The "What If?"
The what if. And that what if, as we just said, it straddles that in medias for us. And when writers first get an idea, it's that blush of a, oh my gosh, what would happen if? It's an expectation broken, that's what stories are about. I thought this one thing was gonna happen, and something else happened instead. I mean, we writers, we're curious, we wonder what we would do if the unusual thing happened. So we get that idea and what we tend to wanna do is we wanna write forward and see what would happen. But we're smart, we're not gonna do that. We know that instead of writing forward plot-wise, we're gonna come back and we're gonna try to figure out okay, well why would that matter, why would that make any difference? To who, whose story is it gonna be? But let's talk for a minute about that expectation broken, which is what pulls us forward, which is what pulls us in as readers, it's what grabs us as writers, as humans. And the reason is because the human brain has an avidity for pat...
ternicity. I know, it's like what the hell is that? This is why you don't wanna use $50 words, by the way. (laughs) 'Cause it might make you look smart, but nobody knows what you're talking about. So what is, an avidity for patternicity means, that we are constantly looking for causal connections. If this, then that. You know, if I do this, I can expect for that to happen, and it's something that, we're born with it. It's like, when you're a baby, you learn very quickly, if I cry really really loud, that nice lady is gonna come in and give me milk, got it. But here's the thing. Once a pattern becomes familiar, once we get it, we really understand that if I do this, that's gonna happen, we don't have to think about it anymore. And it gets relegated to what's known as our cognitive unconscious which makes the vast majority of the decisions that we make every day. We make, are you ready for this number? This is a big number. We make 35,000 decisions a day. 35,000 decisions! Most of them obviously have to be made by our cognitive unconscious, although I think most of those decisions, because you think, how is that even possible, are on the level of you're driving and it's like, Oh, the road is turning a little bit, I better turn my arms. Oh, the road is turning that way, I better turn my, I mean, you never think that when you're driving, you're too busy talking on the phone. (audience laughs) So that is what that is. Or when you're typing, you know, if you had to figure out where every key was on the keyboard and what, you know, how to spell everything, you'd never be able to do it. It's decisions on that level. And that frees our brain up to be able to make decisions for things that we don't have an automatic answer to. I think most of those 70 decisions, though, are on the level of do I wear the yellow socks or do I wear the green and blue paisley socks. In other words, let's face it, things that don't really matter. But the biggest problem that we have with that is that once something does get relegated to our cognitive unconscious, it becomes like the air that we breathe. We don't think about it at all anymore. It becomes well that is reality. It's like I bet that none of you, either here or you guys at home, I bet none of you went to bed last night thinking I have a really busy day tomorrow, so I sure hope the sun comes up, because if it doesn't, I'm gonna be in big trouble. Like, you never think that. Did you ever go to bed and think that? Of course not. Because every single day your entire life, the sun has come up. That's just what happens. But imagine what would happen if the sun didn't come up. Now there's an idea for a story. And you wanna go galloping off and write about it. The problem with something that has been relegated to our cognitive unconscious, because we tend to think of it as that's the way it is, is it's very hard to change something. It's very hard to realize that there's something that we take for granted that isn't in fact true. And that's why I'm hitting on this hard, because we really have been taught since we were in kindergarten to get an idea and then just write forward with it as a premise. And I'm not saying this because I'm, it's not hyperbole and I'm not channeling my inner five year old, I actually spent a couple of years recently in a very small school district in New Jersey, where I was brought in to help the teachers incorporate story into how they teach writing. And I'd love to say that the superintendent brought me in because he knew how important story was, and he really wanted the kids to learn it, and he thought that, but that wasn't why he brought me in. And I'd love to say that he brought me in because he knew that understanding story was the basis of critical thinking and he knew that, but that wasn't why. He brought me in because their state standardized test scores were low. And they wanted to try to bring them up. And they did. But I saw how it was taught, and it was really heartbreaking. Writing was taught in terms of just mechanics. You know like, here's a noun, here's a verb, here's a paragraph. If you've got two long sentences, now you need a short sentence. And lovely luscious metaphors. They were really big on beautiful imagery. But when it came to story, they were given prompts that were nothing but a big, giant, weird thing that happened. And it would be things like, and I'm literally paraphrasing right now, the New Jersey ask. Questions like Jane is walking along the beach and she finds a bottle with a message in it. Write a story about what happens next. Or Sylvia comes in and she finds a big, shiny box on her desk at school, she rips open the lid, out comes sparkly light, write a story about what happens next. Or John wakes up and he hears noises outside. He looks out in the backyard and there's a castle. He goes inside to see what's going on. Write a story about what happens next. And the problem is, what difference does it make? Why would it matter to Jane or Sylvia or John that these things happened? It's just a big, unusual, weird thing that happens. Now writers will sometimes go that's okay. Because that leaves me free to unleash my creativity. I can write anything. I'm not being boxed in. I can take that anywhere I want it to. That is a good thing. And take a look because you'll see that most writing prompts are on that exact same level. That exact same kind of big, weird, unusual thing that happens. You've got no character, you've got no meaning, you've got nothing, but boy is that weird. But here's the thing, and here's why that doesn't work. Because as cognitive psychologists will tell you, absolute freedom is not liberating. Absolute freedom is paralyzing because you have