To Shape a Story

I didn’t have a story. I discovered this when I looked at what I had written, at what I had thought was a finished book. I had a series of stand-alone vignettes about the classrooms that had made me into a teacher. I liked the scenes I had written. They seemed to me like pearls on a string. But now I could see that my manuscript wasn’t a story, not yet.

Stories have shapes, I learned as I read books and listened to podcasts and attended more writers’ conferences. They have beginnings and middles and ends with a character who wants something and problems that stand in the way. I studied what I had never heard before—plot points and pinch points, six-stage structures and emotional arcs.

I read other people’s memoirs. I examined their overall structures, but I also read scene-by-scene. How did each scene contribute to the big story? What made dialogue sound natural? How did writers bring characters to life? What made the language fresh? What kept me turning the pages?

When I went back to my manuscript, I could see it for what it was—a mass of raw material.

“There’s a lot to play with here,” my critiquer had written, “but you don’t really play with it.”

It seemed more like work than play, but I set out to find the core of the story and to chisel away the excess. I crafted my words to show places and points of view and perspectives of time. I cut more words. And then more.

Gradually I saw a story emerge. At least I thought I did.

(more to come)

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