I thought I’d share some of what I know about storytelling, since I seem to be good enough at it to land a book deal. At least one book deal, anyway.
I’ve had many people tell me they want to be authors, that they think they have a story to tell, but they don’t really know where to start. I usually smile and nod and give them some sort of platitude like ‘start anywhere, you need to learn by doing.’ But that’s really just me being polite, most people who tell me something like that aren’t ready to write. They might be ready to think about writing, but that’s not the same thing as writing, not by a longshot.
Everyone knows where to start a story. At the beginning. If you have trouble with that concept, sit down with a five-year-old and tell her a story. She understands how it goes, and she’ll correct you when you get it wrong. You start at the beginning, work your way through the middle, and finish up with the end. Easy peasy. Yet, somehow, when you’re an adult, you forget all the very, very basic storytelling structure you knew by heart when you were five.
So here it is, the breakdown of the story parts:
The Beginning – this is the bit where you introduce your characters, the world they live in, and the problems they’re likely to face. ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a poor but happy kingdom, across the lake from a family of ogres.’
The End – this is the bit where you wrap up the tale you just told, giving everything a conclusion, though not necessarily a happy one. ‘And the princess realized that, despite her best efforts, she had been as cruel and hateful as she supposed the ogres were. She resolved to be better, and to listen first, instead of reacting.’
Everyone has the beginning of a story. Literally, everyone. Ask a random stranger on the street if they have a story they’d like to tell and you will get an answer every time, and that answer will be the set-up. The beginning. Many times, though not always, people also have an ending to their story, even if that ending is ‘it was all just a dream’ (my father pitched me a story with this ending once. I’m not joking).
The Middle – this is your story. All of it. The ups, the downs, the betrayals, the sacrifices, the twists, the red herrings, the daring deeds, and the vile crimes. How did the princess come to the realization that, perhaps, she wasn’t as pure and noble as she imagined? That’s the story. What did the ogres think of her and her actions? That’s the story.
No one has a middle to their story. Literally, no one. Unless you’re a writer, because writers realize the meat of the story, the most delicious bits, come in the middle. Everything you remember about a story happened in the middle. In the Watergate story, the break-in has already happened, before the action begins and off-screen. What people remember is the revelation of the break-in, and the slow unwinding of the truth, all the way back to the White House. The story is the investigation, and how all the bits come together. If you took that story linearly, it would be a boring procedural, maybe a court record. The drama comes in gathering the pieces. The middle.
Think of the three parts of a story this way, with font size indicating the importance of the part and effort you should put into writing it:
Remember that everyone has the beginning of a story, many people have an end, but a writer – a real writer – spends her time on the middle.
More in a later post.