Writing Recipe #1

Guest post
by Ellen Plotkin Mulholland

Opportunity. Events. Writing a good story involves opportunities and events. It’s how you combine the two that moves the story along. I like to write with an event in mind and bring in opportunities to move my plot.

My nephew reminds me of another recipe for writing. Children see the world two ways, it’s obvious, it’s mysterious. When it rains, carry an umbrella. When you see a puddle, jump in it. It’s obvious. But why does it rain? How do clouds manage to float in the sky and not fall on our heads?

It’s mysterious.

The other day, my father and nephew (his grandson) were talking about writing. My father, a published author in the business world, has always wanted to write fiction. He can’t. He’s read probably more books than at least ten busloads of metropolitan commuters. Really. He’s 78. 78 (it’s worth repeating). He plays softball and goes on cruises with my mom. On their last trip, a quickie up the coast, 7 days, he read 6 books. Mostly crime novels, mysteries, spy stuff. Six books in seven days. My nephew, an 11-year-old genius. Really. He’s a celebrity at his school for having read more than 100 books. We’re talking Captain Underpants, Harry Potter, all that. One hundred. So the two of these voracious readers are talking about writing stories.

My dad says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write fiction, write a book, but I can’t. I get started and I get stuck. I come up with something like, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’, and I get stuck. I don’t know what should come next.”

My nephew looks up at him and says, “Oh, that’s easy Grandpa. I know what comes next. ‘A man in a raincoat steps out of a doorway’.”

It’s obvious.

It’s mysterious.

It’s raining, so someone’s going to be wearing a raincoat, but why does he step out into the rain? There’s the next step in our story. The event: it’s raining. The opportunity: a man steps into the rain. We know a little about him. He’s not completely stupid. After all, he is wearing a raincoat. We also know that he must be out for something important, maybe serious. After all, it is a dark and stormy night, and if you’re not an idiot for stepping out into it (and you’re not, because you did put on a raincoat) then you must be embarking on some serious stuff.

Now you create the next opportunity.

Thunder claps. A car screeches. It slides into the light post. Glass shatters. The man stops. The driver is slumped over the wheel.

Now, not only have you created opportunity, you’ve created the next event. A car crash.

And on you go.

Events and opportunities. Make them obvious. Make them mysterious.

You’re in business.

Give it a try: It was a bright and sunny day…

Ellen Plotkin Mulholland teaches academic strategies to middle schoolers in a small Northern California town. She is a former freelance journalist and a newly published author. Her first YA novel, This Girl Climbs Trees, will be released in a revised edition late 2013 from Logos Publishing House. Her second novel, Birds on a Wire, is also due out in early fall 2013 from Logos. Learn more about Ellen from her website.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Recipe #1”

    1. It really does take off some pressure, Carolyn. When I’m working on a story, I have post its sticking all over my desk area. They are simple ideas of possible events and opportunities. When I’m stuck, I consider if one might fit in right now.

    1. That’s the thing, Helen. When you choose an ordinary event, so many opportunities are possible. And they will most likely be believable to your readers as well. Your next task is to slowly drop in details about the man. When he rounds the corner, mention how the lightning flash illuminates his Burberry overcoat that his sister-in-law gave him last Christmas after Ben passed away. More opportunities!

    1. Stack up on sticky notes, Lynne. I have pads of them in every room of my house (even in the bathroom) and in my car 🙂

  1. What a fabulous way of looking at the world… and writing. 🙂 Sometimes kids can see the obvious when all we can see is the mystery. Great post. Thank you.

    1. Another good piece of writing advice I received: think of all the obvious things your character might do until you come across one that’s ridiculous – consider that your next move. Readers like surprise (within context).

    1. It really is. In my last book, I couldn’t see why I had a character enter a particular location until my protagonist entered it three chapters later. I foreshadowed without knowing it. I’m beginning to believe that’s how it works. Definitely trust your instincts and intuitions 🙂

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