A Guide to Writing For Stimulus

Hello and welcome to my TEDxTalk. Not really, but close enough. In this blog post, we’re going to be talking about writing to a stimulus; the challenges it brings, what it really means and how to best approach it. This blog is very much pointed at HSC students, but I think everyone can benefit from the concepts I raise because they’re very simple and put a lot of what writing is into perspective.

One of the most fundamental challenges of writing is knowing what it is. In all honesty, nobody really knows how we do it, just that we, as humans, have a natural tendency to tell stories. They help us empathise with one another and to understand the world around us, to name a few benefits. So what does that mean for a stimulus-based writing activity? Take the creative writing section of the English HSC paper from last year. The question asks to use a statement as a central plot point to a piece of imaginative writing exploring the complex nature of discovery. Which is a broad statement, to say the least. It basically allows the responder to do whatever they want, as long as the discovery is “complex” (which we’ll get to in just a moment). Of the three statements, I can only access one;

“…some visitors to this spot will be conscious that something happened here. And even if that knowledge fades, this spot will still exude a faint charge of uncomprehended – possibly unnoticed – meaning.”

The problem is that this stimulus is deceptive. Even as I look at it, I’m mulling over a few story ideas that match. However, the question wants something complex, which means that the discovery has to be more than, say, the history of this imagined spot. An easy way to do this is to make a twofold discovery; one physical and one emotional. If I were writing a response to this question, knowing what I do now, here’s the basic structure I would use to go about it.

  • Take my protagonist and place them in a situation where they are able to discover this ‘spot’
  • Have them discover the spot, describing it in enough detail to paint the picture. This counts as the first discovery.
  • Under this first discovery, I would incorporate a bit of the quote. For this one, I would do the first part as some kind of recollection from a mentor – it makes sure you’re engaging with the stimulus
  • Next, I would incorporate this discovery into a feeling; why is this spot important to the character? If I was being lazy, I could use the first discovery as a make-out spot, where a female protagonist finds her boyfriend cheating on her. Obviously, this makes an emotional outburst, which is used to engage the audience
  • Finally, I would make this feeling into another discovery. If we use the same example, this could be that the protagonist comes back later and finds a set of names engraved on a tree, with one of them carved out. Or, I could use it as a way of emotional discovery, showing the protagonist a discovery of the problems in the relationship or a way of moving forward. Or I could do both, but in the scope of the HSC, that’s a little ambitious.

Of course, there are plenty of problems wrong with the example I used. It is very cliche, and would probably make for a less interesting story. But you get my drift. My best advice is to think outside of the box. As I rushed that example, more thoughts for it came into my mind. The use of the word spot is very loose, and would at first glance mean somewhere physical to be. But you could do something like a scar, a birthmark or a mole. Technically these are also spots, that can have visitors. My mind is currently trashing around a romantic toilet bowl, so excuse my sappy examples that can easily be turned to romance.

stimulus hsc 2016

What I’m trying to say, though, is ask yourself what the question isn’t asking. When I say think of a pink elephant, what do you do? You think of one. But then what if I ask you how big it is? Or what shade of pink it is? Or what it’s doing? That’s a few too many consecutive questions, which you shouldn’t do in a formal piece of writing unless you want to establish an unstable character voice. But the meaning is still there. When you get a stimulus, don’t be afraid to stretch it. Ask questions about its boundaries, and only stop if you are no longer confident about what the stimulus is.

The other good thing is that all art comes from a stimulus. The stimulus for this blog post was simply that I had to write something, and also I was writing a piece earlier today wallowing in my own sense of romantic loneliness exasperated by the stunning view of the sun setting over Sydney Harbour. Frida Kahlo did stunning paintings based on her life with polio and taking Mexican culture and elevating it to something fantastical. Art is simply the brain iterating the process of the heart and soul, as cliche as that sounds. It isn’t a complex process, but it’s one that can’t be taught because it is so personal. Every experience is different.

So, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll make it extremely simple. When writing from a stimulus, follow your guidelines and your heart. The guidelines are there to tell you what you need to do and what you need to respond to, but you have to trust your heart to come up with the story. Trust me, it will.

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