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Writing Tip: Gary D. Schmidt

I’ve invit­ed a group of top-notch writ­ers to share their writ­ing tips with you this sum­mer. Look for a new bit of learned expe­ri­ence each Tuesday.

Gary D. Schmidt: A Prac­ti­cal Tip

One of the hard­est moments comes when you sit down with your com­put­er, type­writer, pen­cil and yel­low pad, or sty­lus and cuneiform tablet, and begin a sto­ry.  So here’s a tip:  Get your pro­tag­o­nists in trou­ble right away. Put them in a place where some­thing has hap­pened, or will hap­pen, and they have no choice but to respond. That starts the sto­ry off, and that makes the read­er want to know what hap­pens next. 

So when you’re think­ing about that trou­ble, con­sid­er start­ing far away with your ideas, and then move clos­er. Here’s what I mean. 

(1)  Have some­thing hap­pen that is phys­i­cal­ly very far away from your pro­tag­o­nists, but that will soon affect them. Per­haps two aster­oids have just bare­ly touched each oth­er in their jour­ney around the sun, but it’s enough to send the larg­er of the two direct­ly toward a lit­tle town in Mon­tana where your pro­tag­o­nist lives. OR per­haps your pro­tag­o­nist and three of her friends are on a beach along the Cal­i­for­nia coast, while a thou­sand miles away, out in the Pacif­ic, a tec­ton­ic plate slips a lit­tle bit and sends a tsuna­mi rush­ing to the east. OR on the Great Wall of Chi­na, your pro­tag­o­nist’s pen pal finds an unusu­al plant, snips off a leaf, and sends it to your pro­tag­o­nist in upstate New York, not know­ing that this leaf con­tains an ancient DNA that wiped out all the sur­round­ing flo­ra in Chi­na ten thou­sand years ago. Here the sus­pense lies with the read­er try­ing to make a con­nec­tion between the far­away event and your protagonist.

(2)  Have some­thing hap­pen that instead of being very far away, is very close to your pro­tag­o­nist. That sci­ence exper­i­ment in Mr. Fer­ris’ class, it gets com­plete­ly out of con­trol. The house next door is get­ting a whole lot of sud­den vis­i­tors, and under their rain­coats, they seem to have tails. Your pro­tag­o­nist’s sis­ter, who was prac­tic­ing piano down­stairs, sud­den­ly stops play­ing and dis­ap­pears. That dog that moved in next door can fly. The kid that moved in next door can leap tall build­ings at a sin­gle bound. In your pro­tag­o­nist’s home­room, the teacher’s eyes glow. All of these will be close by your protagonists.

(3)  Have some­thing hap­pen that your pro­tag­o­nist caus­es with­out mean­ing to. Your pro­tag­o­nist acci­den­tal­ly awak­ens a ghost that has been dor­mant for cen­turies. Your pro­tag­o­nist wins the Nation­al Spelling Bee, send­ing her best friend into a jeal­ous rage. When the pro­tag­o­nist bor­rows his uncle’s met­al detec­tor, he dis­cov­ers Viking gold—the same gold being sought after by the hid­den lord of the Tem­plars. Your pro­tag­o­nist starts a fire with a Bun­sen burn­er, knocks over the snake cage and lets out a cobra, wins a trip to some amaz­ing place with one friend—and she has to choose who to take—or finds out that he car­ries a dead­ly dis­ease that he is immune to but which has the poten­tial to sick­en thousands. 

All we’ve done here is to find trou­ble far away, or close beside, or with­in the protagonist—and we know as read­ers that with all of these, we can expect the pro­tag­o­nist to respond some way to that trou­ble. And that response begins your plot.

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