Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Weekend Writer: First, You Really Ought To Have A Story

Okay, this week we are going to the very beginning of a piece of writing.

We can say all we want about wanting "to be" writers, but in order to write something, we need to have an idea to write about. In my experience, writing is a lot easier if that idea is an idea for a story and not for, say, a situation or a scene, a scene in the sense of a moment you see, not a literary scene.

For instance, you've been reading books with your kids about children being evacuated from London during the Blitz, and you think, Gee, what if alien children were evacuated to Earth because of a war on another world? And what if you saw the alien children playing out on the lawn at night with human children and they all look up at the sky, wondering if the war could find them?

If that's all you've got, that is not a story idea. It's just a situation and a scene. Getting a book from that will be difficult because there is no story there.

This should raise the question, What is a story? Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. There's not a lot of agreement. Some authorities will say that a story is the things that happen in a story. Some will say that plot and story are the same thing, no difference. This is interesting because so many writers have problems with plot. So if you define story as plot, writers have problems with story.

I don't like the plot-is-story definition because plot, along with character, setting, theme, and point of view are all classic elements of fiction, or, I would say, story. How can something be both part of a thing and that thing? It's confusing and unhelpful to me as a writer.

I prefer Rust Hill's definition of a short story. "Something happens to somebody," he says over and over again, and that seems to me a good beginning definition for story, period. "Something happens to somebody." I'd add, "and so what?"

A story can be defined as something happening to somebody and its significance. Thus you know who the story is about, what happens to him or her, and why it is significant. If you know your story to begin with, you'll have a better chance at understanding your theme early on and coming up with plot, characters, setting, and voice should be dramatically easier.

So the story is the beginning.

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