Narrative arc. Characterization. Voice. Scene. Objective Correlative. We lay out a lot of words when we talk about writing. They are all good words, and the work they represent is important to good craft.
Sometimes, though, we forget – I forget that they are not the most important things, not the essential things to good writing. Those things seem so simple that we brush right past them . . . at our own peril.
Today, six-year-old C will be coming for her first writing class with me. I’ve taught a lot of kids in the past, and I love doing it. But I often have trouble getting the course laid out, mostly because I skip the crucial elements of writing. I want to get her to start thinking about detail and plot, but she’s six and these are not the point. Besides, she doesn’t need help with those things – if you’ve ever known a six-year-old, you know that they are almost never lacking for detail or the ability to build action in a story. (Ask one about the biggest bug they’ve ever seen if you doubt this.)
At six (and at 36 and 69), the most important things are much more basic (chant them with me, now):
Who is the story about? What is happening? When does it take place? Where does it take place? Why is this thing happening to this person/animal/robot? How does it happen?
It’s easy to forget one of these things when we make our first priorities the lyricism of our language or the way our characters walk. I can manage to describe a character’s face and how his voice sounds and forget entirely to give his name or who he actually is. I see students regularly neglect to give their work a setting, so it often feels like the action is happening out in the ether (aninteresting setting, if intentional). Sometimes in our desire to write beautiful language, we forget to tell a good story.
In a few minutes, C will arrive (Mom in tow), and we will begin with flashcards of these six words. Then, we’ll take a walk through the yard and find her “who” amongst the farm life. Maybe she will dance with glee when she sees a huge frog. I’ll ask her his name, and what he’s up to, and I have no doubt a story will unfold with the simplicity of a child’s mind. And it will be perfect.