Story Recipe

One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.

Here’s roughly what I said:

First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.

Person + goal = character

Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).

Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”

Character + obstacle = conflict

If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.

In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.

We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.

At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.

Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.

Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.

The full recipe looks like this:

  • Who is the main character (person + goal)?
  • What world does he live in?
  • What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
  • How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
  • What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
  • How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
  • How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?

The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.

The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.

Read-Alouds for Those Who Don’t Care

For about two weeks before the end of the school year, I put aside trying to teach one of my classes and read out loud to them instead. I wanted to revive whatever dormant interest they had in stories, or create one if it never existed.

The stories had to be engaging (gripping, funny, sad, scary), short enough to read aloud in one sitting, and relatively clean. I also wanted to pick stories that the students were unlikely to read in school, though I realized that other teachers tend to pick stories based on the criteria above, which means the pool is relatively small.

Most important, every story had to make an impact. I didn’t care whether the students hated the story or loved it as long as they cared.

Here are the ones we read, in order:

  • “The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
  • “Through the Tunnel,” Doris Lessing
  • “To Build a Fire,” Jack London
  • “My First Deer, and Welcome to It,” Patrick F. McManus
  • “The Long Rain,” Ray Bradbury
  • “A Brilliant Idea and His Own,” Mark Helprin

A Man Stays in Constant Contact

The principle of growth means we have to move on, but it also means that we cannot move on until we understand our heritage. To try to generate good church music out of the meager vocabulary of American popular music is like trying to generate good theology out of the ideas heard on Christian radio and television. Christian theologians need to acquire familiarity with the whole of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to move forward into new man-made theologies. Christian musicians must know all the music of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to produce good contemporary Christian music.

James Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 37

If you took a gander at my media diary, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time reading theology. Why be theologically literate, you might ask, if you write fiction? What’s the point? The point is exactly what JBJ explains above: in order to produce good Christian stories, the writer must be in constant contact with the primary special symbols, which means reading, examining, and knowing the Bible.