I am now going to give you a second definition of a story that, I hope, will from now on, forever after, make it easier for you to write stories that don’t just start but that go on through exciting, intensifying middles and reach satisfying, unpredictable ends.
The second definition doesn’t undermine or contradict the first, it depends upon it. A story is still about something or someone in the wrong place. But this is a rather static start point. Much of the time, it may be enough to get you going. The second definition is designed not just to get you going but to get you and your story over the hump – the hump at which they’ve previously stalled and rolled backwards.
The second definition introduces the extra element that I mentioned we needed as well as something, somewhere and someone.
Time, about which there will be lots more useful stuff to say, a little later on.
A story is about something going wrong, and something going more wrong.
By something, I mean an event that normally occurs one way – for example, walking down a flight of stairs or a happy wedding day.
Let’s take both examples.
Walking down a flight of stairs is something that many people can do without consciously thinking about it. In fact, becoming conscious of doing something extremely complicated but habitual, in the middle of doing it, can be very dangerous.
A man walking down a flight of stairs trips and falls. He hits his head, which starts to bleed, and –
We have enough to begin our story.
Let’s say, the man crawls to his front door and calls for help.
The passerby who stops happens to be a burglar, who drags the injured man back into the house, gags and ties him to the stairs, and proceeds to steal his valuables.
We now have enough for our story to continue for some time.
How will the injured man escape? What will the effect of losing all that money be on him? Will the Police catch the burglar? Will the man attempt to track down the burglar himself?
Let’s erase the burglar, however. Let’s not include the thing that goes more wrong because of the first thing that goes wrong.
In this version of the story, which is only the start of a story, the man crawls to his front door and calls for help.
The passerby who stops happens to be a nurse, who takes the injured man to hospital where his head is bandaged and he is kept in under observation for a night.
The next morning the man returns to his house and his life is much the same, although for several months he holds carefully on to the bannister whilst going down the stairs.
This is the panicked version, in which the box is opened but then the action is tidied up and put back in.
Think whether you have written any stories that don’t progress because, looked at in schematic form, they go this way:
Person. Person encounters problem. Person finds way to solve problem. Story ends.
I am suggesting that, from now on, you avoid this too-quick solution.
Rewrite this story as:
Person. Person encounters problem. Person tries to find way to solve problem but, in doing so, creates bigger problem or multiple problems. Person tries to find way to solve bigger problem or multiple problems…
Let’s take the other example. Even though a wedding is not a routine day in most people’s lives, not for the bride and groom, not for the family and friends, but definitely and wearyingly so for the Vicar or Priest or Registrar, the organist, the photographer – though your wedding is not routine for you, it can pass off in a way that is itself entirely routine. It doesn’t, you hope, go wrong enough to become a story.
Let’s say the first thing that goes wrong is that the bride’s limo breaks down on the way to the church. Fine, someone calls a taxi – she gets to the ceremony a little late.
Not a story.
But then let’s say what goes more wrong is that, when the mechanic arrives to fix the limo, he turns out to be a someone the bride recognizes was a boy she was in love with at school.
But if we’re taking my second definition then something more needs to happen. Something’s gone wrong but something needs to go more wrong.
So, rather than get back in the now-repaired limo, the bride climbs up into the cab of the tow truck a drives away with the mechanic.
I am not making any claims for this as a great story idea. Only that, in looking at it closely, you realise the total difference between an account of a wedding day, centred around a happy bride whose wedding passes off without a hitch, and the story of the bride who ran away with the mechanic.
If this happened in reality – the runaway bride – it would be a story that was told and retold.
It would work in the bar. And not just the bar.
Aside: One of my basic tests of a story is whether, if you were on a bus or an underground train, and you could overhear someone telling someone else the story you’re thinking of – would you stay on to hear the end of it? Is it good enough for you to miss your stop?
