If you live in a family, you already have plenty of raw material for a story. How can you arrange that material into something that’s readable and meaningful? It’s impossible to give a comprehensive writing lesson in one short post, but here are some ideas to get you on your writing way.
A story needs (1) a protagonist with a deep desire and (2) a conflict that thwarts the desire. Everything else is extra.
The protagonist is the main character. The reader needs to connect with the protagonist, so you, as the writer, need to set up the protagonist in a sympathetic way. That doesn’t mean that the protagonist must be a wonderful person—he or she could be a huge problem in the family. But you can’t write the person to be one-dimensional: merely generous or merely hurtful, or whatever. He or she must be authentically human, with qualities all along the spectrum of positive and negative.
The protagonist is not merely sitting there in the story; she needs or wants something important. And that is where the conflict comes in. What gets in the way of the protagonist getting what she wants or needs? What obstacles does she face? The story is all about the protagonist trying to get past obstacles to the goal.
For instance, one story that repeats in so many families is the custody-over-the-holidays issue. Your protagonist might be a divorced dad whose goal is to have a happy time with his child during the Christmas holiday. The obstacle might be the other parent, who uses the holiday desires and tensions to her advantage to get back at her former spouse. The obstacle could have more to do with long distance and inadequate finances. The obstacle could be the child’s own resentment and confusion over the break-up of the family.
In a truly effective story, a transformation unfolds. Something must change from the beginning of the story to the end of it. The change is not always an obvious, outward thing; sometimes it is merely the protagonist’s inward shift. Maybe the father who wants time with his little girl over Christmas never reaches that goal, but he does learn how his own anger toward his ex-wife is hurting the daughter. And so the transformation is the father’s new plan for how to deal with the situation.
What about a story from your own life? Begin by sketching out these basic components:
- Protagonist’s goal/desire/want/need
- Obstacles to reaching that goal/desire/want/need
Keep in mind that sometimes the protagonist is not whom you expect. You may realize, after writing down what happened, that what changed from beginning to end were your own expectations of the person the story is about. So, in a way, you are the protagonist, and the story is how you interacted with the person who is the focus of your attention.
I wish you well as you work with life’s raw materials. You may be surprised at how poignant, how funny, or how inspiring your life truly is.
Share your thoughts below in the comments, or tweet your experiences using the hashtag #writethesoul.