your ego – become the stupidest person in your own mind and then start observing and just noting (mentally or otherwise) everything happening around you. It can be a person talking loudly on the phone inside the metro or it can even be a cringy Instagram post. You can learn from anything and everything. The mind is a unique thing. You may never know the kind of chemical processes which may get kickstarted when you start observing and absorbing.
Now, coming to specifics, i.e., how I generally research.
I start by first laying out the perimeter – what is my world? What is the time period? Who are my characters and what are they going to represent to my readers? What is the purpose of the story? Where am I heading?
And there were tons of such questions which I asked myself to even know where to start. My research process is simple – first, I research for the purpose of finding very basic ideas – the graphs, the outlines and then, once I have the basics clear, I slowly start world-building. This second process is truly time taking, yet, for me, it was the most fun part of the process. I learnt more about Indian culture, arts and even geography in the four months I spent researching for Pratidwandi than I’d done in the twenty-five odd years of my existence which preceded that. Don’t judge me – I wasn’t the sharpest in school :p.
But I kept trying and I kept exploring. I didn’t think of any idea, any piece of knowledge as redundant or irrelevant. I just observed and tried my best to make the best use of my observations.
If I have lay it out in one sentence – in my opinion, storytelling is a faithful and honest pursuit of knowledge. Honest to oneself and to one’s work. That’s it. The day I understood that, there was no book too big, no hour too late, no place too wrong. I just had to do it. For me and for my potential readers. That, I feel, was my job and my duty.
Finding an idea and researching were honestly the toughest battles I had to fight. Everything else seemed easier or, if I put it honestly, I was mostly driven by my will – if I have come this far, I can make it to the end.
Story and Structure
There are perhaps as many kinds of storytelling as there are species in this world. In fact, the number is infinite. Each day, we are being introduced to a new form of storytelling and we have to humbly accept and acknowledge the structure behind each – be it fiction, non-fiction, documentary, or the more recent ones – storytelling through raps, memes and even reels.
But I will limit this to the kind of storytelling I indulge in or wish to indulge in – fiction proper.
And here, I will delve into a bit of theory. You might wonder why is theory important? Yes, it is a very natural thing to wonder. Even I wondered when I first started. In fact, for the longest time, I ignored all kinds of theoretical structures of storytelling – diving directly into making unconventional documentaries or experimental films, neither of which had a concrete structure, or so I thought (I will come to this in a bit).
Then, why do I talk about structure, when I ignored it at first? Because structure is important.
Because one shouldn’t end up with the hero charging towards the villain with a sword in the tenth chapter and not knowing what will happen next. And trust me, that has happened to me in the past. According to me, one should know what will happen next even before the introduction of the hero in the first chapter.
But by structure I don’t mean that I became rigid. That I didn’t stray or ‘wander’. In fact, wandering is one of the most beautiful aspects of storytelling. It’s what makes it different from any other act – the freedom to wander. Now, onto some theory.
There are different kinds of structures. But at the root, at the base of them all – is the basic three act structure: the beginning (setup), the middle (confrontation) and the end (resolution). It is there in all forms of storytelling – at least, those coherent to the human mind. That is because of two very important reasons according to me: one, it is very similar to the kinds of struggles we face in our very own lives, and second, it is the structure followed in one of the first kinds of storytelling we came across, as humans: mythology.
Enough of theory. For a deeper and better understanding, I would personally recommend the Bible, the Magna Carta, the Gita of storytelling: Poetics by Aristotle. While writing, I always keep a copy by my side, along with a host of my most revered inspirations. Inspirations, is what I will talk about next.
This is very important, and it is very personal. It is the most beautiful part of storytelling: you get to set your own goals in terms of who you are and what you and your story will mean to the world.
Your inspiration is yours alone.
And I keep my inspirations close to me, at all times. I keep my heroes close and my villains closer :p.
But it’s not just about heroes or villains or your favorite films or your favorite writers. It is about everything. It is about who you are and what has brought you here – to your first blank page.
The bedrock of art is truth, I feel. So, it doesn’t matter if you like something which nobody around you likes, be it the cringiest music video! What matters it that you accept it and have the courage to say it out loud! Or write, as the case maybe. Always always be truthful.
That, in my firm opinion, is what the world is looking for: the real you.
Taking this as the rule of thumb, it became very easy for me to place my inspirations and openly use them and talk and write about them, without judging myself.
On a lighter note, one of the most intense scenes in Pratidwandi was inspired from one of my favorite episodes of the children’s show: Noddy! There, I said it. And I think that is all one needs to get started.
I think the main process of writing is very subjective. Some start early, some start late, some don’t start at all. But it is important to make a start. You owe it to yourself, to your idea and to the story or the characters which you will bring to life.
You may want to lay the base first or you may want to just jump in and keep building as you go. As I said, it is subjective and personal. What matters is that you believe in yourself and your idea – because, in the beginning, you are your biggest cheerleader, and the biggest critic – so get STARTED!
While concluding, I would just like to say that the biggest obstacle to getting started and for taking up the courageous act of storytelling is fear. Fear of the consequences, fear of realising the truth about yourself as you go along and fear of not getting to the end.
And I faced all those fears and many more when I first switched on my dusty old laptop, opened MS Word and had a complete blank sheet of paper in front of my eyes. I just sat there for a good ten minutes till a friend asked me, “Are you sleeping with your eyes open?”
Something triggered inside of me and I wrote the first line of Pratidwandi ever written:
“The Indian was slowly waking up to the realities of the British rule.”
That’s how it all started for me. And the rest, as they say, is history.