To Write Good Fiction, Read What’s Your Story?
May 15, 2019
I first picked up award-winning novelist Marion Dane Bauer’s precious little book What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide To Writing Fiction about a decade ago—when I was a relatively younger person too—and was sitting down to put together my first e-book collection of short stories based on travel, Wanderlust For The Soul. The book, which was recommended to me on an online resource for young writers that I was a part of back then, proved to be an invaluable one for a novice, first-time writer like myself wanting to write fiction, particularly short stories, that I wanted to publish.
The book gently guides beginners and amateur writers with the tedious and often daunting process of creating a story, covering all the crucial elements in a surprisingly simplified and organised, step-by-step manner—right from making a story plan to building character sketches, the plot, dialogue, tension, endings, revising and polishing. Along the way, the author provides examples from the fiction she has written, with examples of what worked and how she tackled what didn’t.
Stories help us to make sense of our world. They teach us what is possible. They let us know that others before us have struggled as we do. If Hansel and Gretel can escape the wicked witch, so can we. If the poor prince is rewarded for his kindness, then we might be, too.
What’s Your Story? begins with the need for human beings to tell stories, especially when they are young—“when stories bubble inside us”. It is precisely for the same reason that she advocates knowing ourselves and understanding our own truths (“what ideas excite us? what makes us laugh or cry?”), before embarking on writing a story.
Story ideas are everywhere, in every person you know, in every situation you meet.
According to Bauer, step one is about making a story plan—when to write, where, how often and for how long. The author suggests maintaining a consistent, realistic schedule. She also advises new writers to begin by attempting short stories before jumping straight into a novel, as the former is simpler with fewer characters and clearer storylines. I personally found this advice very useful, as working on a shorter piece makes it easier to keep track of all the different parts.
She also advises writers to get themselves a notebook, small and light enough to carry around—and keep it with them at all times and jot down in it, ideas that come to them from their environment. She cautions writers not to judge their thoughts as good or bad at this stage.
Stories require solutions. In fact, that is one of the ways in which stories are different from our everyday lives. Many of the problems we live with are never really solved, or the solution comes so gradually we hardly notice. We turn to stories because they give us a feeling of resolution that is often missing in our lives.
She explains how writers should shortlist and choose the most effective story idea that they want to write about—the ones that stay with you, have a struggle and problem to solve. In What’s Your Story?, Bauer defines a story simply as one that has conflict—in which the main character has a problem that he has to struggle to solve.
Understanding motive is the key to moving beneath the surface of the stereotype your character probably began as.
In order for a story to truly stay with its readers, the author stresses on the importance of creating interesting, believable and unique characters—including all their minute details, such as their name, appearance, personality, motives, complexes and contradictions. One of her tips for building character sketches is to find pieces of oneself to share with one’s characters.
Beginning to write a story without having your ending in mind is a little like starting on a trip without deciding where you want to go.
She elaborates further on the techniques for writing a plot, covering the importance of a narrative hook, the 4 Ws (who, where, when and what), the power of first impressions and how good pacing creates tension in the story. She also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of telling a story in the first person vis a vis in the third person. Usually, when writers write, the story keeps building on until they reach the conclusion. However, Bauer prescribes a great method for focusing one’s story—figuring out the end of a story early on. This was an interesting learning for me, personally.
Good writing uses the senses, all of them. Good fiction writing uses them from inside your main character.
She goes on to talk about dialogue, explaining how it gives information, reveals character and moves the story forward. To write dialogue, Bauer recommends listening carefully to conversations around us—whether on television, in the classroom or among family and friends—and how much we can discover about people by what they say. To give a fuller picture, she also prescribes adding descriptions to the dialogue, explaining what is going on, how the character is feeling and what he or she is thinking.
The last section in the book talks about revising, editing and rewriting one’s story by distancing oneself from the first draft and evaluating it with fresh eyes. Finally, comes the part about polishing one’s story by examining all the fine points, such as spellings, punctuations, using the right words, similes and metaphors, and checking its flow.
Overall, What’s Your Story? is an invaluable source for anyone who wants to understand the basic structure for writing a good story. On re-reading the book recently, I find that while perfect for young writers, it also proves to be an excellent reminder for seasoned and experienced writers wanting to sharpen their skills. One may apply all or some of the book’s learnings that they find useful. I personally found it extremely helpful in drafting the stories of my book, and it proved to be a ready reckoner for the task at the time, and for this reason, I would highly recommend it to all fiction writers.