Finding Serendipity

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A Blog Post

Writing Tip #1: What’s the problem?

The other day, when my Mum was cleaning up her house, she found a big box of exercise books filled with stories that I wrote when I was in primary school.

It was fun to look back through the ideas I’d had when I was just starting out as a writer, and I found that my stories contained many of the things I still love: animals, mysterious forests and magical characters who lived in little and quirky homes.

There were a lot more beginnings to stories than there were endings, which is probably not unusual, but when I tried to work out why so many of my stories fizzled out before they really got going, I realised something really important. Often, my characters had no problems!

You might be like me: you might really enjoy describing what characters’ look like, and how they behave and where they live. But, if these wonderful creations of yours don’t have a problem then you might not have a story that will keep you, and your readers, excited all the way to that magical place called The End.

This week, my daughter Xanthe started writing a story about a girl called Ivy who had recently come to live in an orphanage. Xanthe told me what Ivy looked like, and how horrible was the woman who ran the orphanage, and how Ivy had a pet mouse called Pea.

‘But what’s the problem?’ I asked her.

‘Well,’ said Xanthe, ‘Pea’s been caught in a trap, and without a special potion from the Southern Witch, he’ll surely die.’

‘Excellent!’ I said, not meaning that it was excellent that this poor little mouse was injured, but excellent that her story had such a great problem at its heart.

How would Ivy find the Southern Witch? What would the potion be made of? Would Ivy be able to save Pea in time? I can’t wait to find out when ‘Potion for a Mouse Called Pea’ is finished!

In Finding Serendipity, Tuesday’s first problem is that her mother is missing. This is the sort of problem that opens up limitless possibilities. Where is her mother? How will Tuesday find her? What kinds of adventures will she have along the way?

So, next time you start a story, you will probably still think about what colour hair and eyes your character has, and what their house looks like, and how they like to eat their toast (these things might turn out to be really important to your story), but see if you can also ask yourself: what’s the problem? If you don’t already know, try to find out. Look for a problem that makes you ask lots of questions about what will happen next.

Good luck! And now, my problem is what to do with all those exercise books…