In the Creative Writing course I teach up at Durham College, I find my students come in with many bad habits. I’ll examine many of them over the course of several blogs, but the one that typically comes to light first is the fact that they tend to start a lot of stories, but don’t finish them.
Are they lazy? Do they lose interest? Is it…dunh dunh DAAAAH…the dreaded Writer’s Block?
Or is it something much more mundane?
The answer is the Primary Story Question. That is, a question that is important, riveting and is planted early and deep in the reader and doesn’t get answered until the end of the story. It’s actually a relatively easy concept, but it’s a hard thing to actually nail down.
So, let’s look at how this works. What is this Story Question, anyway? Think of it as your end goal. How often have you packed up the kids and the spouse, hopped in the car, started driving for that amazing two-week vacation, but had no idea where you were driving…not even a direction. Well, with a Primary Story Question, now you at least have a direction and a destination in mind. Still kind of fuzzy on the whole thing?
Well, let’s look at a story almost everyone would be familiar with. The near-perfect screen adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Do you remember how it started? Dorothy’s worried about her ugly little dog, Toto (I’m sorry, it’s a fact, the dog’s ugly…and this is coming from a dog owner). She runs away from home, but eventually comes back in time for a toronado to pick up her house, transform the equally ugly Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West before dumping her, her ugly dog and the house she came in on the unfortunate Wicked Witch of the East, leaving nothing but her ruby slippers sticking out. You know that had to have left a mark. Ouch.
Anyway, Dorothy has a fun little time with the Munchkins before deciding to move it on down the (yellow brick) road and in the process, giving Elton John the title to one of his finest albums of the 70s. But I digress.
So, what would you say is the Primary Story Question here? If you said something along the lines of, “Will Dorothy and her ugly little dog get back home safely?” then you have the Primary Story Question. It’s a question that’s set up early in the story (in fact, you could argue it was set up as soon as she ran away from home), and it’s not answered until the very end.
“Big deal,” you say scoffingly. “So I know she wants to get home and I know I can’t answer that until the end. So what?”
Well, what that gives you is a loose spine of a story. Now you can ensure that anything you write either answers or (more preferably) delays answering that question. You can start to set up the protagonist’s motivation to make her fight toward that end goal. You can create the antagonist and craft their motivation that is at cross-purposes to your protagonist’s goal. You can build up secondary characters to either help or hinder the protagonist.
In short, you’ve planned your trip to DisneyWorld, now you’re working out all the stops along the way. This should help you map the route, remove unplanned detours before they start and, most importantly, point you toward the end of the story…that thing that many of my students never attain.
There’s still a lot more to cover with this…including motivations, etc. But we’ll get there. I have a destination in mind!