Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Power of 'I Don’t Know' – Lari Don

I think I’ve worked out where stories live.

I was touring Northern Ireland last month, with the Scottish Book Trust’s Scottish Friendly Book Tour, chatting about my new Spellchasers trilogy. I met almost 1,500 fabulous friendly imaginative primary children, I shared my stories with them, and I encouraged them to come up with story ideas of their own.

In a school towards the end of the tour, one wee boy was imagining an exciting story about shapeshifters chasing each other, and I was asking open questions to prompt him. But suddenly his chase scene ground to a halt.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what happens next.”

His face fell, and I could see his confidence draining away.

“But ‘I don’t know’ is brilliant,” I said. “’I don’t know’ is how I write stories.”

He frowned at me.

I pulled out the half dozen notebooks I keep in my briefcase. “These are filled with questions I don’t know the answer to, and all my scribbled attempts to find the answer,” I said. “All my novels are answers to questions that I didn’t know the answer to when I started.

“‘I don’t know’ means that you have to find out. ‘I don’t know’ means that you have to imagine, invent, discover what happens next. And that’s what writing is!”

The wee boy started to perk up.

“’I don’t know’ is a good thing. It means you aren’t writing something obvious or predictable! ‘I don’t know’ means you’re writing something new and exciting. You might have to stop and think and play with ideas and come up with an answer to the question, but ‘I don’t know’ means you have a story worth playing with.”

The wee boy grinned, and started to think about all the possible answers to fill in his ‘I don’t know’.

And I realised that I hadn’t just been saying something positive to give confidence back to a wee boy and his shapeshifters. I had discovered a truth about my own writing. When I first discuss a novel idea with an editor, I can almost always describe the main character, their big problem, the baddie, and the first few scenes. But fairly soon after that, there’s a point where I say quite cheerfully: ‘...and I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know how they solve the problem and defeat the baddie, but I’m sure I’ll find out while I write.’ And, so far, I always have...

Those are the stories that excite me, the ones with great big ‘I don’t know’s in the middle and at the end, because I want to write them to find out.

That’s where stories live, for me, and I hope for that wee boy. Stories live inside ‘I don’t know’, and the fun is in finding them!

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers.


Sue Purkiss said...


Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Lari! Just what I need at this particular moment when I don't quite know what's going to happen next in my current story. Thank you!

Joan Lennon said...

True words!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Perfect!!! Thank you. Point made and we should all be encouraged by it.