Lisa Rowe Fraustino

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What Drives Your Story?

Do you ever become so involved in writing that you lose track of time? Do your stories ever seem to write themselves? Do you have trouble getting back into the real world after losing yourself in the world of your words? If you can answer yes to these questions, you have probably been in a state of story consciousness you wish you could return to at will.

On the days when I’m most in flow, when I get joyfully lost in writing, something from the unconscious has overridden my attempts to control the story. One of the characters will take over and steer me toward places much more interesting than the plot I had planned. Or perhaps a lively first person voice from within the story will start talking over my own finely crafted narrative choice. Or perhaps events in life or news will give me a different end to write toward, a different plot to unfold with these characters.

The trick is to recognize when these storytelling drives are erupting so you don’t inadvertently return the gift that your creative mind has offered up. You’ll never get to the state of flow if you’re fighting the direction it’s taking you, stubbornly sticking to your outline.

Most stories, even non-fictional ones, are driven by one of three elements: character, voice, or plot. The very best writers can weave all three into a strong braid, but even so, one element dominates to keep a story moving, or to pull the reader through. If you’re aware of what’s driving a story, you’re better able to ride that energy through the writing of it.

In most well written stories, the driving element is clear from the first page or even the first paragraph. Let’s look at some examples of first pages from classic picture books, since they’re familiar and short enough to study quickly.

Based on the beginning, what do you think drives The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf?

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.

Even the title points us to look at character. Each sentence succinctly focuses the reader on the people (well, the anthropomorphized bulls). The story has a strong plot and style, certainly, but readers want to turn the page to answer the questions they immediately have about why the characters are the way they are. Why does Ferdinand like flowers better than butting heads with other bulls, and what will become of him in the end?

How about Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale?

Once there was a peddler who sold caps. But he was not like an ordinary peddler, carrying his wares on his back. He carried them on top of his head.

Again, the title clues us in to the focus of the story. Although he is no ordinary peddler, we don’t learn much about this fellow’s personality here. Unlike Ferdinand, he isn’t named, and we don’t know what he likes. Our curiosity focuses not on him as a person but on what he’s doing, selling caps that he carries on his head, a comic situation. We turn the page to find out what will happen to that stack of caps.

Now let’s look at Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.

In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of—

We turn the page to see…

The cow jumping over the moon

And turn another page to see…

And there were three little bears sitting on chairs

The pages turn and turn and turn, but the sentence never ends. There is no punctuation in the story except the dash that keeps the reader hanging at the end of the first page and reading to the end of the book for completion. Character can’t drive this story, unless you consider the room a character. There’s no action, just the weak linking verb “was.” As the figurative title hints, voice drives the story, a poetic voice saying an extended goodnight. The words themselves—or, rather, their musical rhythm combined with the lovely images they evoke—hold the interest of the reader and listener.

If you learn to recognize what drives the stories you read, that will help you see what drives your own work. Then, try to feel when the drives of character, voice, and plot are attempting to poke through the surface of your writing, and stop fighting them. Learn to go with the flow!

And then revise.

author’s note

I developed my understanding of driving forces in fiction and started incorporating these ideas into my workshops while studying at Binghamton University in the early 1990s. The version here is based on my Winter 1997 column for Once Upon a Time, which began a four-part series.

©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1997, 2010

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