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Sara Pennypacker on Writing
If I had to give you a test on my first book in the CLEMENTINE series (which I would hate to do, by the way, because I really prefer to think of people reading books just for pleasure, not to take tests afterwards, but never mind...) here's the kind of thing I would ask:

In the first chapter, why does Clementine follow Margaret into the girls' room? Why is Margaret crying? Why does Clementine cut Margaret's hair?

Did you notice those were all WHY questions? That's because authors don't really care if you get all the WHATs and the WHEREs and the WHOs of their story, as long as you really understand the WHYs. The WHYs are the most important things, because they are about what it means to be a human being. The WHYs make people care about our characters. The WHYs show who our characters are, and how they are like (or different from) the reader. Writers have to get good at making their readers understand the WHY of what happens in their books, which is called "Character Motivation."

Here's a good exercise to practice that…

First, get a partner. You need two people for this exercise because stories always need two people: the story-teller and the story-listener. A writer should be good at both skills - story-telling and story-listening.

Now, each person thinks up a chain of four things that a character does and why he or she does them. For instance, your chain might go like this: (I'll put the why part in italics)

  1. A girl named Wendy went to the store to buy some sugar so she could make her mother a birthday cake.
  2. As she's walking there, she passes a box on the sidewalk with a sign on it: FREE KITTENS! There's one kitten inside, and Wendy picks it up and brings it home, because she loves cats, and has always wished she could have a pet.
  3. Wendy's mother says, "I'm sorry, but you have to return the kitten. I am allergic to animal fur."
  4. Wendy takes the kitten outside, but instead of returning it, she hides it in a friend's barn, because she has decided to try to raise it in secret.
Now, this may or may not be the start of a good story - it doesn't matter. The point is for you to tell the chain so that your partner understands what happens and WHY, and for your partner to listen carefully enough that she can repeat the chain, getting all the WHYs right.

Then you reverse roles: your partner tells you the four links in her story chain, and you repeat them back to her.

If you both repeat all four parts correctly, you move on to the next round, which is…thinking up a FIVE-part story chain.

Continue, adding a link each time you both complete a round successfully. At the end, you will both be better writers!
 
 
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