To honor the passing of an amazing writer, teacher and man, Sid Fleishman, I thought I'd share some of his wisdom from a workshop he gave at a Los Angeles SCBWI conference some years ago.
“Plotting is the most baffling of the bafflements.”
You need three things for a strong story: (1) a sympathetic character who (2) faces a problem (conflict) and (3) then the main character solves the problem. The reversal, with the villain as the main character who suffers a payback at the end, can be done but is a hard sell. Mr. Fleishman practiced plotting with those three elements, without intending to write the stories.
Once you have an idea, weigh your story – is it big enough for a novel, or simple enough for a picture book? What if you don't seem to have enough for a complete, complex story? “It takes two ideas to make one story idea,” Mr. Fleishman said. “With one stick, you can only throw it to a dog. With two, you can rub them together and make something new—fire.” For example, he took a folklore idea, that if you’re born at midnight, you can see ghosts, and added dumb pirates who killed their captain at the treasure site and then lost the map. The combined ideas became “The Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” where pirates capture a boy born at midnight, hoping he can see their captain's ghost and lead them to the treasure. He combined witchcraft trials and the fear of number 13 to get “The Thirteenth Floor.”
You can then make your story idea more dramatic by upping the ante. “The stronger the story problem, the stronger the story,” Mr. Fleishman said, “(and) the stronger the villain, the stronger the story.” Treasure Island would be forgotten without Long John Silver, so aim for villains who are as interesting and well-rounded as your heroes. You can also use a time lock to add pressure – like in James Bond, the world will end in three hours, unless…. Don't give your main character endless time to solve the problem. Put the pressure on now.
Write your story in scenes to give elements the right emphasis. “Don’t make the mistake of dramatizing scenes that aren’t important,” Mr. Fleishman said. He never used flashbacks – “they’re poisonous” – but dropped in backstory in small nuggets. “Flashbacks stop the story dead in its tracks.”
Finally, Mr. Fleishman shared one piece of advice I've never heard from anyone else. If there’s a hole in the story – some flaw in the logic of the characters’ behavior, for example – point it out and it disappears. He gave an example from one of his McBroom stories, a tall tale where the family is dealing with a mischievous “Hidebehind” that always stays directly behind you. Why wouldn't the family just use a mirror to see the Hidebehind? Mr. Fleishman had them try it, and then state simply, “It’s too clever for tricks like that.” No other explanation needed.
Exercise: Try Sid Fleishman's three-part story development exercise. See if you can come up with (1) a sympathetic character who (2) faces a problem (conflict) and (3) then the main character solves the problem. You might even make lists of characters and problems, and then try mixing and matching them. Perhaps you'll come up with a new idea you want to develop. At the very least, this can help you get a better grasp of how character and plot interact. (See the From Idea to Story posts, Be Cruel to Your Characters and Plot/Character Exercises – links to the lower right.)