The Tortuous Path from Idea to Story

Yesterday, I taught a workshop for the OLLI at Clemson University. OLLI, for those of you too young to know, is continuing education for seniors and a chapter can be found at many universities. They delve into all kinds of subjects; from teaching you how to clean your computer of extra stuff you don’t want (a class I need to take) to the history of Jewish Folklore (a class I took) My workshop has been included in their curriculum.

The object of the workshop isn’t to teach people how to write a novel, that pretty much takes a lifetime, but to show them the difference between an idea and a story, and the steps an author takes to make that leap. I handed out an outline I’d brought and started with an idea. We could start to build a story from it several ways but we still needed the basic ingredients. Like baking a cake, only in this case the ingredients were the antagonist, the protagonist, conflict, setting and so on. After we spent a few minutes discussing the outline, I passed out cards and everyone wrote down an idea of their own. We picked one at random and we were off.

An hour later, we had a protagonist who actually was fleshed out. We knew what he looked like, what his childhood had been like, that he was a widower, and a lot about his frustration with getting old and loosing his independence. Not an unusual topic in a class filled with sixty pluses. We had a secondary character we also knew a lot about. We’d explored his background, knew how he was raised by a single mother, knew his struggles with his sexuality, his resentment against the world and particularly with the great uncle who he was obliged to drive cross country. We knew the journey was going to be the adversary and that it would change both of these people. Did we have a story?

No. Not yet.

Stories are about what happens to people. About events that change them, in little ways and profound ones. About conflict and how the person, or persons, in our story react to that conflict. No two people would react the same way to the same situation. One might burst into tears at, for instance, the injury or death of a loved one. Another might retreat into private misery. One might freeze in the face of danger, another might attack. It depends on the person. Given a couple more hours, we might have constructed a story about Frank and Kevin’s trip and the things that happened to change them. What we did do was lay down the foundation for a story, by breathing a little life into two characters.

Every time I do this workshop, I’m reminded that stories are about people and what happens to them. What happens to Frank and Kevin is yet to be discovered, but now that we know them, we’ve got a place to start. What fun!