A few years ago, I had a job as the after-school assistant at an elementary school. My duties included keeping track of the children until their parents arrived, dealing with Kindergarteners who had wet their pants, and supervising snack time.
If you’ve never watched elementary school students eat snacks, it’s rather fascinating to observe just how slowly a first grader can eat a box of raisins, or the intensity with which a third grader attempts (and often fails) to punch his straw into a Capri Sun juice pouch.
My favorite kid to watch at snack time was always Jackimo. He had a lot of awesome things going for him: his name, his crazy-curly hair, his dinosaur back-pack. Plus, the kid unknowingly turned snack time into a vaudeville comedy routine.
He was always having some sort of issue with his snacks. Often it was trouble with the packaging. He would struggle with the slippery wrapper of a Nutri-Grain bar or the pesky metal ring on a can of peaches until he had reached a near-temper-tantrum state. With a sudden burst of desperate energy, the wrapper would come flying open, the Nutri-Grain bar sailing through the air and landing halfway across the cafeteria. Jackimo would run to it, wailing about germs, and throw himself onto the floor in a fit of rage and hunger.
Then there was Jackimo and his bananas.
Bananas have their own tricky packaging. Jackimo would hold the banana at the bottom and open it from the top. He would peel it all the way down, at which point the banana would promptly topple out of the peel and fall onto the floor. Jackimo would then, of course, wail about germs and writhe in a fit of rage and hunger. (Obviously his parents never taught him the five second rule.)
After I watched Jackimo do this once, I tried to intervene. The next time he brought a banana for snack time, I sat down next to him and said, “hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t you peel it a little bit, take a bite, then peel it a little bit more and take another bite? Do that until you get to the end.”
Jackimo raised his eyebrows at me. Then he proceeded to ignore my suggestion and peel the entire banana. It started to fall, and I grabbed it with my hand before it hit the floor. “Well, here you go,” I said, giving him the banana, unsure as to whether or not I had made my point.
“Your hand has germs,” he told me. But he ate the banana anyway.
Speaking of kids, currently I’m teaching a class at The Writer’s Center on writing YA and middle-grade literature. This week we’re going to discuss story structure and plot, and as I prepared my lecture notes, I thought about Jackimo and his bananas.
There are so many ways to think about building a plot: the Three-Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, John Truby’s 22 Steps to Story, Michael Haugue’s 6 Stage Plot Structure, Blake Snyder’s famous beat sheet, etc.
I’ve started to believe that before I can write my novel, I need to sit down and organize the story into one of these frameworks. I need to make sure I know exactly where my story is going and exactly how it’s going to get there.
Not that I’ve changed my mind. I still think it’s incredibly important to make sure I have an actual story and an understanding of where it should go before I get too deep into the drafting phase. I still think these frameworks can help me figure out how to write a good story with a satisfying amount of tension, conflict, and resolution.
But, I also think that trying to figure it all out at the very beginning, trying to outline every little plot point before I start writing, is a little bit like peeling the entire banana before I’ve taken my first bite. There’s a good chance the story will topple over and I’ll writhe in frustration.
As E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That sounds an awful lot like my advice to Jackimo: Peel a little, eat a little. Do that until you get to the end.
I still wonder which is the “right” way to write a novel. Create a detailed road map first then follow it precicely? Or set out recklessly into the fog, only able to see a little ways ahead, and hope I get to a good destination? I don’t know. Different things work for different people, and, for me, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I do think I need to use the frameworks to help me create my plot, and I do think it’s important to plan the story before I start writing in earnest. But during this planning stage, I can still be writing. I can write to learn more about my characters and setting. Write to get a sense of the overall tone. Write scenes that may or may not be used but help me understand the story better. And then, when I’ve done some planning, when I’ve peeled back the major story points, I can take a bite and start writing the actual novel. I don’t have to have the entire thing plotted at that point. I can leave room for my characters to surprise me. I can figure out some things out along the way.
I hope that, these days, Jackimo has figured out how to best peel his bananas. And I hope that neither of us have to writhe on the floor in frustration and rage any more.