What Do YOU Bring to the Story…?
Back when I was an instructor, an administrative person opined that a good lesson plan is one where any instructor can pick it up and go teach the class effectively*.
I understand the concept as far as it goes and think it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. But my position was—and still is—that the teacher is an integral part of the process, and it’s reductive to think that any warm body with the ability to read and regurgitate a lesson plan can step in and do an effective job… at least for anything other than the most basic of tasks.
Sometimes, in order to really do an effective job, specialized knowledge is required, or perhaps experience or talent or training or skill or passion or… you get the point.
The teacher matters.
Because each of them brings something unique to the table.
Maybe I’m thinking about this today because, as I write this, I’m developing lesson plans for a workshop I’m giving at a conference in a few weeks. And the idea that another person could just take the lesson plan and PowerPoint and give the class seems wildly simplistic, because they don’t have the same personal experiences I do, nor my particular slant on things. (For that matter, they haven’t made the same mistakes I have either.) Not that someone else couldn’t teach a class on the same subject. They certainly could. And it might be great. But it would be a different class.
Which brings me to my point. Which isn’t really about teaching, but about writing.
As writers, we sometimes get hung up on basic plot mechanics. As though the specifics of what happens to who, and when, and where, is all that matters. (If that were really the case, all we’d have to write is a detailed plot outline, delineating everything that occurs within the story, and we’d be done. I did that once. With my OBFN. Writing that detailed outline bored me so much I hated writing the actual book.)
So I’m here to posit that not only are the mechanics of pushing characters through a plot like pieces on a chess board not the only thing that matters in a story, they’re not even the main thing.
Consider: Fully half the stories in the world are some variation on the theme of “X meets Y. X loses Y. X gets Y back.” (Or, as George Harrison so brilliantly put it, “Love lost or gained between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one.”) So if that’s the case, what separates a cheesy soap opera from something like The Scorpio Races or The Princess Bride or Flipped or…?
It’s not just what happens (or to whom, or when, or where). It’s how the story is told. It’s that special, intangible thing the author brings to the table that makes each of these stories unique and amazing in their own way, even though on the surface they’re all boy-meets-girl love stories.
Yes, plot certainly matters. And no, this isn’t a diatribe against crafting a tightly-constructed series of events which lead to a well-supported resolution. (Although sometimes we can take the concept of “Finding the Formula to Writing Success!!!” a little too much to heart. I’ve read how-to missives stating you’re supposed to have an “antagonist” who “wants something the hero wants, and fights the hero for it.” With this battle ideally starting 57 pages after the “inciting incident,” which is supposed to happen within the first 23% of the manuscript. And so on. What comes to mind upon reading such things is that many of my favorite books—including two of the three mentioned above—have no antagonist at all, in the traditional sense. Which is a subject for another day, but the lesson shouldn’t be forgotten…)
I’m typically against pontifications about how to write—and especially of the didactic “you must do this!” sort—as writing is more art than science, and we’re all a study of one. But one writing dictum I like is “Write the story only you can tell.”
This doesn’t mean write your autobiography.
This doesn’t mean write only about things with which you have direct experience, in a ‘write-what-you-know’ fashion.
It means tell the story in your head—and in your heart—in your own unique way. In a way no one else could. Even if it’s a “boy meets girl” story. (Or “girl meets girl.” Or “girl meets talking zebra.” Or whatever “X meets Y” makes your heart sing.) Because if you’re brave enough tell it in the way only you can tell it—even though that might feel scary, and even though you’ll be tempted to tell it the way you’ve read it a hundred times before—then you’ll have created something new and unique and fresh and original. Even though the so-called plot may be universal.
Which is really the best of both worlds.
Go be you.
*I think I replied with something like, “Okay, the final step of my lesson plan states: Teacher takes questions and provides meaningful, informative, in-depth answers based on years of experience and training in the specific subject matter. Could you follow those instruction ‘effectively’?”
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