My picture books are nearly all the product of a love affair with words. I listen and they bring me ideas: THE RING BEAR was born when my sister told me that her five year-old caused a ruckus at a wedding after she whispered to him that the ring bearer was about to come out. He heard it wrong. And panicked.
CHEESE LOUISE! was born after I heard someone say that “everyone has holes,” meaning “no one’s perfect.” Which lead me to wonder whether Swiss Cheeses mind having lots of problems.
NED LOSES HIS HEAD is about a boy who…loses his head. (Mom told me I’d lose mine if it wasn’t attached.)
7 ATE 9 was born after my five year-old told me the old joke: “Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9!” And I had to ask why. (It’s just a joke, Dad!)
THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE SHED is about a saw who isn’t, well, the sharpest tool in the shed. Until he is.
But idioms, misunderstandings, jokes, and silly expressions generate ideas, not stories. How do we get from one to the other? A great idea, while exciting, can actually be paralyzing, so it’s helpful to understand the distinction between a simple and a fertile premise.
Let’s pause for a moment to discuss structure. I believe that understanding traditional story structure is wise. And so does screenwriting guru, Robert McKee:
And so remember this from school?
You know: set up/complications/climax/resolution. It helps. A lot. But this helps even more…
And watch this…
Linking (one way or another) the incident that sets your protagonist off on his/her quest for change to the climax of the story creates a powerful effect. Ideally, this effect:
So back to this:
Now let’s adjust.
A fertile premise requires an Inciting Incident, which means we need to determine what causes our cheese to dislike her holes. There are many possibilities of course, but the choices are manageable. (Decision: she gets teased.) And our knowledge of structure tells us that, one way or another, in the climax, she must use her holes to “save the day.” (Decision: she uses them to outwit the one-eyed cat in the kitchen.)
The traditional structure imposed limits that guided these choices, but these limits were helpful:
If this feels formulaic during your drafting…hang in there. You are yet to internalize the traditional structure. Once it’s instinctual this isn’t something you consciously consider as you write. Yet it’s nearly always detectible in the final product, even if it has been creatively altered. (For example, Cheese Louise! employs two superimposed story arcs.) Keep in mind that the subject matter of your story is not original (sorry). What should be original is the specific way you package and present it. Here is Mr. McKee to the rescue one more time:
I’m hoping that the story of coming to believe one’s flaws can be one’s strengths has never been told in the context of refrigerator life. Similarly, that blending families can be fraught with misunderstandings has never been conveyed via a story about a boy who intentionally turns himself into a bear to wreck his mother’s wedding. Can one reject traditional story structure entirely and still produce a successful story? Of course, though in my opinion doing so pretty much guarantees a limited audience. Unless you hold the trump card.
Not that one. This one:
If you are hilarious, no one cares what happens in your story. But guess what the hardest thing to do in writing is? You never know which one will be the one that blooms. Good luck!
David Michael Slater is an acclaimed author of over twenty books of fiction and nonfiction for children, teens, and adults. He is the co-curator of the weredoingitwrong blog and podcast.