Writing Prompts are a fun way to begin creating a story, but what happens after you finish with the first paragraph?
Here are three plotting secrets in the beginning of stories that will help you moooove in the right direction! (Sorry, I couldn't help it!)
To be honest, you might know these ideas intuitively, but it’s ideal for us, as storytellers, to identify them so that we can use them effectively.
AND, since we have quite a few stories from students that are fun, we’ll showcase their work as we talk about our tips. Here we go!
1. Happy Beginnings
Many stories open where the hero or heroes are introduced in their familiar, safe world. Often, they are having the time of their lives, playing with their friends, relaxing, or strutting around their neighborhood and showing off their skills.
This occurs in many cartoons or Disney animations. Why? Well, it touches on several characteristics at once.
- We begin to like the hero as a nice, well-intentioned person. In this way, the character develops a relationship with us, and we want to know more about who they are what they want in their lives. This sets up for us to care about them.
- We might see that she or he is liked and loved by other characters. This makes us care for them more.
- In the beginning, we'll see the environment they live in. Do they live in a idyllic land where nothing goes wrong? Or in a place where it is always busy? Here, stories immerse ourselves in the character’s life, and show us their attitude about where they live.
- We might see a glimpse of their talent, skill, or powers. Elsa of Frozen has freezing powers. Now, it doesn’t have to be magical. It could be the ability to stand up to bullies. Everyone has something they are good at, including you!
- We might even see a few of their flaws. Are they clumsy? Special note: Sometimes the powers we mentioned above can be turned against them. A person who stands up to bullies might find themselves in plenty of fights, bruises, or trips to the principal’s office! Their flaw? Getting into fights!
Most importantly, the Happy Beginning allows us to see the hero in their normal, everyday world. We call this the Ordinary World.
By the way, we discuss stories that begin with a sad or dissatisfied state in a future article.
For now, let's just focus on the basics.
Here’s an example of a Happy Beginning from one of our elementary-aged students.
This 8-year-old synthesized his love of STEM with his deadpan sense of humor. Right away, we can tell it’s going to be a bit silly. Perfect! We also love encouraging a sense of humor and surprise in writing.
On the planet Earth, 500 years after humans’ extinction, there was a cow named Cow.
Here is his daily schedule:
Take a nap
8:00 PM-9:00 AM
You might ask how he stays on time and WHAT he does during this mysterious “Break time.” Well, the answer to that is he spends time with his best friend RGB (Red, Green, Blue). RGB is really the only friend, but don’t tell that to anyone. RGB is an AI computer that has unlimited internet access, due to his hacking abilities. This is so Cow can play video games on him during “Break time,” instead of just chewing grass all day.
In this Cow and RGB story, we see Cow’s everyday schedule along with a spotlight on his favorite pastime–playing video games during his break with his AI computer, RGB.
Clearly his SKILL may be playing video games. (Sorry, but burping methane is not a skill. All cows do that.) Could he also be skilled at solving problems? Or maybe he’s just willing to do what he needs to do to win. We’ll see.
But for now, we see that Cow is basically happy and content with his life. We see him with his robot friend, his only friend. This kind of makes me laugh and at the same time makes me care about how lonely Cow might be if he didn’t have RGB!
This Happy moment at the beginning of the story is important as it establishes a kind of stability, as there’s not a care in the world for Cow. He’s in his comfortable place where he can be himself and truly kick back and enjoy his life.
Let's see how this is done in a movie. In the beginning of Disney's Frozen, (I know, I know. Stay with me here!) we see Anna and Elsa happy and having the time of their lives. We see they love being sisters.
But, if you’re a student of stories, then you might feel that something "bad" will occur soon. They're having too much fun (for stories). Perhaps something drastic and loud will happen. Or, perhaps the change is subtle, but serious. Whatever the change, it should put the hero under enough stress to drop what they are doing and resolve the problem. Why? Because this moment changes everything thing.
Okay, what do you think happens to Cow as he’s having fun playing with his video game on RGB the robot?
The way we ask this is…”What could be the worst thing that could happen to our hero?”
Our student took this instruction and made it his own. In class, we spoke about the patterns from Happy to Sad, Mad, and Confused (our main negative emotions). We noticed this in a movie like Frozen and read a short story or two as an example.
Here’s this student’s hilarious next scene:
On May 8, 3592, Cow played against RGB in Mario Cart 103, and he was winning!
“You know, I wish you could move around, instead of sitting in this field all day,” said Cow.
RGB had heard this many times before and always had the same response.
“Sorry, Cow, but you know that that is impossible. I would need new hardware, which is not available within 10 miles.”
“Fine. Ooh! What’s that?” Exclaimed Cow as he pressed on an advertisement for computer hardware.
“DON’T!” yelled RGB, but it was too late.
