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Amanda, the Python and the Pet Shop Robber
An elementary look at story structure
My 10-year-old niece has decided to write a play, inspired by a section of her social studies book that used a play to illustrate life in the early days of the American colonies. As I am the resident author in our family, she came to me for advice. She had an idea--she wanted to write about a pet shop. But that was all she knew.

It occurred to me that, sometimes, all that any writer knows about her stories is that it's about a pet shop. Or a cowboy. Or a murder. We've all started with that one little nugget of something--a place, a situation, a character--and had to build the story from there.

But how do you explain that process to a 10-year-old?

I started with the obvious. "What happens at the pet shop?"

She thought a moment, and finally said, "A mean girl comes in and opens all the cages, letting the animals out."

I asked her why the mean girl did that. We thought about it, and we finally came up with the idea that she wasn't really mean. She just thought animals shouldn't be in cages. She was an activist, and she opened the cages as a protest. So, now we had our story problem. But we didn't really have our who.

Whom does the story problem most affect? Every story needs a protagonist, right? My niece, Ashlee, decided that the pet shop manager, Amanda, had the most to lose. The activist released the pets on her watch. It was her job to gather them back up.

So we had our who. And by virtue of our story problem, we also had a what--our protagonist's goal. Clearly, Amanda wants to gather the animals and return them to their cages. We even had a tacit "why"--it was her job. But, as I explained to my niece, "it was her job" isn't a compelling motivation for our purposes. Stories need to transcend the mundanity of real life. Motivations need layers. Sure, a sense of responsibility would lead Amanda to round up the animals. But a true consequence of her actions would make the story seem more urgent to the reader.

We decided that the store owner was scheduled to come in to inspect the store that afternoon at four. The store had to be spotless, all the animals accounted for, by the time he arrived. Now our motivation had a strong sense of urgency and a personal consequence for Amanda if she was unable to achieve her goal.

So, we had our who, our what, our why--Ashlee was ready to get to work. But I explained that we weren't quite there--because the most important element of all was missing.

The why not.

Conflict drives story. No matter how beautiful your prose, you're not a storyteller until you can come up with believable, sustainable conflict.

I explained to Ashlee that if Amanda gathered up the animals in time to impress the big boss, without anything standing in her way, we wouldn't have much of a story. So something had to happen that threw a wrench in her plans.

Ashlee's first suggestion was that Amanda was able to get all the animals but one--a python. I thought that was a good start, but a more intense complication might be to have TWO animals missing after all the others were rounded up: the python...and an expensive angora rabbit, which just happens to be the python's favorite kind of snack. Now, you had two animals out, and one of those animals posed a grave danger to the other. The plot thickens!

But is that really enough conflict to sustain a story? You're still looking at an anecdote, not a story. You need an adversary. Someone or something that poses a true obstacle to the protagonist achieving her goal.

Because even if the python is hungry, and the rabbit is vulnerable, you're still looking at a situation that's part of Amanda's goal, not a true conflict.

There needs to be a reason why she might not be able to catch the python and rabbit on time. Something that stands in her way.

"Something like a robbery!" my niece piped up.

A child after my own heart.

A robbery was a great idea. As the pet shop people are frantically trying to catch the python before he catches the rabbit, in comes a robber, holding up the store. The longer he holds them at gun point, the harder it is to reach their goal. We finally have a true conflict.

So we had our story basics: Who, what, why, why not. We had a complication--the python and rabbit sideshow--and we had a ticking clock.

But did we have a story?

Not completely. Story also involves characters--who they are, where they've been, what they know, what they don't know. Story includes exposition, dialogue, action, reaction. My niece and I talked about ways we could use the complication to help resolve the conflict--perhaps upon learning the store employees can't access the safe, the robber spots the runaway rabbit and demands to take him as payment. And the second he grabs the rabbit, the python, which was lurking in the ceiling tiles, drops down on the robber in an attempt to grab the rabbit. The python ties up the robber, saving the day. And the rabbit gets away with his life, quickly caught by one of the employees and returned to his cage. The employees get the store cleaned up in time for the big boss to arrive, and Amanda gets her promotion and her raise.

Yay for happy endings!

I have no idea if my niece will ever get around to writing her play. But I think she has a little clearer idea of the elements that go into telling a story effectively. I have to admit, I learned a little something myself by breaking story structure down to its most basic elements in a way even a 10-year-old--or a multi-published author--could see how everything fits together.

Maybe the next time you're sitting at the computer, with just one little speck of an idea rattling around in your brain, you'll think of Amanda, the python and the pet store robber, and it'll be a little bit easier to turn that snippet of an idea into a story.

Copyright 2010 by Paula Graves