The Secret to Story : Ask 3 Questions
After months of playing with words, and exploring poems, book and song titles and linguistic devices,, it is time to get to the big idea of writing: STORY. Whether you write poetry, fiction, memoir or essays, you are telling a story.
We human beings are hard-wired by the creator to think in story. Our brains love a good story whether it comes in the form of tales around a campfire, gossip, a great novel, a movie or your favorite Netflix series. Stories entertain us, aid us as we navigate the world, assist us in making sense of events ( even politics!) and help us remember.
So, what makes a good story? We have all watched shows or movies or read books that did not resonate for one reason or another. Sometimes we can point to a certain flaw that makes a story not work, but often there is just a vague sense of something not fitting. We may not be able to define it, but our brains innately recognize a story that is well told.
While it is easy to detect a good story, it is harder, much harder to actually create one. There in a nutshell is the struggle that writers, especially novices, face. While the following advice is not foolproof, it will help you get started with a story that has potential.
When you want to begin a story, ask and then answer the following three questions:
What if? Who cares? So what? Let’s take each in turn, realizing that all three must be represented in a “good” story.
~ What if? In asking “What if?” you are setting up the premise of the story. Many writing prompts online and in books start with “What if?” to set up a certain situation.
~What if a man overhears his boss planning to let him go?
~What if a woman discovers a shocking secret about her new husband?
~What if a man discovers a stolen art masterpiece in his mother’s basement?
~What if a young woman opens a letter that contains a key and a set of instructions that promise risks, but also rewards?
What if questions like these and many others make great story starters, but the premise cannot be sustained until we ask the next question.
~Who cares? In asking “Who cares?’ you are making decisions about the protagonist or main character of your story. Who is this person that has found themselves in a particular situation? Is the person , a hipster, an heiress, a con man, a grandmother, a writer, a crime boss, a priest, a news anchor, a struggling single parent?
Deciding who exactly the story is about determines how he/she will respond to the “What if?” question. Their values, life circumstances and personal history will all play into what they do when faced with that situation.
Once you answer the “Who cares?” question, some storyline options open and others close. Knowing who you have in the driver’s seat of the story helps you decide where the action will lead.
~”So What?” Now that you have your specific character in a certain circumstance, you need to decide why this situation matters to this person. What are the stakes? What about her life will change because of this? How will relationships be altered? How will he change internally because of this scenario and the choices he makes? What will she give up or gain? What will your protagonist learn about himself and the world?
The answers can lead to success or failure, happiness or despair for your protagonist and therein lies the rest of your story.
In a nutshell then, a story is about how a specific person responds to a certain situation and the changes that result from choices he makes.
Start a story.
- Choose a “What if?” scenario. You can use one of the ones I provided or your own.
- Then decide “ Who cares?” about this circumstance. Choose a certain sort of person who gets caught up in this situation and must do something in response.. The more specific about your character you can be, the better. Who he is will determine what he does.
- Next, have your character begin to make decisions or take actions. Those decisions will have implications that will change his life for good or ill.
As you write, keep asking those questions until you feel that the situation has been resolved satisfactorily. Congratulations, you have a story!