Back to some basics


I was working with some students in the creative writing class I sometimes teach, and I asked them to write a family story. Some of the most enjoyable stories that I tell are about family members and family events, and I wanted to have the students try the same thing. I have only gotten to hear a couple of the stories, but I noticed something in the ones that I did hear that got me to thinking about many of the things that I have read and why some of those things haven't grabbed me the way that other stories have: some writers have forgotten one of the basic lessons about a story. I'm sure that many of you have drudged your way through English class because you had to. Even writers have to push themselves through it sometimes. Don't take offense, English teachers. It is true of every class. I teach history and I had to drag myself through several history classes. However, there is a lesson from the class that we shouldn't forget, and that was the basic outline of a story. There should be an introduction, there should be conflict, there should be a climax, and then the resolution and conclusion of the story. This sounds pretty obvious, but you would be surprised at how often this doesn't happen.

There are all sorts of reasons why writers might not use this formula. Perhaps they are trying a new approach and see the novelty as a form of artistic expression. Maybe they are writing non-fiction and don't think that there should be a climax to it. Perhaps they didn't really look at the story after they wrote it, but instead recorded as almost a free flow of thought. Whatever the reason, I see this happen, and most of the time it doesn't work. Artistic expression only works if others can understand what you are doing and why. Don't get me wrong. I still like to see people experiment, but if I can't figure out their goal at the end, I may not give their next work a try. Unless you are writing a reference book, a non-fiction story still needs to captivate its audience, and having a climax helps to do that. Free flow of thought can work, but most of the time an audience wants to have that buildup of anticipation that leads to the climax. Otherwise, it's like listening to that relative that loves to pull you aside to tell you things at the holiday gathering but never seems to get to the point.

Long story short, go back to the basics. Look at your writing and see if, in some way, it follows the traditional model. You have to have that anticipation, and you have to have that climax. It's like the shiny object that grabs everyone's attention and says "Look at me! Shiny object! I'm a shiny object!" We know how well those work in real life. Why shouldn't they work in our writing?