I have already given you my definition of a story –
A story is about someone
dealing with something
that isn’t where it should be.
And you have begun writing the nothing draft of a story. You have two characters who have found something. You have another character (the one in disguise) who is going to reappear next Lesson. Now you need to make something happen.
Here we come to what needs to happen in a story for it to pick up energy. Here’s my suggestion:
A story needs to have one thing go wrong,
then another thing to go more wrong.
Very often, stories which don’t last very long, or don’t feel very complete, run something like this –
A character is having a normal day. She encounters a problem. Somehow, she works out a way to solve the problem. The story ends.
Chaos is allowed out of the box, briefly, then put back in the box.
Now think about this.
A character is having a normal day. She encounters a problem. Using her qualities as a person, she tries to work out a way to solve the problem. But in doing so she creates two new problems. Both the new problems are more serious than the original problem, and both need to to be dealt with immediately. The story continues.
Watch Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Mickey Mouse.
If Mickey was successful the first time he tried to chop the mop up, there would be no story.
Now think about what happens in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Cell One’, the story that was last Lesson’s reading. Think about how things go wrong, and then more wrong, and then even more wrong for the brother. If he didn’t go to jail, it wouldn’t be such a good story. If he didn’t do as he does once in jail, it wouldn’t be a great story.
You must allow your stories to expand, by having things in them go wrong and then more wrong.
The next bit is a very important piece of advice:
Don’t panic if the story seems to be running out of your control. That’s exactly what you want it to do.
Unless a story excites you, it’s unlikely to excite the reader. Very often, the moment in writing the story when you think ‘Oh, crap, that just can’t happen’ is the moment at which the reader will think ‘Oh great, now something’s really happening!’
Write a scene in which your two characters, the child and the grown-up, get in a car. Describe the car in one sentence. Then say how they set off with the something on the back seat. Have them talk about where they are going. Who are they going to meet? What are they going to do with the something?
Then have the car break down. This is the first thing going wrong.
The child and the grown-up disagree about what to do next. They are only a short distance from where they were heading. Do they walk or don’t they?
Have the child and the grown-up start walking along the road. They need to stay on the road. Then you need to invent the second thing that goes wrong – the thing that goes more wrong.
Say what that thing is. Show it vividly to the reader.
When you’ve finished, write the word ‘Driving’ at the top of this page. That’s what we’re calling this scene.
Take as long as you need. Remember to include lots of dialogue. Read back over what you’ve written.
Then scroll down.
Why this day?
The story you are writing is not meant to be a great story, or even a good story. It’s meant to be a useful story.
Perhaps you’ve started to care about the child and the grown-up, but the purpose of you writing about them in this way is to get you writing in a more supple, energetic way.
When you come to write a story of your own, it may be more downbeat. However I suggest that even in stories that apparently have very little action in them, you will find that things go wrong, and wrong again. At the very least, they go beyond the routine.
When you’re writing a story, you always need to be able to answer the question –
Why this day?
Usually the answer is one of two things –
This is the day on which someone’s life changed.
This is the day on which someone’s life might have changed but didn’t.
Stories are about change or the chance of change.
There are exceptions to this but they are usually to do with the writing itself being where the change takes place, or that the change takes place within the reader as they are reading.
Read Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find‘.
Think about the voice the story is being told in. How does that voice treat the characters it is describing? Could any of the characters within the story tell the story as well as the third person narrator?