I’m often asked, “What’s the biggest mistake writers make?” The answer is simple: they don’t know what a story is. So instead they write about a bunch of big, eventful, unusual things that happen. And so although they may indeed devise a fascinating protagonist, spin an interesting set-up and write beautiful sentences, their story will still be completely uninvolving. Because while big, unusual, eventful things do happen in a story, they are not what the story is about.
I’ve always wondered where, exactly, this widespread mistaken notion came from in the first place, and I just stumbled on the answer. As I’ve mentioned before, this year I had the privilege of helping a small maverick school district in New Jersey incorporate story into their writing program.[pullquote]While big, unusual, eventful things do happen in a story, they are not what the story is about.[/pullquote]
What I learned from working with the incredibly dedicated teachers, the curriculum, and the state mandated tests is that the “story is a bunch of big, eventful, unusual things that happen” idea is firmly planted in kindergarten and nourished from there on out — which is why it can be so damned hard to uproot. It’s at the foundation of how narrative writing is taught, and a major reason why so many kids (not to mention former kids) hate writing. And, for those of us former kids who love to write, it’s a major reason our manuscripts fail.
So let’s revisit elementary school for a glimpse of how our well-meaning but often misinformed teachers may have accidentally planted beliefs that have hampered our writing ever since.
Here’s what happens: Imagine you’re in the third grade. This is your fourth year of learning how to write a story. Your teacher tells you it’s time to do some writing. You get out your notebook, pick up your pencil, and wait for the prompt.[pullquote]Here’s a counterintuitive fact: the prospect of endless possibility isn’t freeing, it’s paralyzing.[/pullquote]
Here are a few paraphrased actual prompts, given in actual state-wide testing in New Jersey:
- You’re walking along the beach and you find a bottle with a message in it, write a story about what it says and what you do.
- A child wakes up and there’s a castle in the backyard, the child hears a strange sound coming from inside, someone is living there, write a story about what the child does next.
- One afternoon, Jay was helping his mother plant vegetables in the garden when he saw something move in the bushes. He turned to see what had caught his attention and was surprised to see . . . write a story about it.
Unusual, often dramatic, events, right? Out of the blue. Surprising! And, ultimately, boring. Not to mention debilitating to the writer, whether 8 or 80. Why? Because they’re utterly random – and pointless. You could use them as a starting point to write absolutely anything. Which should be liberating, right? You can unleash your creativity and see where it takes you.
But here’s a counterintuitive fact: the prospect of endless possibility isn’t freeing, it’s paralyzing. So the fact that kids tend to either freeze in the face of such prompts, or write a long series of equally random, pointless events, isn’t their fault. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their talent or creativity. The trouble is with the prompts themselves. Why?
Because the prompts offer no conflict, no struggle, nothing to solve, no reason why anything matters to the protagonist – or to anyone else, for that matter. In other words the, ahem, problem with these prompts is that there’s no problem.
And so they offer no help when it comes to then writing a real story. The result, instead, is that kids write about a bunch of big, dramatic – and equally [pullquote] Ditching the “dramatic, surprising thing with a beginning middle and end” template and adopting the “character, problem, struggle, solution” template, changed everything and allowed the kids to tap into what a story really is.[/pullquote]pointless — things that happen. It’s their earnest effort to make something out of nothing. It’s a valiant attempt to be sure, but it doesn’t work.
Without a clear problem to solve, there is no story. Period. Story is about struggle that leads to change.
To make matters worse for the kids, teachers are instructed to teach an “official” story sequencing template that’s used far and wide in creative writing curriculum: “first, then, next, last.” Another version of this template is “beginning, middle, end.” These are generic, empty, useless guidelines that teach us exactly nothing about story or life or anything else, really. I mean, a root canal has a beginning, middle and end. A traffic jam. A lemon tree. Wars. Cultural movements. Political campaigns. Is there anything in the world that doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end, Zeno’s paradox notwithstanding?
Just because something has a beginning, middle and end does not make it a story. First, then, next, last does not engage us, and is not going to make us cry or laugh or experience what it feels like to suffer or survive or overcome great challenges – which is exactly what an effective story does. The only thing “first, [pullquote] We heard things like one seven year old saying to another, “I like your story, but what’s your character struggling with? Plus, she doesn’t change at the end.[/pullquote]then, next, last” makes us feel is bored.
So in that maverick school in New Jersey we kicked it to the curb and gave the kids a different story template: character, problem, struggle, solution.
It goes like this: Choose a character, give them a tough problem that they’d really rather not solve, force them to struggle with what to do in the hardest possible way, and allow them to find a solution that means something in particular to them, forcing them to change.
Might sound obvious, but it wasn’t. They’d never even taught that story is about solving a problem. The results were amazing. Ditching the “dramatic, surprising thing with a beginning middle and end” template and adopting the “character, problem, struggle, solution” template, changed everything and allowed the kids to tap into what a story really is.
The kids totally got it. We heard things like one seven year old saying to another, “I like your story, but what’s your character struggling with? Plus, she doesn’t change at the end.”
And, as one seven year old said to her ten year old brother, “Good story, but where’s the DUM, DUM, DUM?”
“Huh?” he asked.
“You know,” she said, “The place where you go, How’s he going to get out of that?”
That’s one of the best descriptions of a story climax I’ve ever heard. Out of the mouths of babes, right?
But theory is one thing. With state-mandated testing looming, and a boatload of those terrible prompts coming, what the kids needed was a concrete strategy so they could walk into that test feeling confident, knowing they could turn any sucky problem-less prompt the state threw at them into an actual story. Next month that’s exactly what we’ll talk about. ‘Cause guess what? The strategy we gave the kids works for the kind of test that adult writers face every day: the blank page.
And on a whole other note . . .
. . . in the happy ending department, my TEDx Talk, which I wrote about last month, was posted on YouTube this week, and I was insanely relieved to discover that they did indeed edit out my mortifying flub. Yes!