Sunday, 16 February 2014

Letting a story off the leash - John Dougherty

Very often, when I'm talking to groups of children, I'm asked, "How do you plan your stories?" 

Most children in schools in England are taught that before starting to write a story, you have to plan it out showing the beginning, the middle, and the end; and so they expect me to tell them that that's what I do. But the truth is, I don't. Normally I've got a vague idea of where the story's going and how it gets there, but as long as I've got a few ideas and, most importantly, know where it starts, I'm usually pretty confident about sitting down to write.

This is particularly true of my new series, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face - the first of which, if you'll allow me a quick boast, was The Times's Children's Book of the Week last week. Writing these stories, I suppose I'm really trying to get back inside the mind of a seven-year old me, a child at play without too many worries about "getting it right". So the deal I have with my internal self - that subconscious, creative part of my mind - is that if (s)he gives me an idea, I'll put it in the story. Only if it really doesn't feel right will it get taken out again. Essentially, I'm just letting the story and the characters lead me where they will, and never, ever saying "You can't do that!"

This approach isn't without its problems, of course. The first story came in at around 12,000 words; the third - whose first draft I finished on Tuesday - is closer to 21,000, so I have a lot of trimming to do.

But something that's struck me very forcefully is how much that internal part of me seems to know what it's doing, at least when it comes to stories and structure. 

I noticed it first - really noticed it - whilst writing the second book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine. After a short conversation,  I needed to get my characters moving. 

- Better make something happen, then, murmured my subconscious mind. 
- Yes, but what? I replied.
- It starts to rain, came the reply. 

That seemed reasonable. I began to type:

Just then, it began to rain. 
Fair enough. That's a good way to get things going.

It was not an ordinary rain. It was a horrible, inky-splattery, thick wet rain that left dark splodges on the ground and smelled faintly of bananas. 
I sat back, looked at the screen, and laughed. And then I thought, Smelled faintly of bananas? Where on earth did that come from? And what on earth am I going to do with it?

I nearly deleted it again. Only the thought of the internal pact made me keep it. If it doesn't work, I can always get rid of it later.

I kept racking my brains, though. I needed a plan, a way of showing why the rain was horrible, and inky-splattery, and thick, and why it left dark splodges on the ground, and most importantly, why it smelled faintly of bananas. And I kept trying to think of a reason, and coming up with none.

Until, of course, I decided to let it go and get on with the story. And of course, later on, when the children are talking to Miss Butterworth the Ninja Librarian, they mention the smell of bananas - and in doing so they introduce a further complication. But it's funny, so I leave it in, even though I have no idea where to go with it. 

And then we discover where the rain is coming from, but it still doesn't explain the smell of bananas - until much later, when we reach a scene I had begun to plan in my head; but for which I hadn't worked out a resolution. And I remember the further complication, which gives me an idea for a character who up until that point I hadn't even thought of, and all at once there's a great joke and an explanation for the bananas and a resolution for the scene, and everything comes together and moves us neatly towards the climax of the story. And none of it - consciously, at least - was planned in advance.

I might have thought that all of that was just happy coincidence, if it hadn't been for something very similar that happened in the writing of the newly delivered first draft of Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Evilness of Pizza. I needed a solid object, and it occurred to me that it might be funny if that object turned out to be some kind of character; so in comes someone new, someone whom I really only intended to be in that single scene. But then this character mentions that he's expected to appear in another chapter, later in the book; and it's funny, so I leave it in. But then, of course, I have to bring the character back.

And then I need - simultaneously - a resolution to the main problem of the story, an explanation for this character's reappearance, and a way to wrap things up neatly, and my internal self says:
- Here it is!

And lo and behold, the reappearance provides the first resolution, the first resolution leads neatly into the explanation, and the explanation wraps things up neatly. All, again, unplanned - consciously, at least.

Does it work? I think so. In fact, I strongly suspect - no, I firmly believe - that it wouldn't have worked half so well if I'd made sure to have everything planned and pinned down before I started. It's the sense of liberation, of being at play, of not having to worry too much about getting it right, that makes the story fizz and sparkle, that makes the jokes funny, that makes everything come together neatly.

I'm not saying this is the ideal way to write every story. And I'm not saying that it's a bad thing to introduce children to the idea of planning. But I am saying that in teaching them that they have to plan, we may be robbing them of something very precious indeed.


Pippa Goodhart said...

I recognise that magic of things coming together, and its lovely when it happens. Wonderful examples, John.

Emma Barnes said...

I so much agree with this, John. I do aim to plan, but often it's the actual writing of the story that leads to all kinds of discoveries as to what the story is about.

It's the sense of liberation, of being at play, of not having to worry too much about getting it right, that makes the story fizz and sparkle

I really agree with that too, and that children need to experience that feeling - not just so that they will write good stories, but so that they will enjoy writing them too.

Stroppy Author said...

I so agree! So much of the way children are taught to write just has to be unlearned again later. Yes, I'm looking at you, adverbs...

Joseph Coelho said...

It is strange how that voice comes in (the internal self) I invariably say to young writers that the story isn't really there's , it's something they had the good fortune of receiving and it is there duty to bring it forth in the world. It does often feel that way - that we are just custodians of story received from the ether.

Michelle said...

Everyone has a different method to how they write, think and learn. Learning a few different methods is always a great idea. Thanks for the article.

Rachel said...

Love children's books. Yes everyone has different writing styles.