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.
2 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Gary D. Schmidt”
Excellent post. This clarifies things I have been thinking about. Thanks.
This is excellent — one of my favorites in the series so far!