Sunday Style: Plot 101 – Dude, Where’s My Story?

Here we are back at Sunday which means it’s time for Sunday Style! This post is about the fifth session I attended at the Write on The Sound conference back in October. My first day at the conference ended with a workshop facilitated by Merridawn Duckler who teaches writing at a place called The Attic in Portland, Oregon.

She started by having us all write a “love note” to somebody in the class (akin to the notes in high school that one might have written), crumple it up and throw it in that person’s direction. The purpose? To show you how fast you should write your first sentence. The act of opening up the note? That’s your second sentence.

The message in this activity being that you should write those first two sentences quickly – get going. That’s not to say that the first “first sentence” you write will remain the first sentence in your story, it just means get it over with and come back to it. The best and strongest sentence should start your story. But it may take writing some, part, or all of the story before that perfect first sentence comes to you. Writing it quickly at the beginning gets it out of the way so that you can get on with what you need to write.

Does having a perfect sentence scare you like it does me? Her advice was to read (and jot down) all those first sentences that you love. This will help. Another key element before you begin your story? Know the ending before you start, otherwise you won’t know where you’re going.

To illustrate the key parts of a story, she used a stick figure:

  • Head: This is the idea, but it’s not your story yet. This is where you keep your ideas. (Track your ideas in a spiral notebook.)
  • Neck: This is you and what you bring to the story.
  • Heart: The emotions of the story are where it starts. (Keep another notebook for tracking emotions)
  • Hands: These are the objects and there is great power in objects. If you’re having trouble in a story, pull out the objects.
  • Crotch: (Yes, this was her word.) This is where the fundamental, life/death element is in your story.
  • Legs: The momentum — the story NEVER STOPS. It must always move on behalf of forward motion.

What Merridawn had to say about first sentences and about the body (literally) of  a story really worked for me and will help me as I tackle stories in the future. I hope it helps you, too!

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

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4 Responses to Sunday Style: Plot 101 – Dude, Where’s My Story?

  1. Liz: thank you for posting your insights from the conference! I really relate to the “get the first sentence on the page just so you can continue writing the story” advice. But, can you explain more about the parts of the body and how they relate to the story? In particular, is the emotion notebook one a writer would keep to describe certain emotions to choose from later for any story – or emotions connected only to that particular story they’re working on? And when you say “pull out the objects” if you’re having trouble in a story – does she mean literally find objects you can handle while writing about them, or eliminate the objects from the story to skip the stuck parts?

  2. Liz says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Mary Jo! The emotion notebook, as well as the idea notebook, are for general purposes and would serve as references as you write one piece or several pieces — a bit of a resource for ideas, I guess, is the best way to describe it. I think if one was writing a novel, it would make sense to have spiral notebooks for these purposes dedicated just to that novel. And with the objects in a story, I think she meant to get into the details of objects to help you focus back on the moment in the story. When she said “pull out” she meant pull them out and examine them so that you can go even deeper — for example in a piece of flash fiction I wrote for this blog, I might focus on the object of the woman’s flip flops, or the magazines in her garage and what those objects represented. Does this make sense?

  3. Jenni says:

    Great advice, Liz! Thanks so much for sharing it. I love especially the bit about objects. I don’t know why but that seems like a very useful tool, especially if you feel stuck. Going back to something tangible feels doable to me. Thanks!

  4. Liz says:

    You’re right, Jenni. It’s tangible and while it’s powerful, it’s not something huge like a character that can run away from me!

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