My six-year-old daughter made up a story for me before going to bed tonight. Here it is, as close to her exact words as I can remember:
The Story Thief
[NB – not to be confused with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – although possibly just as riveting.]
Once upon a time, before the dinosaurs came (because we all know that history goes back and forth, like people – dinosaurs – people – dinosaurs), there was a family who did not like stories. This was because they all used to laugh not very nicely at the pictures in stories and they were arrested. So they did NOT want to read any more stories after that. They all went to a big school assembly and decided they would never read a story, ever again.
One of the family was a boy who became the Story Thief. Later on, when the dinosaurs came, the Story Thief (who was a man now) decided to steal all the stories on earth – and all the storytellers’ voices, because he didn’t want them to tell even made-up stories. And he took them all away.
The other people and the dinosaurs were not happy. They killed the Story Thief and then decided to go and rescue the lost stories. They all got in a spaceship – except the T-Rex,who couldn’t fit – and off they went to find them and bring them back.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Story Thief and all the ghastly members of his family appeared again! They crowded in on them and destroyed their spaceship! So the people and dinosaurs had to swim through space until they reached…the Story Planet. And there they found all the lost stories and voices.
But how on earth were they going to get home? Suddenly, the most famous wizard in the whole universe who had ever lived appeared, and with a wave of his wand he sent them all back home again.
This story can teach us a salutary thing or two about writing in general, and about plot in particular:
- Don’t be afraid to write fantasy. Your readers are capable of suspending their disbelief – as long as the plot is interesting and the characters are believable and captivating. Like a fat T-Rex.
- Conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict. As Nathan Bransford says in How to Write a Novel:
“Your book needs conflict to survive. It doesn’t need it constantly, but a book without conflict is pretty much DOA. It’s not really a novel without conflict. It’s just some paper with words printed on it.”
- Plot is important. To quote my friend Nathan again, a good plot needs five components:
1. Something happens to set your protagonist’s life ajar
(In The Story Thief, let’s say the people and dinosaurs are the protagonists. Of course, in a real novel, we would develop one of these characters – a stegosaurus, or the T-Rex, perhaps (although as he misses out on the adventure, so not the best choice) – to be our main protagonist. Or we would make the villain, the Story Thief himself, the protagonist. But here, for educational purposes, let’s say it’s the people and dinosaurs. What has happened to set their lives ajar? The stories have been stolen.)
2. He or she wants something really big.
(They want to get the stories back.)
3. He or she goes on a physical or mental journey (or both) to try and get that thing.
(They all get on the spaceship and set off. Except for the poor T-Rex.)
4. He or she encounters obstacles of increasing intensity along the way and experiences up and down moments in pursuit of that thing.
(Who would have predicted the Story Thief would be resurrected to perform one last villainous deed? And weren’t you wondering how our heroes were going to get home?)
5. He or she either does or doesn’t get that thing but ends up irrevocably changed.
(They get the stories. And what dinosaur or human could come out of that experience unchanged?)
- Be unpredictable. (See point above re resurrection.)
- It’s peerrrrhaps not the best idea to suddenly introduce a main character for only a few lines right at the end of the story. The reader may feel a tad short-changed. (Although, who can forget Sean Connery’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Richard the Lionheart at the end of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”? Useless Trivia Moment: He was paid $250,000 for two days’ filming. Before you start spluttering with indignation, he donated it to charity.)
- Exposition is not always needed to tell a good (short) story. (Although, I would have liked to have known more about the T-Rex’s background. Was his childhood to blame for the devastating disappointment he experienced as an adult? Was his inability to fit on the spaceship a metaphor for his inability to “fit in” and connect with other dinosaurs? Or had he simply eaten too many of his friends?)
- Sometimes, just fly by the seat of your pants and make it up on the spot. You can always go back and change/perfect it later. For a first draft, it wouldn’t hurt to just let the words and ideas flow, higgedly-piggedly, messily and gloriously, onto the page. Try writing with the joyful, uncomplicated excitement of a child.