January fifteenth, and boy, is it cold outside! It snowed overnight, leaving a dusting on my front walk. That’s just the warning shot. I’m trying to remember that warning shots don’t always have follow-ups. But this is Pennsylvania, and this is January, and I think it’s more than a warning shot. It’s a promise.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories are written. How do you go from point A to point B? How do you get there from here? I’ve done it, so I should know, right? So, I’ve been a fly on my own wall, watching what I’m doing as I’m doing it. It’s so easy to miss your own cues. But what I’m thinking is that writing a story is something like driving a car. All those roads you pass, all those intersections, all those opportunities for diversion. Mostly, we don’t take them, and if all you’re trying to do is get home before the ice cream melts, that’s good. Sometimes it’s good to take the side roads, though, see what’s there, see who’s selling hot lemonade today, see who’s giving out gold doubloons. It could change your life. And what’s a little melted ice cream?
If you’re writing a story . . .
For instance, I was writing a scene in which a fifteen-year-old boy in a school lunchroom gets hit on the face with a roll. There’s jam on the roll, so now there’s jam on the boy’s face. He leaves the lunchroom, and a girl follows with a sandwich to give him. Gives him the sandwich and returns to the lunchroom (don’t worry, there is logic here), and the boy goes on, away from the lunchroom, with the roll and the sandwich. And I wrote some more before stopping for the day.
The next morning, I thought about this scene, and I thought, Hey! A girl and a boy together, the boy with jam on his face. What’s the logical thing here that you aren’t doing? The girl needs to wipe the jelly off the boy’s face. How flirtatious is that? And the cue, the side road, is right there. As my grandmother used to say, if it had been a bear, it would have bit me.
But first time around, I missed that, a cue I’d put in there myself. True, the girl didn’t have to wipe the jelly off the boy’s face, but when an actor’s given a cue, he needs to do SOMETHING. In a story, you can’t have a pot of soup on the stove and a cat wandering the shelf over it and a hero staring out the window and not use the set-up. It’s obvious. The reader’s looking at it and saying, what’s going to happen with this soup, with this cat, with this person? You can’t just have the cat take a nap, the soup get eaten, and the character move to New Jersey, the end. Well, you can, but why were those cues there if you weren’t going to answer them?
So, to my loyal readers out there, if you’re writing a story, what cues have you written that you’ve driven blithely on by? Take those cues and let the girl make the boy nervous while she wipes his face. And then what? And then what? Take those cues, and you’ll see the ideas spin like wisps of cotton candy.
On to the cotton candy!