Last month we talked about the trap that unsuspecting writers are encouraged to walk right into, nay wholeheartedly embrace, from Kindergarten on. And that is: to come up with a “premise” that is out of the ordinary – think: Jane woke up one morning to discover she’s an alien – and then begin writing a story to see what happens.
And hey, that is pretty dramatic, right? Lots of things might happen. So many things that instead of being liberating, it’s paralyzing. Especially since neutral “what ifs” like this lack the elements that every compelling story needs. For instance, conflict. Where’s the specific problem? What will Jane have to struggle with? What difference will it make to her? What hard choice will it force her to make? What’s the point? We have no clue. Jane being an alien is just something decidedly odd, and ultimately, totally random. Read: meaningless.
And here’s the harder-to-see, and even more deceptively damaging fact: it’s an utterly surface problem. It’s just a [pullquote]Stories aren’t about the things that happen in them — the plot; stories are about what those things force the protagonist to struggle with, and what they force her to overcome internally in the process.[/pullquote]plot, not a story.
Point being: stories aren’t about the things that happen in them, that is, the plot; stories are about what those things force the protagonist to struggle with, and what they force her to overcome internally in the process. These are things that pre-date the plot. By a long shot. They are also things that the plot itself is then constructed to force the protagonist to deal with – often kicking and screaming.
Story is internal, not external — which is one of the many reasons why stories that only focus on external events (the plot) never work, and why starting with story structure books — from the Hero’s Journey on – will always lead you astray. Why? Because they focus first and foremost on the plot – certain external things that have to happen by page so-and-so. The truth is, story structure is born of a story well told. Tell your story well and the very structure they’re suggesting will be there. Can you then use story structure models to tweak it? Sure — why not! But if you focus on the structure first (again, the plot), all you’ll have is a bunch of things that happen.
But what about those poor unsuspecting elementary school kids in New Jersey?
Sheesh, I have to admit, even having a story structure model would have helped. Because the story prompts they were given to write from didn’t suggest any story or any structure whatsoever. In fact, they didn’t suggest anything other than the reaction: Wow, that’s weird! Think magic lamps, castles appearing out of thin air, space ships landing and finding a big box on your desk, opening it and inside is . . . you get the picture.
So with state mandated tests looming, the question was: how could the kids take a sucky problem-less prompt and insert a problem, so they have something to actually write about? And, even better, how could they walk into the test knowing the heart of the story they’d write, even though they wouldn’t know what the actual prompt was until they got it?
This sounds like an impossible dilemma, doesn’t it? I mean, how could you pick a specific problem with absolutely no idea what the prompt might be – especially given how outlandish so many of the prompts are? I’m here to say that it’s entirely possible, and it’s something that can help us adult writers, too, especially since it’s damn hard to unlearn something you’ve inadvertently internalized since you were five. Plus, it highlights what a story actually is, and offers a simple strategy for pinning down your story before you leap into your plot.
Here’s what we told the kids . . .
The first thing to do is to decide what point you want your story to make, because the point will tell you exactly what kind of problem your story will be about. For instance, here’s an example of several simple points:
- Friends stick together when times are tough.
- Believe in yourself even when others don’t.
- Think about how others will feel before you act.
All these points suggest a very specific problem. To wit:
- A group of friends will struggle with a tough problem that will make them not want to stick together (hello, [pullquote]The abstract, the general, the conceptual, is the enemy of story and the very thing that paralyzes writers.[/pullquote]conflict!), but they’ll ultimately realize the benefit of sticking together in order to solve the problem.
- A character will want to do something hard, but have to face a bunch of people who don’t think she can do it, and will struggle to muster the inner strength to believe in herself and do it anyway.
- A character will really want to do something that might hurt someone else, and have to struggle with whether or not to do it.
Problems galore! Conflict all over the place! The chance to learn and grow, present and accounted for! In other words, the seeds of story. But, they’re still kind of abstract – that is, general – and abstract is the enemy of story and the very thing that paralyzes writers. The trick is to move from your abstract point to a concrete and specific example.
And then we gave them an example . . .
In order to help the kids learn how to do this, we presented a step-by-step example. First, we picked the point: Think about how others will feel before you act. And then we unleashed the prompt on them. Heartbreakingly, this is an actual 3rd grade prompt from the 2011 New Jersey ASK mandated annual statewide test:
- 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.
