Often, I hear from participants in my workshops, “I don’t know where to begin.” With any new venture, be it fencing, baking or playing chess, you will not be an instant expert. In fact, you will likely be terrible at it. With writing you have the slight advantage of being literate in that you know how to write sentences and paragraphs. But can you tell a good story?
Humans are wired for story.
Stories connect us to the past, guide us into the present, and help us thrive in the future.
At a recent workshop a participant asked me why a journal entry isn’t a story, and she wanted to know how to make it one? A note in a diary is often a listing of events in the day; it’s a record of what happened. What makes it a story is why things happened and how the narrator felt about it.
“It rained today and I got stuck on I-5 during construction for more than an hour,” is a statement of facts. There’s potential for a story here if this event has a significant impact on the narrator. Why does it matter that she was stuck in traffic? What’s at stake? Did she miss a flight for a job interview or her daughter’s wedding? What emotions are spinning inside her about the delay? The emotional reaction is the stuff readers care about. The plot is a woman getting stuck on the freeway in the rain. The story is her internal reaction.
Caressa feels her chest constrict when the traffic stops ahead of her. Her windshield wipers slap against the windshield like a heartbeat and she thinks of Edward. It was a Tuesday morning when he’d lifted his travel mug from the kitchen island, kissed her good-bye, and set out for a business meeting. She’d gone about her day conducting an online meeting, during which her phone pulsed and pulsed. She’d glanced at the number: unknown caller. She ignored it and carried on until a few seconds later the same unknown caller tried again.
Now you’re hooked into the story and you want to know what happens next because the added details draw you inside the scene. Does she see a mangled car along the side of the road that resembles the accident that killed her husband, Edward? Or do the sequence of elements in this day remind her of when Edward was arrested for securities fraud and she had to bail him out? In any case, the seemingly benign traffic jam takes Caressa back to the day when everything changed.
Most of us don’t have traumatic events happen daily, and not everything we do merits a story, yet significant events are rife with details that burn into your memory.
An exercise to tap into this memory bank: Sit in a quiet area and brainstorm for 10 uninterrupted minutes and begin with
It was an ordinary day until…
Writing the first sentence feels like the initial step back when rappelling; each step after becomes easier, and the details will flow freely.
Some final advice from Ann Lamott:
How to write: want to. Stop NOT writing. Sit down and think of one story you MIGHT be able to tell badly. Take a stab at it. Blurt it out on paper. Go back and take pout the boring and showoffy parts. Don’t give up on it! Listen for what it is trying to tell you. (It knows things.)
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is a former high school and university teacher and is the author of three novels, Breakfast With Neruda, Blue Valentines, and The Language of the Son. She serves as board president of EPIC Group Writers and is currently adapting her first novel into a streaming series.
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