Guest blog by Christine Hanolsy
Anyone who has kids can tell you that they really put a crimp in your writing routine. Homework, flute lessons, soccer practice, and just basic childcare—it all has to happen (and don’t get me started about virtual school). Finding time to write feels practically impossible these days. But kids can be an inspiration, too.
My 12 year old, Niki, came home with a creative writing assignment. He had a protagonist (well, a group of them), a strong antagonist ready to oppose them, and a believable (in the context of feathered superheroes) conflict. He sat down to write, and the story of “The Super Feather Ninjas and the Wrath of Plobydoo” poured right out of him. As we worked to polish up his story, I realized how much my kids have taught me about storytelling without even meaning to.
Here are a few concepts that have helped me push through the inevitable writing doldrums.
Let it go
Apologies for the earworm. I can't even blame this one on the kids.
This was the first—and hardest—lesson I learned from my children, and the one I have the most trouble implementing: sometimes you just need to give up control of your story, no matter how ridiculous it gets, and just write with abandon.
For real: let yourself be twelve again! Write without thinking of the consequences or the plausibility of your story. Don’t try to figure out how your character(s) will get out of a situation. Just throw them in, and let them work through it bit by bit. Some people call this “pantsing” (as in, “flying by the seat of your pants”), and, yes, it is both terrifying and freeing. By all means, have a beat sheet or a list of plot points. It’s good to understand where you are going, but let the “how” come naturally.
"Yes, and" + "No, but"
Okay, what about consequences, though? This is a trick I learned from my attempts at running tabletop role-playing games for my kids. Nothing will turn a kid off of a creative endeavor faster than someone saying, “You can’t do that,” or, “That won’t work.” By allowing something to happen (let it go!), and then defining the consequences, you can ramp up the tension of a story without quelling enthusiasm. “Our hero slays the dragon—and starts a civil war in the process.” Or, “The thief is caught—but she slips the stolen jewels into her captor’s pocket.”
The reality is, there’s no such thing as a bad idea in storytelling. It’s what you do with it—how you work it into the story—that makes the difference.
Use what you know
Niki’s story relied on a series of common scenarios: the hero’s origin through exposure to some kind of radioactive goo, an evil dictator who wants to rule the world, a threat to the hero’s family, a battle in a dungeon.
My kids might not know the literary terms, but they naturally gravitate towards stories containing familiar archetypes and tropes. And it makes sense: archetypes and tropes are cultural shortcuts. They clue a reader in to the larger context of the story, and they give a writer a framework to hang their ideas on. You can find dozens of sites dedicated to identifying and utilizing archetypes and tropes; they are certainly a useful tool. But remember that they are tools, not substitutes for well-rounded characters or plot development.
Keep in mind: tropes that are familiar to a Western audience might be less common in other parts of the world, and vice versa, and archetypes can quickly devolve into stereotypes. If you’re not sure how fine a line it is that you’re walking, find a beta reader who can help pinpoint any trouble spots for you.
Change the world
At the end of Niki’s story, just when the Super Feather Ninjas are about to lose to the evil mastermind, [SPOILER ALERT] a handful of his favorite anime characters shows up to fight alongside our heroes and help save the day. This sort of deus ex machina maneuver might seem a little clumsy to the adult writer, but it illustrates an idea that I’ve found very helpful: if the plot is not working, if the characters aren’t able to do what they need to do, change the world around them. This could be as simple as placing a useful item where your character can reach it, or as sweeping as, “Hey, what if this story took place on a planet with no gravity?”
Rein it in
Okay, so you’ve dropped a half-dozen ridiculous plot bunnies into your story. Now you’ve got to rein them in. The nice thing about being an adult writer is that we understand—generally—that a story is not finished with the first draft.
Figure out which pieces truly serve the story, and what you need to do to stitch them together. “Letting it go” lends itself really well to listing a series of events rather than developing a story arc. “This happened, then this, then that” is not a story; what is the most important thread that connects these events, and which ones should you set aside?
Remember Chekhov’s advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The reverse is also true: if you fire a gun in the second act, make sure it had a reason to be there to begin with.
Make sure your characters are well-rounded and complete. An archetype is not a full-fledged character, after all, just the shape of one.
If I were to edit Niki’s story, I’d ask him to go back and introduce the anime characters earlier—to draw some sort of connection, some reason for them to be in his world, so that the world is consistent throughout the story. I’d ask him why his archetypical Big Bad wants to take over the world. What makes him tick? In stories, people do things for reasons (or they ought to, else they come across as caricatures, not characters).
I can’t claim that I incorporate all of these lessons into my own writing every time I sit down to tell a story, but every creative interaction with my kids—whether it’s gaming, art projects, or brainstorming ideas with our Story Engine Deck—reminds me that writing can be a joyful experience.
Christine Hanolsy is a science fiction and fantasy writer who hopes to one day live up to her kids’ expectations. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the online writing community YeahWrite; past roles have included Russian language scholar, composer, interpreter, and general cat herder. She lives with her family in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and you can find her online at christinehanolsy.com.