no idea what anything means or what to do or where to go. And so what tended to happen was, when we saw this and went into the classes, and the woman I was working with said, "Yeah, this happens all the time." She's seen it over and over. Is that kids would write stories and they'd go something like this. John hears the voices, he looks outside, he sees a castle. He goes inside. There's a clown from the middle ages but it's actually a spaceship and it goes to Mars and when it gets to Mars there's a knight in shining armor on a horse, but instead of a lance, he's got Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, and he's fighting an octopus, but it's not an octopus because it's got 12 arms and they're all purple, and then Luke Skywalker comes up, and he's really angry, and then there's Mighty Mouse and then there's Superman and then Wonder Woman and then and then and then and then and this is how it all ended and then John woke up because it was a dream. Because when you postulate just something weird and unusual happening, you've got nowhere to go except to something weirder and more unusual and what difference does it make? The answer is it doesn't. So the question is, and what we said to these kids, and their test scores did go up, what we said to them is okay, here's the thing to think of when you think about a story. First question to ask once you've got some basic idea is what is your point. All stories make a point, beginning with the very first sentence. You cannot write forward to figure out what that point is. You need to know it so that you can write a story that actually makes it. And when I'm talking about a point, I mean again, a point about human nature. Because we come to story wired to ask one thing. What am I gonna learn here that's gonna help me make it through the night in terms of what makes people tick? So you wanna know what that point is, and you need to know it from the very, very beginning. And writers will sometimes come in and go, "Well, I'm trying to figure it out." And that's not something that you would ever do if you were writing anything. Imagine if you were, let's say, you're taking a class, and it's about the use of nuclear energy in Spain, and I have no idea if they use nuclear energy in Spain, totally making this up. But you're writing your term paper and you go okay, I gotta write about nuclear energy in Spain. I'm gonna throw in everything I know about nuclear energy and everything I know about Spain, especially bull fights because they're really cool. And I'll see where it takes me. You'd never do that. You'd have a point you are making and you would pick, cherry pick the information to build toward that point. The same thing is true with stories. When writers write forward and they're not sure, you end up with a story that's sort of like what I like to call your dithery friend Todd. We've always got someone who's like the dithery friend Todd. And Todd is this guy who comes over and he's like, "I gotta tell you about what happened at work today." And you're already thinking uh oh. Because you know Todd. So you know, "I gotta tell you this. "The boss came in and jumped on the desk "and he danced the tango and then he ran out." And then there's something about his grandmother who's got lombego because it's raining, and the cat seems to have gotten loose, and there's something to do with either milk or spoiled yogurt, and there's a rave that might have been in 1992, or it might be happening next week, and you are just not sure. And you want to shake him and go why are you telling me this. What is your point? Readers sense this from the very beginning. If you don't know what it is, you can't write a story that makes, and to be very clear, I'm not saying you know what the point is and you step forward and you say by the way reader, here is the point I'm making. But your story builds toward it. And actually the way it makes its point is when your protagonist gets to that ah-ha moment at the end. So the question that you always wanna ask yourself about the point is what inside intel do you want to give your readers about human nature. What are you looking for there? How do you want to change the world? That is what you're looking for. What does it mean to you? How do you want to change the world? What is that thing that you're saying, and to be really clear, stories only make one point. One point. You don't want to go if one point is good, five points would be even better. One point. Will build, it will escalate, it will complicate, but what is that point? What are you trying to say? How do you want to change the world? And it could be something really simple. Again because this is the first step, it will get deeper and deeper and deeper as you go forward. It could be something as simple as better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. You're not looking for something super deep. I mean, that's deep, obviously. But at this moment, you want to figure out exactly what that is. And don't shame yourself if it is something that you think, "That isn't even as good as a bumper sticker. "That's so obvious." That is fine. That is your stake in the ground. Once you've figured that out, the next question is why is it important to you to write this story. Why are you burning to write this? Why are you the one to do it? What does this mean to you? And this is something that you wanna ask and ask on a deep level. You need to be vulnerable about it. What has brought you to this? You wanna be personal. You wanna try to find some reason that really goes deeply into who you are and has that deep meaning that maybe you haven't even told anybody. Because it will make you feel vulnerable. You're not looking for something, you're not looking for something surface like. I hate seeing children go hungry so I'm writing a novel that's gonna make people feed kids. Because while, yes, we totally don't like kids going hungry and yes we totally wanna feed them, that's not deep enough. You wanna go really deep and think why is it important to you to see this change in the world. Because you can change the world. And the reason is is because that's what's gonna keep you writing, because all writers, writers worth their salt anyway, will go through that time you know, when you're writing forward, then all of the sudden, you kind of re-read what you've written and you think, oh my God, this is the worst thing anybody has ever written in the history of the world. I am so glad I haven't shown it to everybody. Forget it, I'm gonna totally and completely give up. In other words you're gonna have a dark night of the soul. And for some writers, that dark night of the soul is every night. And so this is what's gonna keep you