By Geoff Mehl
The 25-word thing, is of course only the tip of the iceberg. Geoff Mehl shares what he’s learned about building from a three-act-story process where setup becomes introduction, character empathy building, inciting incident, conflict begins and ends with pinch points, and resolution/climax. He’s learned from a number of agents that 25 words should be the very first paragraph in a query, and a useful exercise to plot a story.
Remember the old contests when you were invited to extoll a product in “twenty-five words or less” and perhaps win a prize? It was a means for companies to reinforce a brand and consumer loyalty, get a feel for branding possibilities, perhaps have a giant idea bin for some of those classic advertising jingles.
Fast forward to this winter, when we all curl up and enjoy a really good story — ours — because we have this really cool idea for a marvelous tale and a lot of time for the keyboard.
“So you’re actually writing a story?”
“What’s it about?”
And there we are, oftentimes mumbling our way through an explanation that goes on and on until our listener’s eyes glaze over and their thoughts turn to the pressing need to clean their refrigerator.
But merrily we press on as the darker days of winter close in, the glow begins to wither from the concept, the characters become boring and we run out of synonyms for “said.” Spring offers a reprieve, distraction, escape. Our once-grand idea, now just a sad little puddle of mush, gets put aside “to be fixed later, maybe, when there’s time.”
To test a writer’s resolve, just ask, “So how does the story end?” Those who become crestfallen, panicky, or uneasy will often reply, “Well, um, I, uh, don’t know, um, I’ll just have to see, er, well, I try to set the characters on the road and sort of tag along….”
Those who stand a really good chance of surfacing with the daffodils in the spring will usually offer a precise and eager reply — not just the main plotline but also the inner goals of the characters as well.
Happily, there’s a way to make a story concept a warm and snuggly experience rather than a trek into an intellectual blizzard.
What’s the story about? Setup, conflict, resolution. Introduction, struggle, result. Beginning, middle, end. A, B, C.
From some lovely corner of our imagination, we’ve got a kernel of an idea. Armed with a platter of cookies and a mug of hot cocoa, it’s time to get a notepad and pencil and begin a simple project. In precisely 25 words, write the setup, conflict, resolution — the key points of the tale. Longer than that? Edit it down, distill it, refine it. Shorter than that? Add details, as much as you can within the 25-word limit.
The idea is to have a very clear idea of the entire story precisely defined and easy to remember — good ones become the first sentence of a query and are comfortable elevator pitches. More importantly, though, they make the process of writing the story a joy, beginning to end.
No, this is not as simple as it sounds. It’s going to require extra cookies and a good supply of cocoa. It’s not like book jacket copy, TV loglines, or marketing teasers, few of which actually have the conclusion and are instead written to entice.
Yes, this is your road map, a very tight summary of where you’re going with the story. A beginning that introduces and builds empathy for a protagonist. A problem to solve. Struggles and failures. One last, great effort. And how the story ends.
After all, a good story gives us interesting people in an interesting situation, holds our interest as they struggle and gives us something interesting to think about when the story ends.
Yes, it’s worth spending days getting those 25 words nailed down, concisely and clearly stated in a note to keep handy as you march toward your own success. Break the three parts down into quarters — one each for setup and resolution and a full half for the middle part, the good stuff. Build each segment for dramatic effect. Organize, plan, construct, design. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline or synopsis, but it’s helpful to remember that you’re managing a story and not just munching on a buffet of vocabulary.
All of a sudden, the words just flow. The characters are alive, vibrant, compelling. The excitement builds and builds as the weeks of winter fly by.
Now it’s springtime. You have a story. A really good story. Someone asks, “So what’s it about?”
And you smile.
After a career in journalism, marketing and public relations, book production and website design and management, Geoffrey Mehl now focuses on environmental advocacy — two books on native plant landscaping, on of which has been a regional best seller for two years — as well as upmarket conspiracy thrillers. He has recently completed two years of research on innovative sustainable landscape design and is writing a new book, due out in spring. Also in progress is the next in a series of thrillers. One of his websites, www.pennystone.com, is an important resource for Pennsylvania high school and university students, landscape design and environmental engineering firms.
Geoff Mehl is the author of:
A Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants of Northeastern Pennsylvania
Perennials — Habitat and Culture