Writing Fiction From a Mental Image

Mathew Gallagher

Writers, and curious readers, often ask: ‘How do you start?’ Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer.

‘With the plot, of course!’

‘No, no, I start with characters.’

‘Actually, I start with research.’

These answers always alienate me, though I can’t deny that the above methods are good starting points. I can’t develop a character or a plot that doesn’t have a world to live in, and likewise I can’t develop a world without an idea to build it from.

So where do I start?

For me, it starts as a mental image. I suppose you could call it a kind of dream. A moment when the chemicals in the brain produce a still image that, as I start to explore, begins to move like a dancer on a music box. The image tends to have a person in it, in a place I don’t recognise.

Then pen begins to move. It’s from those ensuing notes that questions arise. Who was that person? What was their name? Why were they there? From those questions, a world is born, and that world needs answers to its own questions. A plot starts to form, and the character’s place within it. Nations spawn, histories grow, antagonists arise.

A mental image becomes a notebook, and then the notebook becomes a story.

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I’ll give you an example from when I wrote Soul of the Dragon for Nottstopping 2020:

A girl, in a blue and white polka dot dress, pirouetting underneath the skeletal remains of a dragon.

The first question you might ask is ‘why is the girl dancing under a dead dragon?’

Perhaps take a moment to give your own answer to that. What would you have decided upon? (Feel free to tweet me your thoughts @MatGalagaWrites.)

I considered a few options that ultimately revolved around some kind of ritual. In my mind, I watched this character dance as I tried to figure out why; if it was a ritual, what ritual? Looking around at the scene, I noticed that the skeleton that I was imagining was the ribcage, and that the character was like the dragon’s heart, or soul.

Liking the juxtaposition of life and death, I decided that the dance would give life to the dragon. Of course, without the muscles and skin, a dragon can’t move, so I explored the dragon’s sadness as it realises it can’t be again. If that’s the case, then why is the character doing this? From this thinking, I decided that the dragon would instead pass on its life in the form of an egg. Suddenly the piece had the beginnings of a story, had a reason for being told.

Then it is time to fill any gaps (a rather large one in this case: the central character). Daisy-Mae was the name I settled on, though I don’t remember why, and I decided she would be in her early teens, perhaps because I had been watching gymnastics during the Olympics. The dance moves themselves were based around figure-skating, and inspired by that, I made the ground a dewy grass so that the water droplets would mimic the ice that is flung up from the skates.

The piece ended up becoming a personal inspirational metaphor: do something you love, and you’ll give joy to others. I hope that, if you see my reading of Soul of the Dragon, you’ll recognise that message.

If you’re new to writing, my advice to you is this: write how you feel comfortable writing. Ideas come to us differently. The way we develop ideas will be different (you may have read my process and asked, ‘what is this madness?’). But that’s where the beauty of writing lies. If we all wrote the same way about the same things, everything we produced would be predictable and uninteresting. Don’t feel the need to write in the style of those who inspired you – I can’t imagine developing a language system like Tolkien did, for example. And also, don’t feel the need to pigeonhole yourself into one method.

‘Soul of the Dragon’, ‘Glass’ (which is being published as part of the 19-20 MACW student anthology Connections), and my current longform draft, came from the process I’ve explained above. Yet, the piece I’m working on for my dissertation is based on the findings of a research paper.

So perhaps my advice should be much simpler. Don’t worry. The blank page is intimidating but, if you think like a writer, you’ll begin to notice inspiration is all around you. It might come in the form of an image, or in the form of text, or perhaps something altogether more ethereal. The important thing is to write, and to write in the way that works for you.

Mathew Gallagher is a second-year part-time student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.

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