I’ve been a writer since I could string letters into words. In first grade, I won an award for being the most prolific 1st grader by publishing more than 60 books in a single year through our school’s “Publishing House” (a group of tireless mothers and fathers who transcribed our stories and then spiral bound them).
But looking back on those books, one thing was abundantly clear: I couldn’t really tell a good story. As a seven-year-old, I was more interested in character than plot. I’d dedicate pages to describing the mom’s clothes, the way she smiled, or the tone she used when speaking, but over the course of a ten-page story, nothing would happen.
I needed an intervention. Someone should have said, “Shelbi, seriously. We love that you think you’re a writer…but shouldn’t a story called Oh, Lovely Mud actually feature mud? What if the kid has new shoes she doesn’t want to get dirty? Something. Anything. Give us anything.”
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago when I realized that some people need to be taught the art of plotting and conflict and some people are born with it.
Unlike me, my four-year-old son seems to be an innate storyteller. Here is how I can tell:
Elliott dictated a story he wanted me to write down. Page by page, he crafted some Thomas the Train fanfiction entitled Thomas is Kidnapped (like his mom, he already has a flare for the intense). It goes like this: Thomas wanders off and gets lost, Percy goes to look for him, but no one will help Percy look. Percy cries. A bad guy locks Thomas in a cage. Thomas cries. Finally Harold the Helicopter agrees to help, but right as they are about to search, it starts to rain! Eventually the rain stops, but everyone is despondent. Percy gives a pep-talk and they head out again. They see a locked door, break it open, and find Thomas and rescue him.
That story is riveting. Elliott had it all: Overall conflict, scene conflict, personal conflict, and ultimately resolution. Plus, he made the characters sympathetic! How did he know to do this? My first-grade self hadn’t learned the art of plotting, but my preschooler had it mastered! I actually jumped for joy when he finished telling me the story. (And he wants to be a writer, so look out world. Especially if kid’s cartoon fanfiction is your thing,)
I needed to teach myself what Elliott had already learned. I read books on the subject, and reminded myself with a sticky note above my writing desk: What is the conflict in this scene/dialogue/chapter? If I didn’t coach myself of the importance of an overall conflict and individual conflicts within scenes, I became stuck… mired in a tangled mess of nothingness that wasn’t much fun to write and certainly wasn’t fun to read.
My best piece of advice for writers is to follow Elliott’s lead: Set a course where the conflict is clearly outlined: There is a question that must be answered. Then create characters that are important enough that people care what happens next. Pepper in some side-conflicts and internal conflicts to keep things moving. Every scene should have some unanswered question lingering. If you are lacking agency, then throw those characters into the fire: challenge them, make them suffer, push them to the brink. And I promise you people will keep turning pages.