Discovering the Story Within

My Philosophy of Writing

You know what I think? I think we write to connect. To explore. To discover.

And within the stories we write, no matter how rudimentary the skill involved, there is The Story. The one that is innate within whatever started us writing that story-- a premise or a situation or a plot or a character or just a flash of a scene.

What I like to do, especially for other writers (because then I don't have to apply it myself) is to go back to the roots, to discover that story within, and coax it out where it can grow.

Organic writing, I guess.

Just a few thoughts tonight to get this started:

Are you having trouble with a story?

Go back to the roots. What was the essence of this story for you? Where did you start? And then work up from there, asking questions and being open to the answers.

The story is in there. I think just as there is some "grammar center" in our brain that allows us to make sense of language, there's a "story center" that gives us the tools to invent and to understand stories.

It's in the structure... of the storytelling tradition, and of our subconscious. Somehow we understand that stories have to do with people changing under stress, for better or for worse, and that the type of stressful event they face, and the strengths and conflicts and motivations they bring into the situation.

Here is a common "story essence" and some questions you might ask to guide you to the story within:

If you start with a premise (like "A high school student discovers his girlfriend is an alien!" ), free-write on these questions:

What sort of protagonist would get into this sort of situation?

A young man, first off, under 18, still in high school. This must be his first girlfriend. He's sort of shy, not in the in-crowd, that's why he's available to be boyfriend to an alien. He probably has to be pretty flexible in his thinking or he wouldn't believe her story. And he'd have to be pretty desperate to keep the girlfriend, or he'd dump her and there'd be no story.

What is the protagonist's goal as the story opens? Why does the protagonist want that goal?

He wants a girlfriend. He wants that because he thinks a pretty girlfriend will help him achieve popularity, or at least earn him the envy of his peers.

What is the protagonist initially willing to do to attain that goal?

He's willing to take any pretty girl at all as a girlfriend. She doesn't have to be compatible with him, and he doesn't have to love her. She just has to be pretty and willing to wear his ring and walk down the school hallway with him. He doesn't have to love her. She's just an accessory really.

Why would this situation be especially difficult for this person?

He's already sort of insecure, because he's not popular. He was very happy to finally have a girlfriend, and he doesn't want to give her up, but now he's even more insecure, worried that she might zap him off to her home planet, or tell the other kids she's from Antares. He's afraid that she'll inadvertently show him to be a fool and a nerd.

What are some bad things that can happen to him because of this situation?

He's going to be confronted with some alien doings on her part. He'll have to disguise her alienness from the others but it will probably have to come out anyway. (If there's a secret in a story, it almost always comes out, usually right before the crisis/dark moment.) I bet someone will make fun of her odd ways, and he'll have to defend her, and will get beaten up by a jock. And she'll use her powers to save him, but that will get him kicked out of school somehow.

What skills does the protagonist need to survive this plot?

He's pretty smart (cuz he's a nerd), and that will help. He has to be flexible in his thinking, in order to accept the reality of the alien. He also needs to be at least partly tolerant, because if he had a powerful prejudice against aliens, he'd dump her. He has to be resourceful, able to fight back with brains because he doesn't have brawn. And he'll have to, at heart, be a kind and caring person, or he won't be able to "make her real" by coming to love her.

What moral/ethical issues will this situation force the protagonist to face?

He's going to have to face the requirements that love/commitment brings-- that is, he'll have to be loyal to her and protect her and accept her... at least in the end. That's part of his journey. He's also probably going to have to choose honesty over disguising the truth. He'll have to come out as a tolerant person, willing to accept her Otherness and maybe even celebrate it openly. He'll have to learn to be stronger emotionally, enough to handle possible ostracism.

How will the protagonist change morally, psychologically, or emotionally because of the events of the book?

He will no longer think that popularity is more important than integrity. He will learn to love and to act with love.

What is the protagonist's journey?

His journey is towards self-acceptance and with it acceptance of the girlfriend, and of love. He will have to learn to accept himself and to present himself honestly and directly, and to accept the real girl underneath that pretty exterior. He will decide to attain what he now values in a person-- integrity, moral strength, and tolerance.

In exploring the possibilities that come with one story element, we can develop the other story elements-- if we stay open to what the story within offers us.

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Alicia Rasley

Copyright © 1997 Alicia Rasley