Don Bosco is a writer who specializes in fiction for teens and children. His stories are inspired by Asian legends and pop culture. In 2015, his Sherlock Hong Adventures series was acquired by Marshall Cavendish for international release. He is a local co-organiser for StoryCode Singapore, which promotes transmedia storytelling across different platforms and formats. He also started the publishing studio Super Cool Books in 2011. His latest book is Imagine All This: How To Write Your Own Stories, published by Marshall Cavendish and available late-2016.
You know how to use your imagination. It’s a natural talent. But perhaps you need a few reminders.
It starts when we’re very young. And it’s the same for all of us.
Imagine your childhood.
As a child, you were extremely good at using your imagination. So were your friends. And when you played together, you basically agreed to imagine the same things. You imagined stories.
Children appreciate fairy tales and folk stories in particular, because these are especially suited for imagining. The story elements are often simple yet vivid. Children quickly learn to use their imagination to bring these stories to life. They imagine the characters, the events, the dangers, the solutions, the feelings that run through each character.
A child judges a story not by how complicated it is, not by what it is about, but by how quickly and vividly and satisfyingly it engages her imagination. Also, how it makes her feel.
Whatever you can imagine, you can write.
There’s a natural process that powers your imagination.
Spiders create webs, birds create nests. Human beings create stories.
Webs, nests, stories. They’re assembled carefully, according to certain rules of nature, and they’re an essential part of our lives.
As we listen to a story, as we imagine it, our brains are kept busy on so many levels. And when a story is really powerful, when it triggers the right neurochemicals in our brains, we can become addicted to it.
As we write a story, we create a bundle of information that will activate the different areas in the reader’s brain, basically the parts that handle our awareness, concentration, language, new information, old information, reasoning, relationships, what our senses experience, and more. All at the same time.
The word “fiction” originally meant something that was created, or thought up. A product of the human imagination. A story. But here’s the interesting thing: once a story is shared, it can feel very real indeed.
Use your imagination in fun and clever ways. Arrange your ideas to create a story experience that will delight your readers.
Ideas are the tiny building blocks of a story. We make up stories by assembling many ideas. An idea is basically something for you to imagine.
When we write a story, we assemble our many ideas over and over in our heads. For a long time. Trying out different combinations and variations. Until it feels right. And then we can write it down or tell it to someone else.
When we write a story, we’re creating a specific sequence of instructions to guide our readers in using their imagination.
We orchestrate the flow of images and feelings that the readers feel.
Sometimes this flow might feel like a powerful flood.
Sometimes a modest gush.
Sometimes just a trickle.
Or even slow drips.
As writers, we must be good at controlling the rhythm of this. Turn it up, turn it down, turn it inside out.
How you describe something is how your reader imagines it.
Visual descriptions are a good way to trigger the imagination. Perhaps the most powerful way.
When you’re describing something that your character sees, you could talk about the size of it, or the shape, or colour, whether it’s hard or soft, perhaps talk about how far away it is, or if it moves and if so whether it’s quick or slow. You could talk about whether it casts shadows or perhaps whether there’s a shadow cast on it.
Sounds are the next best thing. You could describe something as being loud or soft, talk about whether there’s a rhythm to it, whether it sounds like something else, something interesting, and if so what. You could talk about how far or near it sounds, whether it’s loud and distinct or whether it’s low and fuzzy, and so on.
Another powerful way to trigger the imagination is to talk about how something feels. The physical sensations you get when you touch it, or when you’re close enough to feel it on your skin. You could describe whether it feels hot or cold, whether it’s in motion or absolutely still. You could talk about whether you feel an emotional movement coming from it, whether it’s happy or hungry or curious or angry or sad or aggressive or something else.
Sometimes, not so often, you could describe how something smells or tastes. Whether it reminds you of fresh flowers or cigarettes or a particular perfume or some kind of food you used to like when you were much younger or a garbage bag left outside for days or even a particular someone that you’re close to. Whether the smell or taste is strong, or subtle.
Whether it hits you hard, right away, or whether it comes on slowly and takes time to notice.
Imagination is also a kind of false memory.
When you imagine, your brain acts as if you are seeing, hearing, touching or smelling something. Your senses come alive in response to this arousal from within you.
With some practice, you can imagine people and places and events that you’ve never actually encountered in real life. Even then, your body might respond as if you are experiencing it for real.
Also, once you’ve imagined something, you’ll be able to easily recall it later. It becomes a new memory. That’s why stories are so powerful. They leave traces in us that are as real, sometimes more so, than the actual experiences in our lives.
That’s why many people are happy to live in imaginary storyworlds, and never fully engage with their actual surroundings.
We can also trigger the imagination through the power of suggestion. If, for example, I describe a big box, perhaps in the middle of your living room, with a low growling coming from within, and now and then you hear something heavy scratching against the inside, what sort of an animal comes to mind?
What colour is it? How does its face look? How does it react upon seeing you?
You very likely saw flashes of this animal in your imagination. Perhaps you felt your shoulders tense, in response to this. Maybe, for just a quick flash, you actually saw the colour of its fur, the shape of its teeth, the jaws and the claws. Even though all these were never described.
That’s how suggestion works. Describe the outside in a way that inspires your readers to imagine what’s inside.
When someone reads your story, it’s not really your words that they respond to, but the images and feelings triggered by those words.
What you picture in your head, you also feel.
And when you imagine something often enough, even if it’s not true, and you associate it with good feelings, you’ll actually start to believe it.
All this happens so fast that it can sometimes feel like magic.
Your job as a writer is to create a parade of exciting images and feelings inside your reader. Like a movie that plays inside them.