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Take the Reader by the Hand and ...

Did you ever want to write a story?

By Jeffrey Kelly / March 16, 1993

One day a fourth grader, whose name was Jeff, did something he probably shouldn't have - a thing any kid might do.

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A GOOD start to a story? If you said yes, chances are you'd like to know more, because as fun as this might be to read, it's far from the whole story. It's missing all the specifics: the how and the whys and the whos and the whats. You don't know anything about the plot yet (what happens in the story); there's not much humor or suspense. It's a skeleton - all bones and no meat.

As readers, we want the meat.

As writers, we have to oblige.

Writing a story is easier than you may think; anyone can do it - certainly you. All you need is some paper, a pencil (or, if you like, a computer), and your imagination. A quiet room also helps.

Good stories start with good ideas. "What should I write about?" kids ask me. It's a good question. I'd like to help you write a story that's based on something "true" that happened to you. Or something you saw happen.

Maybe you're saying, "But nothing exciting ever happened to me." Surely that's not true, but if you're stuck for an idea, let me give you a few things to think about that'll get your memory going. (After all, many stories come at least partly from a memory - a recent one, or one from long ago.)

So here's an "Ideas for Ideas" list. Think about: (1) a time you learned a lesson: "Don't sled down that steep hill," my mother warned me when I was a kid. I did anyway and crashed into a tree; (2) a day that turned out to be a catastrophe for you: Like the sixth-grade boy who wrote about accidentally locking himself inside a jail cell on a field trip to the local police station; (3) the "best" time of your life, such as winning a big game, or dancing in the "Nutcracker" ballet; (4) an event you were an eyewitness to: "The Day I Saw an Elephant Play the Piano;" (5) your most embarrassing moment - we've all had those!

There. Five ideas among many to think about. You don't have to use any of them. Probably you've already come up with one or two on your own (the more unusual the better), but if you haven't, feel free to use one of mine.

"How do you start a story?" is another question I'm often asked. I want to answer, "Anywhere, just dive in," but that wouldn't be helpful to everyone. So here are a few tips to catch the reader's eye, because that's what a good start (or "lead") should do:

* You could set the scene - tell where the story takes place, and in doing so, add some key information, such as: "One night I was down in my basement with the lights off watching `Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man' on TV." What does the reader know right away? It's night. The lights are off. Someone's watching a movie by himself in the basement. And the movie is scary. Probably the story's going to be scary, too. Maybe funny-scary. Would you keep reading? I would.

* Or you could start by asking the reader an unusual question that has to do with your story. "Do you believe in flying saucers?" introduces a story about alien beings. "Have you ever been in trouble with the principal?" concerns trouble. "Don't you just love liver?" is about gross food.

* You could start your story with some exciting action. You like action and so does the reader. "I was running as fast as I could" makes the reader want to find out why. So do "The snowball smashed through the window," and "The tree began to tip over and fall."

* It's very easy to start your story with an exclamation, such as "HELLLLP!!" or "GADZOOKS!", or with a command: "Stay still and be quiet!" or "Don't do that!" or even a sound. And a second-grader I know wrote, "PLLLLSCH!" As it turned out, her story was about stepping on a worm with her bare feet.