“And then what happened?” redux

It irks me to see a rant at the top of my page, so I’m reposting something I wrote back in May, edited and expanded a bit.  With so many people I know participating in NaNoWriMo, and a lot of new followers since then, I thought I’d repost it because it deals with one of the key components of storytelling and one that, strangely, a lot of writers seem to lose sight of. Plot.  Thanks, Claire, for mentioning that this column had helped you! I hope it might help a few others.

I will not be participating in NaNo. I wish you all luck, but I just finished the first draft for the third Elementals book, I’m starting on Book Four, and I’m starting promotion for Book Two, which will be out the beginning of December. *phew* Yeah, all that and a giant Hunter family Thanksgiving extravaganza? NaNo ain’t gonna happen, folks. But I wish you luck! I’m looking forward to hearing about your progress and reading your pieces when you put them online or (eventually) publish!

So, without further ado, let me ask you a question:

“And then what happened?”

 “And then Jack Sparrow killed the sea monster! The one making the bubbles under the water.”

“How’d he kill it?”

“With his sword.”

 “And then?”

 “That was all. He sailed away in his boat. He had things to do.”

 “That’s it?”

 “Yep.”

 “Good story.”

 “Thanks, Mom.”

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of asking my son to tell me a story at bedtime instead of the other way round. I have to say, for someone who’s still learning to read, he tells a pretty good tale.

But isn’t that the point? People have been telling stories long before we started writing them down. Storytelling is an essential part of the human experience.  Books are just one way of telling stories. We tell them through film, photography, music, and so many other mediums.

The point is the story.

“And then what happened?”

It’s the universal question with infinite answers. When I was studying linguistics, we studied animal communication of many sorts; but while animals may communicate, only human beings have the capacity for creative language. Whale sounds are beautiful and evocative, but there is no epic whale poetry. Bumblebees can communicate the exact location of a pollen source to their hive, but they can’t tell you this funny story about their brother-in-law.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything.

How much time do you spend on your story? Have you fallen in love with a character or a turn of phrase, but don’t really know what to do with either? Do you have an intricately drawn setting, but aren’t sure exactly what’s going to happen there?

One thing that a lot of writers don’t do (but should) is timeline.  Just write out a calendar for your story and then think.  Is it logical for the characters that met a month ago to already be in love?  Maybe it is, within the context of your story.  What action is happening to drive the plot forward?  Are you dropping early hints about the conflict that keep your tension levels high?  If you’re not, readers may lose interest.

Do you view your chapters as small stories within themselves?  How about individual scenes?  Remember, the point is to keep people reading.  Every time they get to a stopping point (a scene break, a chapter break) you want them to keep turning that page because they just have to know…

“And then what happened?”

My son asked me this question for years at bedtime, and now I’m the one asking it. I ask him. I ask myself when I sit down to write. I ask my friends when they send me a great story I want to read more of. It’s all about the story.

When was the last time you read a beautiful piece of writing, but lost interest when the story wasn’t compelling? What will you put up with from a piece of writing if you get hooked on the plot?

Thanks for reading,

Elizabeth

(reposted from a column in May, 2011)

Posted in Fiction, Kids, Life, Writing and tagged , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. This has been a very useful piece of advice both for NANO and for my writing in general, ‘and then what happened?’ well XYZ did this, this, this and this. The light dawns and I’m off again. Thanks for re-posting.

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