“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.”
– John Steinbeck
In last week’s post I listed an incident that is not a story under baddies for fiction plotting. Today I’m going to give some tips on turning an incident into a short story using the beginning of “Saving Grace,” from my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point.
Grace Milhop, age eight, disappeared just after two this afternoon from the backyard of her east end Toronto home. Her mother, Terry Milhop, went into the house to answer the phone and when she came back out 10 minutes later, her daughter was gone…. Milhop is estranged from her husband—
I drop the laundry basket and charge into the living room.
…police are asking anyone with any information to call—
It’s not the picture of a child with short red curls and freckles staring at me from the TV screen that stops me cold. Neither does the photo of a 35-ish man with thick black hair and matching moustache. My concern is the seven-year-old boy standing at the end of the coffee table, remote in his hand, staring at the TV.
“No, David.” I scramble over to him. “You don’t need to see this. Give me the remote.” I hold out my hand.
My son jumps back and shakes his head. When I lean forward and try to grab his hand, he butts his head into my stomach.
He stiffens; the remote clatters to the floor and he begins to whimper.
(Excerpted from “Saving Grace,” from Beyond the Tripping Point, Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press, due out fall 2012).
This could very well be an incident about a boy having a temper tantrum over whether he should be watching something on TV. As far as that goes, my late journalist teacher, Paul Nowak would say “So what?”
But more is going on here and I make it so. How?
1.Think beyond the incident itself – go for the big picture. Is this TV on/off battle only one in a long line of temper tantrums the mother is trying to deal with? Is the son acting out in other ways, maybe even bullying others at school or being bullied himself?
2. Figure out what the conflict could be in your story. Continuing with the above, does the mother constantly fight with her son? Maybe this is something new and she wants to find out why and fix it.
3. Build your incident and conflict into a plotline. For example, maybe the mother is a single mom trying to juggle a demanding job; maybe her daycare is threatening to quit, maybe she’s getting notes from the school about her son’s behaviour and she is dreading the appointment she has with the school principal. You can add in a few bad behaviours on her son’s part (use your imagination). Use dialogue and action to show the reader the escalating conflict. Build it up to a climax and then some sort of resolution – not necessarily the son becomes a good boy again.
My story doesn’t exactly follow those lines. “Saving Grace” is the second in four linked stories in this Beyond the Tripping Point story collection. For one thing, Dana and her fraternal twin, Bast, run a private investigative agency. The previous year David himself was kidnapped and it traumatized him so much that he couldn’t speak. Dana and David attend therapy consisting of talk and art therapy. As part of the process David harbours a lot of anger, and because he’s not speaking and he’s still scared, he reverts to the terrible twos and throws temper tantrums, including a lot of foot stomping. The plot itself has David trying to sort through his difficulty by honing in on other children being kidnapped. So, when Dana, David and eccentric Great Aunt Doris take a holiday to Goderich, Ontario, and they see a little girl who resembles the missing Grace, David literally tries to shove his mother into finding Grace. Dana is torn between doing so and leaving it to the police. It doesn’t help that Great Aunt Doris (who locks horns with Dana on a regular basis) tries to stop both Dana and David from becoming involved. She even calls Dana a “bad mother.” The story continues…but I’m not going to reveal the climax but you can get the idea. I use plenty of action, dialogue and feelings.
So, if you have only an incident, don’t trash it. See if you can develop it into a real story.
Sharon A. Crawford