Photo by Jim Hilario
Now I’m going to tell you a cautionary tale about a girl whose granny read her palm when she was five and told her she was going to be a writer.
After that, whenever anyone asked her: ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ she’d answer: ‘A writer, of course. What else would I be?’
All the way through primary school and all the way through high school she wrote stories for her teachers, but after she left school she stopped writing completely. For 25 years she told people she was going to be a writer, but she never wrote a thing!
Obviously she found it a bit hard getting started – and yes, OK, it was me.
It took me a very long time to realise that you can’t be a writer unless you write stuff… unless you focus your attention on the ideas in your head, start teasing them out into stories and getting them down on paper.
For me, finding ideas was the hardest part. I had hardly any ideas and those I did have never seemed to lead anywhere. I’d think, “Oh I’ll write a story about a witch,” but I never had anything for the witch to do.
A good idea is a thought that makes you wonder: What if? What then? What next? A good idea is something that you want to explore. It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician with an idea for a melody, an architect with an idea for a building, a baker with an idea for a new cake or a writer with an idea for a story – a good idea is something you want to follow through and make real.
Exploring ideas is one of the most important skills you have to develop as a writer. You have to get into the habit of looking at everything around you as a potential story – the things that happen to you and the people you know, the scraps of dreams you remember when you wake up, the scraps of conversation you overhear on the bus, anything, everything. You have to ask yourself, What if? What then? What next? Is this interesting to me? Does it have the makings of a good story?
Eventually you’ll stumble upon something that tickles your imagination
Let’s break off for a minute and talk about plans, because people say that you should have a plan in your mind when you write a story – and they’re not entirely wrong…
A plan is like a map of a foreign country – a place you’ve never been before. It tells you where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there. It keeps you on the right track and keeps you safe.
I expect your teacher gets you to make a plan before you start writing your stories at school, and that’s a very wise approach. But when I was at school nobody told me I should write a plan….
Plans? I’d never heard of ‘em! So when I sat down to write my first novel, I didn’t have a plan.
Now bad things can happen if you don’t plan your story and good things can happen if you don’t plan your story. I was very lucky. I only discovered the good things. You see, if you don’t plan your story, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. So when I sat down to write, it was really exciting. It was like reading a book, not writing one. From word to word, from page to page, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I couldn’t wait to find out. I was always dashing to the computer to write another bit. I even laughed out loud at my own jokes because I was so surprised by them.
So I didn’t write a plan for my first novel – or for my second novel – and it was brilliant. I really enjoyed writing them. Then I went to talk to some children in a school, and they explained to me that I should write a plan.
And I thought, “How boring! If you know what’s going to happen at the end of your story, where’s the fun in writing it?” Then I sat down to write my third book. I didn’t write a plan and everything went horribly wrong.
Several months later, when I finished writing the book and read it all the way through I realised it was awful. It just didn’t work.
Which brings me to problems. Problems are wonderful things. They tickle people’s imagination. They’re like the engine that makes your story go. So while I agree that plans can be very useful if you’re writing a story, I think problems are even more important.
If I’d thought just a little bit more about my third book before I started writing it (I guess, if I’d made a plan), I would have realised that the story didn’t have a central problem inside it, and so it probably wouldn’t work.
When I was a child, teachers always used to say that every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I always used to think, “Duh! Well obviously!”
But I never understood what they really meant. (I sometimes think that the people who harp on about beginnings, middles and endings don’t know what they mean either!)
When people talk about stories having a beginning, middle and end this is what they mean:
The Beginning (in films they’d call this “the set up”)
Meet Cinderella. She’s got a terrible problem. Her family treat her like dirt. They make her wait on them hand and foot. They keep her in rags. They even make her sleep in the fireplace, for goodness sake! It’s an outrage. No-one can live like that. What’s poor Cinders going to do? Lots of stories start off with this sort of problem – take Roald Dahl’s Matilda, for instance.
Well Cinderella’s a bit pathetic, really. She waits for her fairy godmother to sort things out for her, kit her out in nice clothes, get her to the ball on time… But in most stories the hero or heroine has to sort out their problem for themselves.
The End (this is sometimes called “the resolution”)
All Cinders’ problems are solved. She gets the handsome prince and never has to sleep in the fireplace again. Likewise, Matilda gets to live with Miss Honey.
So… almost every book has the same sort of story… it goes like this:
Here at the start you have your characters, and your characters have a problem. Then away right at the other end of the book the problem is solved (one way or another). In between is the middle bit, the character’s journey through the problem.. That’s what people mean by “beginning, middle and end”. It’s quite simple. It’s all about problems. Why does nobody spell it out?
It’s very important to have a problem in your story for your characters to solve, because that’s what keeps the story moving and that’s what keeps the reader interested.
If you’re reading a book you want to know whether the Famous Five are going to solve the mystery of the spooky lagoon. You want to know if the stolen Dalmatian puppies are going to be turned into Cruella Deville’s fur coat, or if they’re going to be saved. You want to know if the Animals of Farthing Wood are going to find somewhere safe to live.
- Will Lucy, Peter, Susan and Edmund save Narnia from the icy clutches of the White Witch?
- Will Frodo manage to destroy the ring and save Middle Earth?
- Will Lyra uncover the truth behind the Gobblers and rescue Roger?
- Will Elliott be able to help his extraterrestrial friend go home?
These are the sort of questions that drive a story forward, that make stuff happen, that make readers want to turn the next page.
But my third book didn’t have a proper story with a problem that you would care about. I hadn’t planned it. It was just a lot of naughty adventures stuck together, and although it was quite funny, nothing changed in the book. No-one learnt anything about themselves, or found a different way of dealing with the world. No problems were solved. (I rewrote it later. It’s called Scrobbler. You can read it here.)
Consider these questions:
- What would you do if you were a young, inexperienced wizard at a college of magic and had to overcome a powerful evil?
- What would you do if you were a sweet-natured-but-slightly-smug cowboy-toy who was unexpectedly replaced by a blustering big-headed superhero-toy?
- What would happen if a mermaid fell desperately in love with a human prince?
- What might you do if the snowman you made came to life?
- What would you do if you met a robot with a message from a captive princess?
Good ideas ask these sorts of questions and require your characters to think and act. That’s what gets your story on its feet and makes it run.