To go beneath the surface in your story, or shall we say beneath the plot, the writer needs to ask why what happens in the plot matters to the protagonist or the characters in the story. As Lisa Cron of Story Genuis fame says, the plot gets its emotional weight based on how it affects your protagonist who is in pursuit of a goal.
Let’s see how it works in two books I enjoyed.
The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is an historical non-fiction book told as a riveting story. The plot is about how these nine disparate, poor American college boys finally come together as a team to win the eight-oared crew race in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. [Eight oarsmen, 1 coxswain = nine American boys in the boat]
That’s what happens.
But who would really care if not for the why it matters to one particular boy in the boat, Joe Rantz. This book is mostly his story. Of course, Brown brings to life all of the crew members, the coaches, the boat builder, Joe’s family and girlfriend, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
What Joe has always wanted is a family who cares about him. The reader watches Joe’s attempts to get his father and step-mother to care about him, to be proud of him. And we feel Joe’s pain as he is abandoned again and again by his family.
We see his misbelief become a reality, that he can’t trust anyone to be there for him. The reader is part of his search for family and connection. And he finds it in rowing and realizing that he can trust his fellow crew members.
In fiction, John Grisham’s The Client works the same way. The plot is about the suicide of a mafia lawyer who knows about the mafia cover-up of a murdered Louisiana senator.
Okay, it’s about the mafia’s dirty works. Why should it matter to regular folks?
It matters because the protagonist, an eleven-year-old, street-wise but poor boy named Mark Sway, tries to prevent the lawyer from committing suicide.
Okay, so what?
It’s the backstory in any story that helps the reader understand why the plot matters to the characters.
Mark’s always wanted security for him and his mother and younger brother. He’s been taking care of them since before his abusive father left.
What happens in the plot matters to the Mark because he feels responsible for bringing a mafia threat into his family. A heavy load for an eleven-year-old to bear. Like any good story, problems escalate. Not knowing who to turn to, Mark retains a lawyer for his family with a dollar. Together Mark and his lawyer Reggie Love, a woman with her own complicated backstory, end up in a race to discover the body before the mafia moves the body.
Again, this all matters to Mark because he doesn’t want his family to live in fear of the mafia killing them.
I’ve only given a basic outline of what I’m trying to show here with the above two titles. It’s easier to show how the questioning system works with finished stories. It’s much harder to do this in your own work of creation.
In each scene, the writer needs to know:
What the characters go into the scene believing,
What they want, and
Why what is happening in the scene matters to them.
By the end of each scene, the characters need to change; their outlooks on the situation, their feelings, or their next moves, even if it is just slightly. Writers need to let the reader into the character’s head.
In the first scene of my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, Victoria is at school with her special needs’ daughter Marie. They are meeting with the guidance counselor from the high school to choose a curriculum for Marie.
Victoria enters the scene believing that she’s inferior to college-educated professionals, but if she can only get the counselor to understand Marie’s needs and what Marie wants to do in life [attend college to become a teacher], choosing the curriculum will be easy.
What Victoria wants in this scene is for the counselor to listen to Victoria. [Counselor ignores Victoria.]
Why what is happening in this scene matters to Victoria is because she is reliving her own struggle of trying to convince her parents that she desired to attend college, and Victoria, too, was told that she was not college material.
Victoria changes by the end of the scene [only slightly] by deciding, as a mother, to give her daughter the opportunity that Victoria was denied so long ago. Victoria allows her daughter the opportunity to at least try to attend college. [Counselor makes Victoria sign paper stating that if Marie fails high school it’s Victoria’s fault because Victoria wouldn’t follow recommendations made by teachers and the Special Education Department, people who are more educated than Victoria, who wanted Marie to stay in Special Ed classes.]
Writers of fiction as well as memoir need to remember that we never just give us the what in the story. We need to always dive into the why. In other words, when creating story, writers need to know the questions to ask of every scene, every character:
Why did that happen?
What did the character do as a result?
If we keep asking why and where the feeling is coming from and what does it mean to that person, we can discover the true meaning of our story.
I want to thank JennieNash of Author Accelerator and Lisa Cron for helping me to understand which questions to ask for each scene in my memoir.
*As before, please offer any insight or comments you may have about my college memoir. Thank you! *
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