In this case, that of the runaway bride, I think you would. If it happened years ago, you’d want to know whether the bride and the mechanic were still together. If it happened last week, you’d want to hear about the immediate fallout. How is the groom coping? Has he tried to kill anyone?
MAKE IT WRONGER
Now we come to the unvirgin territory. I began by saying this wasn’t a guide that presumed you were a new writer starting with a blank page or empty document. You have history, and it’s not pretty.
Exercise: Reread your story-start thinking about whether it has what a story needs.
Explanation: What I would like you to do now is look at your recopied in handwriting story-start.
I’d like you to reread it, thinking of the two definitions – A story is about something or someone out of place. A story is about something going wrong, and something going more wrong. – and I’d like you to make a note of who or what you think is out of place. Is someone or something not where they normally are? If so, how quickly did you get them there?
I’d like you to underline every sentence in the story in which something happens which has never happened before in quite the same way.
In my example of the woman who works at the supermarket, first version, nothing would be underlined.
If you have done this, and are now looking at a couple of pages with some sparse underlining toward the end, then this may be your problem. It may be that you feel it’s necessary always to establish your main person or people’s daily routine before you show that routine being broken. And you may be boring yourself so much that you just stop writing. Or, in facing the break from routine, you may find yourself so anxious what might happen that you stop writing.
I would say that, in most cases, it is not necessary to show a person following their routine because, in writing about a break in their routine, the reader will get perfect well what they would otherwise have been doing.
Just the job description, shelf-stacker, will be enough to suggest hours spent in harshly lit canteens and grey back corridors. The reader, by themselves, will do the work of imagining or just assuming the details of the person’s life.
It’s quite possible that the last paragraph doesn’t apply to your story start at all. Perhaps the underlining begins with the very first word. In that case, I’d like you to see if the second definition applies to your story.
A story is about something going wrong, and something going more wrong.
Alongside the first thing that goes wrong, I’d like you to put a small asterisk.
What goes wrong doesn’t count as going wrong if it it has no consequences – throughout the rest of the story. In other words, if something minor happens, being late for a meeting or forgetting someone’s birthday, but that it is dealt with, put back in the box, and the routine has been resumed – as if it never happened – that deserves an asterisk but then you’re going to have to draw a box around the asterisk.
Alongside the second thing that goes wrong, the thing that goes more wrong because of the first thing, I’d like you to put a big asterisk.
If you did, honestly, feel you could put down a big asterisk, well done. You are getting to the point of writing stories that open up, that generate their own story energy.
What I would suspect, because it happens very often, is that the big asterisk is very close to where you got before you put the story aside – never until now to pick it up again.
This may be for any number of reasons, some of which are to do with life-interruptions. But there are possibly reasons within you. Some writers, when they get to the point where things are out of the box, are opening out, panic. They think something like, I have no idea what’s going to happen now. Or, I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to finish this. At this point, they do one of two things – the abandon the story as too scary, or they find some way, within the action, of closing things down as quickly as possible.
Ask yourself: Why did this story not get completed? Was it anxiety that it was going out of my control?
Some writers, conversely, lose interest exactly when they see that things are going their way. They think something like, It’s obvious what’s going to happen now and they put the story aside because completing it doesn’t seem worthwhile, either for them or for any potential reader.
Ask yourself: Why did this story not get completed? Was it boredom that it was too much under my control?
Mr But: Nothing you’ve said has any relevance to me at all. I simply stopped writing the story, at that point, because it no longer seemed to me like a very good idea. I like it to begin with, and pursued it for a while, but when I came to judge it, I found it lacking.
Yes, this is a whole guide about telling stories. Some of the problems writers have with stories are on the level of things going or not going wrong. It may be that we won’t hit on something that strikes home with you until much later. However, it’s also possible that you are overcomplicating your idea of what a story is. In fact, you’re making it too much to do with ideas – and what you want to happen in your story – and too little to do with things and people in wrong and wronger places – and what happens when you follow them in their catastrophic doings.
See you in a while.