Full transcript of author John Dufresne’s TEDx Talk: How to Write a Story @ TEDxFIU conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here. He is the author of the book “The Lie That Tells a Truth“.
John Dufresne – Author
Thank you very much.
I want to talk about how to write a story.
And the first commandment in the writing fiction is sit your ass in the chair. Some of us need Velcro Pants.
Thinking about writing is not writing. A story doesn’t exist before the act of writing.
You’re in your chair, but your central character will be at the end of his rope — a desperate man taking desperate measures.
Only trouble is interested. And everything you don’t want to happen to yourself or your family or your friends should happen to characters. You love your hero, but you keep putting obstacles in his way.
Writing a story is taking the path of most resistance. You dip your pen and the ink and you begin at the edge of a cliff.
You sit and try to express what’s inexpressible, and that makes you nervous. You know that every story is a failure. But you also know the writer is the one who is not stalked or even fazed by failure. And that makes you fearless.
You begin not knowing where you’re going to end up. But trusting in your imagination in the writing process to get you there. You write about what you don’t understand. What you don’t know is more important than what you know, because that’s what engages your sense of wonder.
You sit and you insist on meaning but not on answers. The point is not to answer but to question. Not to solve but to seek. Not to preach but to explore. And you also know this: that life is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
No matter how luminous your prose, how fascinating your central character, if you don’t have a plot, a narrative shape, if your central character isn’t striving to accomplish something meaningful, then the reader will put down your story.
And the plot to every story is this: You have one central character who wants something intensely and goes after it, despite opposition and as a result of a struggle comes to a win or lose.
So you take that definition, and you let the plot do your thinking for you. It’ll lead you quite naturally to considerations of theme, setting, point of view and so on.
So let’s say, you begin. Let’s begin with a married couple, the Bells and with the requisite trouble in mind, you open with the death of their child, and you see if the marriage can survive the agonizing loss.
The Bell’s 20 year old daughter Hope has died. Now you don’t have to use an allegorical first name, and you may decide that doing so is heavy-handed. And if you do, you revise. You’re writing a first draft; nothing is carved in stone.
The Bells are home alone after the funeral, after the burial, after the distressing but obligatory reception for family and friends here at the house.
Alice is sitting on the sofa, slumped in the corner, teacup in one hand, tissues in the other hand. Grady sitting in a ladderback chair, elbows on his knees, staring at his folded hands.
Grady believes if he had been listened to, Hope would still be with them now. And he wants Alice to admit her role in what happened, and you wonder what did happen.
Grady says to Alice…when you write a story, you’ve got two choices: you can show or you can tell the right scene or summary.
Scene is vivid and intimate. Summary is distant and efficient. Scene is where the writer engages the imagination and the emotions of the reader. Everything important in your story should happen in theme and this looming expression of Grady’s resentment is certainly that.
So you begin as close to greatest pronouncement as you can when everything but the action is over. If this is a story about a marriage in trouble, you don’t need years of prosperity and bliss.
But before you can write the scene, you need to look more closely at the stage that you are setting, at the bereaved Bells in their living room. Because when people speak, they also act and you need to know the potential of the room and every detail in that living room will tell you about the people who live there.
Writing a story is archeology. Not every detail will make it to the page in black and white. But more importantly, every detail will afford you insight into the characters. The details that make it will be those that are vivid and significant.
So now you know your characters a little better. You feel more confident to go back to the scene. Grady’s blue tie is stuffed into the breast pocket of his jacket. You notice he has a scar on his left hand, his left wrist. And you know that every scar tells a story. But will this story be relevant to yours? You’ll find out.
He has a milagro, a religious charm used for healing purposes in the shape of an eye, pinned to his lapel. He bought it from an old woman outside a church in Shibuya, New Mexico.
You decide Grady has glaucoma. When he told the woman he wanted a milagro for his daughter as well, the woman said, “What’s wrong with her?” And he said, “Everything.”
Now if you hadn’t stopped to get, look more closely at Grady and get to know him better, you would not have stumbled on to the themes of vision, what we see and what we don’t in healing. And you’re already writing about death and about marriage and about grief and about loss, and you haven’t even started.
And what about Grady saying that everything was wrong? What did he mean by that? You decide to find out. So you write about Hope in your notebook and you learn that Hope was a drug addict who robbed her parents blind and died alone of an overdose in a vacant lot. You had no idea.
Back to the living room. Alice’s black hair is cut in [mangs], streaked with gray and held off her face with Turquoise barrettes. When the sweater slips from her shoulder, you notice your left arm is tattooed with a flaming heart.
On the coffee table is an emblem of their loss, a framed photo of baby Hope on a beach blanket, floppy blue hat on our head, zinc oxide on her nose.
When you look past Alice, you can see the staircase that leads up to Hope’s bedroom. You know you’ll be up there soon to try to uncover what you can of Hope’s secret life.
Under the coffee table is a thread of gold. You see it. The Bells don’t: it’s a necklace. And you wonder what role this piece of jewelry will play in the story.
Alice sets your teacup down on a copy of Food & Wine. There’s a sleek black cat sitting resplendidly on the bookcase shelf. On the windowsill is a potted lily which tells you it’s EASTER. You know the irony. You realize you could use the season to set the tone for your story.
And now you’ve got the themes of renewal and rebirth to consider. Grady reminds Alice that he was against throwing Hope out of the house after her last relapse. “You wanted her to hit bottom,” he says, “and she did.”
