Zestful Blog Post #289
Back in elementary school I was neither the first nor last kid picked for teams; I was unathletic enough to not be chosen first, but popular enough not to be chosen last. Gosh, remember when we did that? I understand these days they don't let kids choose up sides, because of self-esteem. Gym was OK except for one dreadful piece of equipment: the climbing rope.
The rope, a hairy hemp freighter hawser thicker than an eight-year-old's thigh, started in a knot at waist level, then ascended nearly out of view, affixed to the ceiling two storeys up.
Every gym session, the teacher would tell us to line up and take turns climbing the rope. Success, of course, was measured by how far you climbed. Kids who made it all the way to the top, daringly slapping the iron swivel, then sliding dramatically down like firefighters or sailors, were like gods to me. (Oh, it was safe! The teacher dragged a small gym mat under the rope!)
I couldn't climb the thing at all. Not one inch. When my turn came, I'd sigh and take hold of the rope and try to pull myself up. I just couldn't do it. I had the desire to do it, but when I pulled with my hands, nothing happened. I hung there like a grape until the teacher, a loose-jowled guy who wore loafers and dress pants, would say 'next' in a bored voice.
As an adult, I'd wonder about that rope now and then. The breakthrough came when I was being weekend-lazy, watching an old Tarzan movie on TV. By God, there it was: Tarzan grabbed that vine and climbed it, and he used not just his arms but his legs too. He didn't clasp that vine in his hands, he hugged it. And he wrapped his legs around it and bent them like a frog's, then, pinching the vine with his legs, sort of stood up. He regripped the vine with his arms, frogged his legs up again, and kept going. (To the admiring gazes of Jane and Boy.)
And I remembered that the kids who made it to the top looked just like Tarzan. Why didn't I see it at the time? Why didn't I copy the other kids? I’m sure my kinetic sense wasn't very good then, and my brain wasn’t fully developed either. If the teacher—or even another kid—had broken down the moves for me, showed me and explained it to me verbally, step-by-step, I probably could have done it. I wasn't much punier than the other kids.
The next opportunity I had to climb a rope like that—not that such opportunities come by every day—I grabbed the thing, hugged it, wrapped my leg around it, and—went up!
This is how I feel about aspiring authors and story development. Thousands upon thousands of stories start with a cool nugget of an idea. And then they hang there.
But the truth is, story development—getting from cool idea to fully formed story or narrative—isn't a mysterious endowment. It isn't a you-have-it-or-you-don't thing, like leprosy or royal lineage. Just like rope climbing, story development is a skill that can be learned and improved. And it’s simple: All you need to do is look closely at how successful authors do it, and realize that they’re showing you, right there on the page. Study up. Read without haste. Make notes. Ask and answer questions like:
· How does the author move from the opening into the first conflict?
· Who are the major characters?
· How does each character—major or minor—serve the plot?
· Is anything there for no reason? Or maybe I need to look closer?
· What is the author trying to tell me here, and here, and here?
· How can I copy this?
Work with what you see, and with what you seek.
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