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If you missed Friday's post, pulled out a manuscript of mine from high school and identified what my problem areas were as a teenage writer.
The manuscript is called Grass and Dandelion Bouquets, which is a horrendous title. You can tell this is going to be a sappy book, can’t you? Blech. I don’t want to have to keep typing it out, so I’ll just refer to it as the dandelion story, okay?
The dandelion story is one I wrote and rewrote and plotted and revised and scrapped and rewrote about 500 times before I finally burned out and abandoned it altogether. Even with all that expended energy, I only managed to write about 10,000 words.
The dandelion story is about a girl named Paige who had spent all her life living as a tomboy. When Paige is a junior (I think) she moves halfway across the country, leaving behind a close group of friends, and a very, very serious boyfriend. Who’s so ticked with her for moving, he refuses to talk to her after she tells him she’s leaving. (I’ve already told you I had some issues with character believability…) So Paige moves to her new home in suburban St. Louis, where she completely transforms herself. She doesn’t keep in touch with any of her old friends, she becomes a complete girly-girl, and even dates a new guy. Then for some reason I can’t remember, Paige’s family gets sent back to her original home a year later.
Maybe I’m biased, but I still believe it's an okay idea, that this is a story idea that could work. There are some serious holes in it—I’m pretty skeptical of any story concept that involves phrases like, “and these two people who were super-duper close stop talking to each other for a year”—but it’s not a bad story idea.
Here’s the thing I want to draw your attention to—everything in that description is back story. The story opens on Paige’s first day back at her old school. She’s just walked into the classroom in her transformed state, and she’s seeing her friends after having ignored them for a year. Which means my concept for this novel was all backstory, it wasn’t the actual story. And that’s because I lacked the understanding of what made a good story. Sure, I had read lots of great books and seen lots of great movies, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to do it myself.
Even now, that’s the way my story ideas come to me, as the main character’s backstory. It took me a while to figure out that, as enriching as the backstory was, what I really needed to know was “everything else.” The stuff between Once upon a time and The End.
In his book Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell puts it so simply with his LOCK system. Your book needs a lead character who is interesting to watch, and who has an objective or goal to chase after. While they pursue their objective, there should be obstacles or confrontations that prevent them from achieving their goals. And then there should be a knockout ending. Something that satisfied the readers.
That’s story structure stated in such basic verbiage, even I can understand it. Were I to write the dandelion story again, I would start by asking what Paige was trying to achieve over the course of the story, what stood in her way, and how the ending would satisfy.
What about you? When you come up with a story idea, what (usually) comes to you first? Is it the main character’s back story? Is it the plot of the book? Is it the theme?