Alice feels like she’s been clubbed in the face. What does she say? What does she do? You watch her intently, and you wait with a pen in your hand.
She smashes the teacup; the cat blasts off into the kitchen. She calls Grady the monster. She cries until she can’t catch her breath. You write all that down.
Grady knows he should go to her, but he’s frozen with anger and overcome with guilt. When Alice runs to the doorway, he follows her and tries to calm her down. She pushes him away, runs out to the driveway, and screams. The neighbors peek out their open windows. She runs off.
Your story is underway. But whose story will you tell? Grady’s or Alice’s, one central character, remember!
The decision you make will depend on the themes you want to explore, on the character who is more interesting to you. Perhaps the one with the most to lose.
So let’s say you decide it’s Grady’s story, and what he wants is to bring Alice home, to heal the wound that he’s open, to repair the damage that Hope’s addiction and death have done to the marriage; he wants redemption.
Now his desire to bring Alice home has to be considerable. Motivation provokes action; you can’t write about a passive central character. So he loves her; he can’t live without her. He wants her forgiveness for absolution. He wants redemption.
Now you know he has sufficient reason to try to save the marriage and every time he does, you’ll write a scene. In fact, you can simply write the obligatory scenes all the way to the end for the climatic moment of the story.
Who is going to tell the story?
Grady can tell it, or a third person narrator can tell it and grant us access to Grady’s thoughts and feelings, and maybe to Alice.
All first-person narrators are unreliable. They have a stake in the outcome. If you want Grady’s reliability to be a part of the meaning of the story, then you’ll let him tell it. But if you want to focus more clearly on his concerted efforts to save the marriage, then you’ll let a third person narrator tell it.
So now you have a central character. You know what he wants and why he wants it. And now he has to struggle against the obstacles. You can’t write about a passive central character.
So you leap ahead to the evening when Grady goes to Alice’s sister’s condo and asked her to come home. She says, “Her home was with Hope.”
He says, “You threw her out when she needed us the most”, and the argument escalates.
Alice is not coming home. Grady went there to bring her back and drove her further away. But he can’t stop, oh, we have no story. Struggle implies protracted effort and impassioned conflict.
Your next scene. Alice agrees to go to lunch with Grady. They’re both back to work. He’s an admired high school guidance counselor. He works with troubled kids. And he’s always secretly believed that parents have allowed addiction to happen to their children. And now you know the source of his guilt and a sense of failure.
At the restaurant, Alice says she’s gotten an apartment. She’s moving out of his place and into hers. Grady is incredulous. Why did he know anything about this?
Later when she comes by his house to get her clothing and some pieces of furniture, Grady is helpful and understanding, because he wants to persuade her to stay. But she comes with a friend Austin from the radio station where she works and the move is over in 20 minutes.
Grady never guessed to wrangle alone with Alice.
Now the only obstacle so far has been Alice and you’re wondering if there might be some other impediments. And so one day Grady sits at the kitchen table, pouring over the photographs and the family album. You and he are trying to discern just when it was that his beautiful daughter decided enough with ballet and tennis. I’m going to be a ballet.
Grady’s heart is broken and his resolve is wearing thin. And there you have it. Will he give in, or to struggle against his own despair? He won’t give in and he calls Alice and he leaves a message on her voicemail asking her to come to marriage counseling. And now you know the next scene you’ll have to write.
As he leaves the message and keep message, he wonders if she’s listening. You think she is? He wonders if she’s alone. You think she’s not.
The plot thickens. At counseling, Grady says he wants to save the marriage. But with Dr. Stroud, ask Alice what she wants. She says a divorce, a new life. She tells Grady she loves him, but can no longer live with him.
The ongoing conflict has to be resolved. Grady can lose Austin losing with Alice. Make a note to get to know Austin better. He’s an important character.
Or Grady can win; Alice comes home. After 23 years of marriage, she knows him that much at least, and you’ll end your story with a scene.
Here’s one possibility. Alice is on the sofa, reading a book by lamplight, but she’s been on the same page for an hour. When Grady looks at her, he sees a halo around her head, his glaucoma, remember. He thinks Saint Alice. But he notices the book, the photo is gone from the coffee table. And he realizes she’s holding it behind the book punishing herself with the image of her loss.
And in that moment, Grady understands the time will heal some wounds and he will eventually get over the loss of Alice. But in one case, time will make no difference, and he will never recover from a shattering loss of his daughter.
Bringing Alice home has shown Grady the futility of their decision to live together.
Your draft is rough. But you’ll smooth it out in revision, because the truth is stories aren’t written. They’re rewritten. You have to have something to rewrite at this first draft. We’ve been talking about to expect more from a first draft just to misunderstand the writing process. If at first you succeed, try try again.
The plot led, you followed and now you have your causal sequence of events. And you have your essential beginning, middle and end.
And now you can go back and add the connective tissue of summary, flesh out the scenes you’ve already written. Write the scenes that you discovered along the way, like the afternoon outside the church in Chimayo, the evening that Grady discovered the brook, the necklace that he’d given his daughter on her 16th birthday.
And you probably should do something with that marvelous tattoo of Alice’s, but what?
Well, you’ll figure it out as you write, because your ass is still in the chair and you’ve just created a brave new world and made up these people who never existed before and you’re so excited. You can’t get up.