On Friday, my wife Cathy retired after forty-seven years as a healthcare professional, and on Saturday we celebrated with a gathering of friends. It’s a bittersweet time for Cathy. As ready as she is to move on to a new chapter of her life, she’ll admit to a touch of sadness over leaving her work family. It’s also a time of uncertainty as Cathy and I move into this new reality, and that’s what brings me to some observations about storytelling.
Good narratives begin amid instability. We meet our characters at times of their lives when something is uncertain. Maybe there’s a problem to be solved, or maybe someone new has appeared, or maybe an opportunity presents itself. In short, something in our characters’ lives has shifted, and they’re uncertain about what it may mean for their futures.
Think of the times in your life when the reality you’d been living in changed and sent you out into a new world: your first day of school, a move you made, the loss of a loved one, your marriage, the birth of a child, the reappearance of a lost friend, or a number of other possible triggers for stories you want to tell.
Take one of those major shifts and break it down into smaller occurrences. Maybe your first day of school, for instance, takes you to a memory of a haircut, or shopping with your mother for new clothes. Maybe you remember stiff blue jeans, or Buster Brown shoes, or patent leather Mary Janes. Maybe you recall your new school supplies: blunt-tipped scissors, paste jars, a box of Crayola crayons, or a number 2 pencil and the way it smelled after you sharpened it and then used it to stab a girl in the palm of her hand because you were just a kid and you loved her, but you didn’t know how to say that. Okay, that last part is my story. The point is you can access the large shifts in a life by using smaller moments attached to them. Start small and the complicated things will rise organically from the worlds you’re creating with the precise details.
So, there you have it, plain and simple. Tell the stories you have to tell with a small step onto the page: a shopping trip, a haircut, a pencil sharpener. Then shade in the context that makes those details matter: a divorce, a controlling father, an abused child eager for someone to love him. Let the details take you through worlds that are changing for your main characters. Write about the small things, and the big things will follow.