Release the balloons!!
This is the very first installment in my new Writes & Wrongs column, where every Wednesday we talk about all things related to the craft and business of storytelling.
I’m ridiculously excited about this new feature on my blog. Not only will I be posting columns about writing, but at least once each month (maybe more!) I’ll be posting a video interview between me and another author or screenwriter or industry professional. I’ve got an awesome lineup of guests I can’t wait for you to meet!
This column is for all levels of writers, though some topics will be more geared to writers just starting out on their journey, and others will resonate more with writers who are looking at taking a deep dive into craft and theory.
The ideas in these columns are my own, though at times I’ll direct you to outside resources—and there are a lot. If you’re like me, you like to really dig into All Things Craft where writing and storytelling is concerned. (Did you see how I did that? I subtly pointed out that writing and storytelling are not the same thing. Yeah, we’ll definitely be exploring that topic).
First, a bit of housekeeping:
If you would like to submit a question for this column and/or sign up for my upcoming Writes & Wrongs newsletter, just follow this link: bit.ly/JK-WritingWed
And be sure to subscribe to the blog using the button in the sidebar–and use the share buttons at the bottom of each post to let other writers know about the column!
Today, I thought we’d start with an excellent question that was submitted through the form by a number of different people:
Dear Anonymous –
Great question. And not only because it’s one that so many beginning writers have, but also because it shows an understanding of a deeper truth—first, that not every scenario that pops into your head has the makings of a compelling story; and second, that there are objective ways to determine which of your ideas is best positioned to be transformed into a great story.
To illustrate the first point, let me tell you a story (a quick one, I promise!). I love to travel, and after I graduated law school, I did the backpacking through Europe thing for seven weeks by myself. Or mostly by myself. A guy from New Zealand who I’d met in the States and gone out with a few times was going to be in London during my time in Europe, and I’d timed my trip to meet up with him for a few days.
Now, during my jaunt through the UK, France, Italy, Austria, Scotland, Germany, and Belgium, I had a lot of adventures, as a twenty-two year old will. Funny things happened. Scary things happened. I learned stuff. I got lost. I ate good food.
I was there for seven weeks, right?
That’s me a zillion years ago in Stratford-on-Avon. Mr. NewZ took the pic. (I’m thinking Kate from my Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom books would appreciate those weapons!)
And yet, when folks ask me to tell them about the trip, do I tell them about how much I enjoyed riding in the bus on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg? Or about finding a great leather briefcase for my new legal career at an open air market in Florence? Or any of the other fine times I had?
Well, okay, yes, I usually do tell them all those tales eventually …. but I lead with this story:
There I am in London with Mr. NewZ, and it’s great because I’m young and we were dating and all was well with the world. We go one morning to a little pub in Earl’s Court in London (which I think now may be a fine place to live, but at the time was dodgy—this was Europe on under $10/day, remember). While we’re eating our very British breakfast, we’re also talking about how we’re going to get to Scotland, because our plan was to visit Edinburgh and then head up into the Highlands.
An elderly man overhears us. He’s a tour bus driver with a group of senior citizens and they are leaving in about an hour to go up to Edinburgh and then on to Glasgow. There are a few empty seats on the bus, and if we want, he’ll ask his boss if we can tag along for sixty pounds each—a bargain! (OK, it may have been sixty total. My memory fades…)
At any rate, Mr. NewZ is keen on the idea, though I’m a little hesitant. But I end up caving, and we follow Mr. Driver a few blocks to a travel agency storefront. He tells us to wait outside, but takes our bills so that he can show his boss we’re serious. He’ll get our vouchers and then we three will walk back to the little pub where Mr. NewZ and I will stand with the seniors while Mr. Driver goes and gets the bus.
Are your antennae tingling? Ours weren’t, and because we were, ah, naive, Mr. Driver walked into the agency, out through a back door, and we never saw him again.
Trust me when I say that this put a serious crimp in our pocketbooks—and for the first day of our journey north, it put a bit of a crimp on the romancey side of things, too. (We ended up renting a car.) But, hey, we were young and got over it.
(And though I do write romance, that is not where this story is going…)
The point is that the London Swindle Story is the one I tell when I talk about that trip, even now, decades later. Why?
Because there was conflict. Mr. NewZ and me, as we argued about the deal and then griped to each other after the fact. The swindle itself. The elderly man who so cleverly eavesdropped and pulled a con on us. Every point on the chronology of that story has some bit straining against it, that if it had shifted just slightly could have made it worse or better.
Is my finding a great briefcase a bad anecdote? No. But it’s not a great story. (Add in the fact that I had to literally strap it to the outside of my backpack because the post offices in Italy were closed because it was August and I couldn’t ship it home until I got to France, and the story gets better. Because — conflict. Man v. Nature. Or, in that case, Woman v. Briefcase.)
Great story, JK, but can you drill down on the takeaway?
I’m glad you asked, because yes, I can. The bottom line is that conflict is the driving force in a story. It is what your protagonist is striving against as they try to reach their goal.
We’re going to go into conflict more deeply as we go along (goals, too), but just remember that while a life without conflict can be very pleasant, a story without conflict will bore the stuffing out of you. Why? Because when you get right down to it, nothing is happening.
You want a conflict-free weekend so you can relax. You want a conflict-full story so that you keep turning the page like mad, eager to learn what comes next.
So, Anonymous Writer, you may have a dozen or more story kernels floating around in your head, but if you’re looking to pick the two or three that have real story potential, start with the kernels that have some sort of inherent conflict built in.
Think of conflict as the fuel that is driving your story car, and try to start the process with as much in the tank as possible.
We’ll more fully examine the nature of story conflict and other topics in the weeks to come. In the meantime, for those of you aspiring to write a story for the first time, think about your various ideas and pick a few that seem the most ripe to be developed.
If you’re already deep into a story, but have found yourself stuck, sit back and look at your scenes and try to think of ways to add conflict. Once you do, you’ll most likely find that the words start to flow once again.
Questions? Add them to the comments for this post.
Until next week …