Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shaping Your Story

In my career, I've been taught four lessons that have served me well. Today I'm going to discuss two of them, holding the other two in reserve. How many lessons can my beloved slowly gained readership take in one day, after all.

Back to today's two lessons. The first came from an editor I worked with on my book The Year Without Michael. She taught me the following:

Start your stories as close to the middle of the action as possible.

Impressive looking, isn't it. And kind of basic. But it was something I needed to be taught, since my manuscripts tended to start with lengthy expositions of how it was my characters happened to be where they were before the action ever started.

If there were money to be earned writing case histories, I would have been a happy person.

To feed the Google Alert monster, I'm going to demonstrate how to start stories with Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone.

With LAWKI, I had decided to violate the Start The Stories rule just a bit, because I felt it was important for the readers to see Miranda's world before things turned upside down. While my editor didn't disagree, she did make me cut the beginning section. In spite of her editing and mine, I have read criticisms that the beginning drags a bit. Bad, wicked criticisms, but criticisms just the same.

Still, I knew the beginning had to have a grabber first sentence, and I decided on:

Lisa is pregnant.

That way the readers get to wonder who Lisa is and why it's important that she's pregnant. It also leads to a snapshot of Miranda's family. Lisa's pregnancy is big enough news that Miranda can think about her father, stepmother, mother and two brothers, all in the opening diary entry. So even though I didn't start as close to the middle of the action as I could have, the beginning accomplished what I needed it to. And it's definitely better than ten pages of Complete Family History with charts and x-rays.

the dead & the gone on the other hand starts very close to the middle of the action:

At the moment when life as he had known it changed forever, Alex Morales was behind the counter at Joey's Pizza, slicing a spinach pesto pie into eight roughly equal pieces.

I love this opening sentence, in no small part because of all the information it conveys. Something huge is about to happen in the life of Alex Morales, a boy old enough to be working at a pizza parlor. He probably isn't rich, because he's working at the pizza parlor, not ordering the pizza himself. But it's the kind of neighborhood where people eat spinach pesto pizzas. And I've echoed the title of Life As We Knew It, so readers can see a continuum.

Before I forget, let me recommend the book Truffaut/Hitchcock, which taught me enormous amounts about storytelling, including the fact that if you want to show Character A go from one place to another, you just cut from one place to the other and don't waste time showing him actually getting there.

Back to lessons learned from editors. This next one, I learned from the editor I worked with on Kid Power. She pointed out that I had several chapters where the characters just talked.

I figured since all I ever did was talk, that's what my characters should do as well. But my editor said no, characters actually had to do things. And she taught me the following trick:

Take a piece of paper and write, line by line, the number of chapters in your book. Then write a single piece of action for each chapter. I'm going to do a quick demonstration with the Gang vs. Baseball story of a few entries ago. This isn't going to come easy for me, since that's not a story I'll ever write. But here goes:

1 First day of school for M. He is lonely and uncomfortable.
2 M sees guys practicing baseball and asks if he can work out with them.
3 M joins his cousin and his gang friends for an afternoon frolic.
5 M plays his first ballgame with his new team.
7 Maybe something about team friends. Maybe they're not warm and cuddly.
8 M's cousin urges M to join gang. M agrees to go along for an evening frolic.
9 Crime committed by gang leader. M and cousin witness it.
10 Cousin arrested. M wants to tell cops everything but cousin says no, it'll put family in jeopardy.
11 M figures out solution.

No doubt you've noticed a couple of the numbers are just sitting there, minding their own business. If I were actually going to write The Story Of M, I'd fill those chapters in. My basic rule is when in doubt throw a party, so probably there'd be a party scene, which might be a good way to have M's cousin interact with M's team. If I give M a girl friend, I could use her for a chapter or two. Or maybe I'd have M get a phone call from back home that for some reason upsets him and pushes him into that gang evening frolic. And I'd certainly know what M's solution is before I ever began writing.

What the chapter outline does is show me where I need to beef up the action. It's the best outlining system I've ever been taught, and I pass it along to you free of charge.

Next time, I'll teach you the two other lessons I've learned and throw in anything else that probably should be mentioned. Be prepared. After all, one of us should be.


Thom "Pappy" B said...

I thought it was,"when in doubt, bring in a man with a gun."

Seriously, although I'm three years late to this blog, this is the best lesson on story I've read in a long time.

Unknown said...

When in doubt, bring in a man with a gun works for adult fiction. Or mysteries. Or suspense. But really, teen life fiction does better with parties. My opinion, anyway. And Ms Pfeffer, I think you just helped fill in MY chapter outline. A party would be perfect! A beautiful party, too.

Stop by my blog at www.maybeteenauthor.blogspot.com

Unknown said...

I forgot to mention that if my story ever gets completely onto this laptop (odds are about 50 to 100 at the moment) and then actually gets published (odds about 1 in a million), I will definitely have to put something about this blog in there. Especially this writing series. Even if I already had more ideas than I could ever use, the practical nitty-gritty is just what I'm looking for. So thanks.