Ouch, talk about bland! There is no problem, and thus no struggle, no solution, no point. It’s just something unusual that happened. Big deal. Here’s the kind of “writing” this type of prompt had prompted in the past:
Jay was in the garden helping his mom plant vegetables. He saw something move in the bushes near him. It was a sparrow, it chased a worm that tried to wriggle away like a pink baby hamster burrowing into wood shavings. But the bird caught it, and swirled it down its throat like my brother eating spaghetti. Then the sparrow leapt into the air, its wide wings glistening in the sunlight as it took flight. (BTW, pretty writing and use of “figurative language” are taught. And valued far above story content. Kinda like most MFA programs.)
So anyway, back to the lesson . . .
Given our point (think how others will feel before you act), we already know that Jay, who is the main character, would [pullquote]The plot begins to rise and take shape based on the protagonist’s internal struggle.[/pullquote]probably be considering doing something that might upset someone else.
Who might he upset? That’s easy: his mom, since she’s part of the prompt. Then it was time to do a bit of pre-writing, to nail down the specifics of the story. The first question was: What will the plot-problem actually be?
It probably has to do with that thing rustling in the bushes. What if it’s a snake (a garter snake, but still), and the problem is Jay’s mom is utterly, totally terrified of snakes. Now, keep in mind that we still don’t have the actual story-problem yet, but we’re getting there. What this gives us is the external plot-problem: There’s a snake in the garden, and Jay’s mom is in harm’s way. What should Jay do?
Great! Now, what’s Jay’s inner struggle; that is the story-problem? He looks at the snake and he knows it’s harmless, so wouldn’t it be funny if he played a trick on his mom? Like, say, picking it up and scaring her with it? Sure she’d scream, but it’s not like she’d get hurt or anything. (Note: see how the plot begins to bloom out of Jay’s internal struggle?)
Okay, that’s one side of the struggle, what’s the other?
Why wouldn’t Jay want to scare his mom? At that point one eager little boy who couldn’t wait to be called on, yelled, [pullquote]Unless we know Jay’s specific backstory, how can we know how he will react to anything, or what specific memories he’ll use in order to decode the present, and decide what to do? We won’t![/pullquote]“Because he loves her!” Indeed.
But . . . Jay decides to scare her anyway. He bends down and goes into the bushes, but it’s dark in there, and he feels a kind of scared. He remembers that when he was a little kid, he told his mom he was afraid of the dark. And did she hide in his closet, then just as he was falling asleep, leap out and yell “BOO!”? No! She gave him a nightlight, and he’s been okay ever since. (Ah yes, unless we know Jay’s specific backstory, how can we know how he will react to anything, or what specific memories he’ll use in order to decode the present, and decide what to do? We won’t!)
So Jay decides not to scare her. Why?
Because he knows how bad he would have felt if she’d done that to him, and he doesn’t want to make her feel that way. But there’s still the problem of the snake. And the way the bushes are rustling, it sounds as if it’s heading straight for his mom.
His solution? He yells, “Mom, is that your phone ringing? I think you left it in the kitchen again.” And when she goes to get the phone, he quickly picks up the snake and tosses it over the fence. The end!
The kids loved it. We’d taken a bland, story-less “thing that happened” and turned it into a compelling story.
And here’s the best thing that happened. Right after that we had them try it. First they picked a point, and then we gave them a prompt. A real stinker. The amazing thing was that as we looked out over the classroom, rather than seeing the usual sea of panicking kids, just about all of them were bent over their desks, busy writing.
To recap, here’s the takeaway for us big kids who are not hurriedly scribbling stories based on sucky third-grade test prompts:
1.) Know your story’s point from the get-go.[pullquote]Story is about an internal change in the protagonist, that then causes an external change in the plot.[/pullquote]
2.) Devise a specific situation that will force a specific character to have a specific internal struggle.
3.) Know the specific backstory that will steer the character’s internal struggle, providing the yardstick by which she will gauge the meaning of what happens, driving her action.
4.) Devise a plot to put that character’s inner struggle to the test.
5.) Resolve the plot problem based on what the situation has compelled the character to learn, internally.
The biggest takeaway of all is this: Story is about an internal change in the protagonist, that then causes an external change in the plot. First comes the story, next comes the plot, and and — and only then — the beautiful writing. That’s when the story actually can leap into the air, its wide wings glistening in the sunlight, and take flight.