going because you're gonna think you know what, I wanna see this change in the world. And will my novel get out there and help make that change, who knows? I mean there are fabulous novels that never get published and when they do, people just don't read them. And we all know there are terrible novels out there that everybody reads. You just can't know. But what you will know is that if it doesn't succeed, it's not gonna be because you gave up. And that is what can get you through the night. Because it's hard. Writing a novel is hard. What you're doing is hard. You are very brave to be doing this. It's hard. It takes a long time. This is what might keep you going. So let's talk about an example here for a second. About where ideas come from and stages that writers can take it to to get down okay, what's your point. And this is, you may be familiar with this book, it is a middle grade book. It is the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It's written by E.L. Konigsburg. And it just, I don't know where we are now, but at this time it just hit its 50th anniversary, which is really shocking. It may have been read to you as a child, you may have read it to your kids, maybe both. It's the story of Claudia. Claudia is 11 almost 12. She lives in Connecticut and she has an older and a younger brother and she really feels like her family doesn't take her seriously. She just doesn't feel like she's got any gravitas. She feels overlooked. She wants what we all want. She wants to be seen and valued for who she is. So she decides that she is going to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and that will show her parents. And she ends up going, she goes with her younger brother, Jamie. He's nine. She takes him because he has money. He has money because he cheats at cards because that's often what makes people interesting. Not the great stuff but the he cheats at cards cool. So they go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and they realize pretty quickly that that's not gonna be enough. That just hanging out there and running away isn't enough. So at that same time, there is a small marble statue that is now on display. It was pseudo-donated by Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and there's some question as to its providence. Is it a Michelangelo or isn't it? And she decides that they're gonna figure that out. And adventure ensue and it's a wonderful novel. So the question is okay how did she get that idea. What is she trying to say with that idea? And we know the answer to this question because on the 35th anniversary of the book, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked her and so she wrote it up and it's in a newsletter that they put out. So the first part where that idea, and this might be the same as, where do ideas strike? Here's where the first blush of the idea struck. She went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she had three kids, and she was looking at one of those period rooms. And they've got these period rooms, you can't go in them because the furniture's very delicate. It would be like all the furniture in a 17th century Venetian castle. And it's got, now there are plexiglass. You literally couldn't go in the room if you wanted to. When she did it, I think, she says it was a velvet rope. So she's looking at this room that nobody can go in and deep in the room on the seat of a chair, she sees a kernel of popcorn. (laughs) Talk about I expected one thing got something else. It was like whoa. It's that dissonant thing. Where did that come from? Now that's not enough to start writing. But it stuck with her, because what sticks with us is when we have expectation broken. So the following summer she says, she had just read this book, and the book is called High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. She says it relates the adventures of some children who, while being transported from their island home to England, are captured by pirates. On the open seas in the company of these pirates, the children lose their thin veneer of civilization and become, and I love this word, piratical themselves. Did you know that was a word, piratical? I mean, what a strange, it sounds like you radically love pies, which I could relate to that. So then that summer she and her three kids and her husband went to Yellowstone. And she said they were at Yellowstone and they were having a picnic and they were crouched slightly above the ground. They'd spread out their meal. And she said, "And then the complaints began." The chocolate milk was getting warm. There were ants all over everything. The sun was melting the icing on the cupcakes. And that was just her husband. I'm just kidding. She said, "This is hardly roughing it and yet my small group "could think of nothing but the discomfort. "Unlike the children in the novel I had read, my children could never become barbarians even if they were captured by pirates." This is a great sentence. She says, "Civilization was not a veneer to them. "It was a crust." It's like ew. (laughs) She said, "Certainly, if they ever wanted to run away, "where would they go? "Certainly they would never consider "less civilized than their suburban home. "They would want all of those conveniences "plus a few extra dashes of luxury. "Probably they wouldn't consider a place "even a smidgen less elegant than "the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Now there you've got a plot. That's all you've got is a plot. Kid's gonna run away. You can picture what might happen. She's gonna run away, she's gonna get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and adventures will ensue. She'll have to run away from guards, and she might knock stuff over, and her parents are gonna look for her. It's just a bunch of things that happened. Like would you really care? Is there anything there yet? No. Not at all. It's just a plot. So then she started to dive into the point. And in thinking about why they'd go there and what they'd figure out, and she says, in order to make the point she wanted to make, she said, "Then I thought, while away from home, "they could also learn a much more important secret." The first secret being what the statue is. A much more important secret. "How to be different inside their suburban crust. "That is, different on the inside where it counts." See how simple that sounds? I mean it's what's inside that counts. That wouldn't even make a bumper sticker. (laughing) That's just so simple. And yet that's what she was writing about. That was her point. Now it's a real, if you read the novel, it's shockingly complex for a middle grade. But that's what she was writing about and that's what you need to really zero in on.