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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

What's the Story?
by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

Young Writers Help us Remember the Basics

One of my favorite ways to share writing is to bring teenagers and adults together and see what they'll learn from each other. In one workshop, I rediscovered how often writers confuse slice-of-life musings or essays with "stories."

The group began discussing just what the necessary ingredients of a story are, and the youths had a fine time enlightening their elders on the basics we thought we knew, but seemed to have forgotten. Because they are reading and writing most days for schoolwork, the teens easily crafted an overview that relates directly to a story's most basic structure, while reminding the rest of us about those "five W's and an H." (Oh yeah -- those.)

In order to truly be a story, what we write must have a complete "shape" and be constructed from a clear beginning, middle, and end, they advised. And most important, something must happen within the flow of that progression.

What happens doesn’t have to be the event of high drama (though plenty of readers will reach for it if it is). It can also be internal, a realization or epiphany inside a character.

In order to care about what happens, the reader must care about WHO it is happening to, so characters really do need to drive the story. They need to be whole, which means giving them a past, present, and future, no matter how much of this actually finds its way into the words of the story. Many writers "interview" characters to get the fullest sense of them as individuals.

Setting – the story’s WHERE and WHEN -- also needs to be well established. In a sense the writer needs to take the reader there, and some writers give setting almost as much weight as character in a plot, especially in such things as historical fiction.

The plot – WHAT happens – needs to arise out of characters and their motivations or wishes or challenges. The story feels complete when whatever happens grows naturally out the characters’ problems and the things that get in the way of their solving them. This helps establish the WHY of the story, and always requires that the story’s plot lead characters to discover or learn something, often about themselves, as well as the world

Plot takes form when the writer creates believable characters and injects conflict into the story. HOW the characters overcome conflict is what makes the story a story. Just as the most dramatic plot will fall flat if characters feel like cardboard cutouts, the most fleshed out characters can’t get away with hanging out on the page. We need something that makes us wonder, "Will they make it to the end?"

To carry a plot forward, conflict must be compatible with the nature of the characters. Because a writer relies on the reader to suspend disbelief (and its an increasingly skeptical world out there), the plot and action mustn’t ask the reader to depart too far from what she has come to understand and expect of the characters. That’s why defining characters’ personalities, motivation, and challenges is important, because whatever happens, and however it is resolved ("The End"), must all be in sync with these.

Here's a basic checklist for assessing whether a piece of writing includes the essential ingredients of story. These elements are divided loosely according to the three distinct parts of a story.


  • Establish character(s) as believable, worth caring about; establish time, place, and circumstances.
  • Make clear the character's needs, wishes, and motives. Establish character’s problem (internal or external), as well as the need for solving that problem.


  • Introduce complication or conflict, from which action will arise. Put something in the way of the characters getting what they want, which makes their problem more challenging to solve. This must be important, and genuinely compatible with a character's nature, in order to hold reader interest. Have a logical basis for character's behavior, as well as natural cause-and effect within events.


  • Solve or resolve the problem. This needs to be believable and arise out of the character's struggle (no sweeping, act-of-God answers). Climax needs to come about through the main character(s). Any elements introduced in the story should be tied up, with no loose ends left to raise unanswered questions in the reader’s mind.

Mother of two Phyllis Edgerly Ring is a parenting columnist for several magazines and an instructor with the Long Ridge Writers Group. Her articles have appeared this year in American Profile, Christian Science Monitor, Liguorian, Mamm, and Pregnancy magazines. She invites parents to contribute thoughts for a book she is writing about gender equality in the family. For more information visit www.phyllisring.com.









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