Many of us started out writing stories based on childhood happenings: being picked on by a bully, feeling left out, falling off a rope swing, getting a pony, getting bucked off a pony. (Hey, there’s got to be someone else out there that got bucked off a bazillion times, too.)
The problem comes when the story gets stuck in our past and doesn’t gain a life of its own. The process tends to work something like this:
- Think of a fun or traumatic incident.
- Write it in story form.
- Fictionalize it by changing names, places, how many siblings, etc.
- Try to make the opening more exciting.
- Realize it’s lacking something.
- Try to add conflict. Maybe even add a friend or sibling who wasn’t actually there.
- Take a bigger chance and change the dialogue or action to what you wish you said or did, instead of what actually happened.
- Give it to your mom, who says, “I remember that!”
- Give it to your critique group, who says, “Umm, okay.”
- Pull your hair out.
There’s an easier solution.
To truly fictionalize an actual incident, you need to step out of it enough to develop the necessary story elements: vibrant characters, strong conflict, compelling dialogue, etc. Until you have enough experience to do that directly, try this:
Change the gender of your main character.
You’d be amazed at what happens to your story when your bullying victim changes from a girl to a boy. Or when a boy, not a girl, isn’t allowed to participate in an activity. Or a girl, not a boy, moves to a new town.
You can keep the conflict, the plot, even the ending. It may seem like you’re writing the same story, but with a boy instead of a girl (or vice-versa), you’ll gain enough writerly distance to change anything else you want. All’s fair in love and war and the quest for a stronger story!
Sure, your main character’s motivation may change – boys are different from girls, after all. His or her reaction to someone may change, or how he goes about getting what he wants, or his attitude as he talks. Or she. (I hate the whole he/she thing.)
It becomes a story that is informed by your experience, instead of a simple retelling of your experience. And as a writer, you’ll be better able to follow the story where it wants to go, without the restrictions of your own memory.
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