Seconds later, Cow heard one thing:
Photo by isaac sloman on Unsplash
2. The Bang!
Cow was so content and happy, until “Bang!” he decided to click on that advertisement!
Here’s something to notice in the next movie you see. How does the story change for the worse?
Let's see what happens in Frozen. At first, we see Elsa creating a playground with her freezing powers (Skill) for her sister Anna. They're having the time of their lives, until “Bang!” Elsa accidentally hits Anna's head with her powers, thereby knocking her out!
Bangs can be anything that changes the scenes from Happy to Sad or Worse.
It can be a car crash, a hit in the head, a favorite device destroyed, someone shouting and slamming the door, shocking information, and anything that will force a problem on the hero or heroes. Bangs also force heroes to take action.
By the way, an observant student of stories will notice there are "bangs" throughout the course of an entire story. In someways, they are the spark that drives everything and everyone into motion. For readers, it makes us want to read the next scene!
A series of bangs makes it worse and worse.
The more bad "bangs" occur for our heroes, the more they feel the downward pressure to do something drastic.
In Frozen, Elsa feels the weight of being seen as a hated "monster" that it pushes her from Happy to panicked.
This downward pressure is what we call “Impending Doom.”
3. Impending Doom
"Impending" means a threatening event that is about to happen. For example, today is your long-awaited outdoor birthday party! But a huge storm cloud is approaching. In the darkening storm clouds, lightning is striking everywhere. Suddenly, drops of rain begin to dot the paper plates and a wind blows away the party hats! Impending doom!
Impending doom forces our heroes to make their first steps into a long, arduous journey they would otherwise NOT go on. They may even refuse to do it at first. “No, I can’t do it! I’m not a wizard!” Now, who said that?
For Elsa, in Frozen, the Impending Doom is that she has to be Queen. For anyone else that sounds wonderful, but for Elsa and her freezing powers, which maybe going out of control, she fears being seen as a “freak” by the public. Below are some scenes where Elsa feels the pressure of Anna's questions of why she doesn't approve of her marriage to Hans or them living at their castle.
By the way, why doesn't she want to have Anna AND Hans live there? Probably because she doesn't want Hans see her freezing powers or hurt him and Anna (again). But this is what happens next. Elsa's worst nightmare occurs. She's seen as someone different or worse. This pushes her out the door, where she runs away.
Okay. Now, let’s return to Cow and RGB.
“You just installed a virus,” said RGB weakly.
“Oh,” said Cow. His heart skipped a beat when he heard what he did.
“I just ran a scan,” said RGB, “and we have 6 days to get me out of this computer.”
1 hour later . . .
RGB found a computer store 31 miles away, and they set a course for that store.
YIKES! ONLY SIX Days before RGB is wiped clean! Cow is not only losing his favorite video game, he might be losing his only friend. It’s like RGB is dying! Would THAT make Cow leave the grassy fields he lived on forever? OH YEAH.
Our student is also doing something special that we call a “Time Lock.” A countdown is on, and time is ticking away towards an IMPENDING DOOM.
We’ve seen this in spy movies where the special agent is tasked to disarm a bomb. Of course, he’s only 5 miles away and has to drive a sports car, which he crashes and jumps out of to run across busy intersections, sliding on the hoods of cars, and deciding that climbing up stairs to the roof is the better way to get there. Of course, the clock is ticking and it’s a race. The hero is huffing and our hearts are pumping. Ahh!
Impending doom may not always be so dramatic with such high action. It can be more lighter action. But the stakes are still fairly high, just as teh pressure makes COW DECIDE to set course to the compuer hardware store 31 miles away!
Remember, the hero must make a choice to venture out onto their journey. In Frozen, Elsa chooses to run away from Anna, the castle, the dignitaries and the citizens. On her journey, she'll develop her own sense of confidence without the worry of harming the ones she love. That's when and where she'll learn to "Let it go!" as in her fears, her worries, and develop her powers to become the person she wants to be.
Just a side note. Marathons are 26.2 miles, and the average time for running it in a race is four to five hours. I hope Cow and RGB can run! Yikes! Impending doom!
Our Conclusion, until our next article
I know, my student and I left you on a cliffhanger of sorts. Not to worry. We’ll continue our Story Plotting tips for our next blog. Until then, write your story, and see if any of the ideas of Happy Beginnings, A Bang (or a series of them), and Impending Doom naturally occur.
If not, feel free to experiment with it. And the next time you read a new book or watch a movie, see if you can identify these elements. If you do, you’ll begin to develop the mind and eye of a storyteller.
For a review of Frozen scenes, I will refer to these YouTube videos:
Happy (Hero's Skills, Good Hero, Relationships) & Bang:
Frozen (2013) - Anna Hit By Elsa's Ice Power [1/10]
Impending Doom (Downward Pressure, World Pressures):