Tell Me a Story… In Three Acts

DSC_0035 We have another great guest blogger today! Melissa F. Miller is a practicing attorney and author of the Sasha McCandless legal thriller series. Her debut novel won the 2012 National Fiction Writing Competition for Physicians and Lawyers and she is a USA Today bestselling author. Melissa is an awesome mom, great drinking buddy, and an all around kick @$$ woman, just like the characters she writes. So, read on!

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When Allison invited me to do a guest post about storytelling, I figured it’d be a snap to write about telling stories. After all, I’ve written six full-length novels, two novellas, and counting. I thought I could simply discuss my process and that would make for an interesting–or at least worthwhile—post.

I was wrong. Really wrong. Dead wrong, even.

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Or perhaps chocolate craft beer?

Part of the problem is that my process is messy and organic. I may tell myself I’m going to outline, or use the Snowflake method, or story beats, or writing from the middle, but what actually happens is I have a plan, the plan goes south, and then I wail to my husband that I’m stuck. He points and laughs at me and tells me that must mean I’m almost done. I grumble, drink some craft beer, and eat some dark chocolate that has been carefully stashed in my desk for just this occasion. And then somehow out of the ooze, the rest of the story results. Not the most interesting topic to read about.

So instead, let me tell you a story. Once a year, I do a story session with kindergarteners at my kids’ school. Some of my storytellers are not yet reading, some are emergent readers, some are fluent readers, but ALL of them are storytellers.

We talk about how a story has a hero (and usually a sidekick), a special tool or skill (historically, the six and under set seems to favor magic and/or superpowers here), and a goal. But our hero encounters an obstacle. The situation looks bleak. Then our hero uses his or her special tool or skill to overcome the obstacle and prevail!

There you have it: A vastly oversimplified discussion of three-act structure.

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As a group, we brainstorm and write a story using these elements. They’re all super excited and eager to share their ideas.

But that’s not the neat part. The neat part is that, even at their tender age, these kindergarteners have already internalized this basic story framework. They ask insightful questions like, “What if the main character is the bad guy and he has a bad goal?” Antihero! “What if the hero doesn’t win?” Dark twist! “What if nothing exciting happens?” Literary fiction! Just kidding.

But even very young children can grasp the power of story. Telling stories (and, later, reading stories and writing stories) is how humankind had made sense of the world since, well, since the before the beginning of recorded history. The structure of a story is embedded in our DNA.

And with that the writer relied on her secret weapon (adorable children) to overcome the obstacle of writing a blog post for the delightful and clever Ms. Nederveld. The End.

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