To Fellow Writers                                                                                                

To Be A "Storyteller"
by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

(Reprinted from THE WRITER magazine, July 1993, by permission of the publisher)

"Anything a writer cares or feels deeply about will inevitably find its way into what he or she writes...."

IN THE YEARS SINCE I BEGAN WRITING BOOKS for young people, I have occasionally been referred to by critics and even by friends as a "storyteller." Sometimes as a "natural" or even an "accomplished" storyteller. But even when such an appellation is obviously meant to be complimentary I have found that my reaction is slightly ambiguous.

For me, the sobriquet "storyteller" invokes some particularly poignant and powerful memories, memories of childhood habits and idiosyncrasies that in fact are, I believe, closely related to my present approach to writing fiction for young people. Therefore I thought it might be appropriate to begin a discussion of my writing techniques with a few words about how I happened to have earned, at a rather early age, the not always complimentary title of "storyteller."

As a child, growing up in a rather narrow and limited environment, I learned early on to entertain myself by "making stuff up." I made up games, wildly imaginative scenarios based on everything I had ever heard or read, but winging on past learned facts and data into the realms of sheer illusion. And I also told stories--and soon learned that telling stories can get you in trouble.

I got in trouble when, for instance, in the midst of giving oral book reports, I threw in some "real exciting events that the original author might very well have included if he/she had happened to think of them." And I got in even more serious trouble when I succumbed, in the course of describing some interesting occurrence to my parents, to my chronic urge to make any story really worth telling. Even among young friends, who could be quite accepting of my urge to embellish at Halloween when I was esteemed as a concocter of really scary ghost stories, I was at times put down as a "storyteller." And so I was forced long ago to confess to a certain lack of truthfulness as one of my major sins, in spite of the fact that I seldom told lies, which to my way of thinking, is something quite different.

And how does this confession relate to the techniques that I have developed over the years in the course of writing twenty-eight books for children and young adults? It relates, I think, in the following ways.

I STILL begin a story by indulging in what has always been for me a form of self-entertainment. I look for a character or characters and a beginning situation that cries out to be explored and embellished--or "embroidered," as my mother used to say reprovingly. This beginning situation must be something that connects directly to my long-established urge to find excitement, mystery, and high emotion in the midst of even the most prosaic circumstances. And over the years I have found that if such an element is lacking, I should not look for other reasons to continue work on that particular story idea.

For me, at least, a theme to develop, a problem to explore, or a message to be delivered, doesn't do it. I know because I've tried. I have started books with a particular message in mind, only to find that my plot mires down and my characters refuse to come to life.

This is not to say that my stories contain no references to problems that have been of concern to me, or causes I would like to promote. I just find it better to start with the joy and excitement of letting my imagination run wild--and let the messages take care of themselves--because they can and will. Messages are, I think, unavoidable. Anything a writer cares or feels deeply about will inevitably find its way into what he or she writes. However, I have found that it is better, when I start out on a new literary journey, to let messages climb into the back seat on their own, rather than to invite them to take the wheel.

So what happens then, after the initial excitement of discovering a suffficiently intriguing combination of characters and setting? Then, of course, comes the hard work--careful methodical plotting, planning and developing. Hard and demanding work, but always buoyed up and carried along by that storytellers' excitement over a situation that simply begs to be "embroidered."

For me, this hard work begins by preparing a looseleaf notebook, taking out the scribbled and doodled-over pages collected during my previous writing endeavor, and adding new, invitingly pristine paper after each of the section dividers. The first section must have blank, unlined paper, because it is there that I will draw maps and/or floor plans.

This urge to draw maps or floor plans may be unique. At least I haven't met any other writers who seem to. follow such a strange procedure. I draw town plots when a small town or village is the setting for a new story, clarifying for myself the location of the protagonist's home in relation to other pertinent sites--such as the location of his or her school, best friend's home, sites of important happenings, etc. Then there are the floor plans of a house, if a house is important to the story, particularly a "big old" house, as has been the case in several of my books. Or, as in a recent book, a castle. Drawing that floor plan after studying several castles during the course of a European trip was a particularly intriguing effort.

I don't know what this "map complex" means, except that I know I do have a strong visual sense, and it is important to me to have a vivid mental image of the place I'm writing about. Place or person.

And so--on to persons. The next divider in my notebook is labeled "Character Sketches." In this section I start a number of pages with the names of my main characters and begin to jot down what I know about them, not only their general appearance but their strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, loves and hates, family relationships. Everything, down to minor personality quirks. I don't try to finish these descriptions before I begin to write the story. I simply begin with initial impressions, and leave lots of room to add or change information as we get better acquainted.

After the pages for central characters there follow a few pages for minor characters--simply the names I have chosen for them and a sentence or two about their relationship to the story. Such a listing comes in handy when, for instance, you are nearing the end of a book and the occasion requires you to mention a minor character--perhaps a teacher, a mailman, or bus driver--and you find that you have forgotten what you'd named him. Without this list, you'll be endlessly flipping pages, or scrolling through chapters, looking for an elusive name.

USUALLY, after a few days or weeks of daydreaming, map drawing, and character sketching, I begin the actual writing: a preliminary stab at the first chapter or two to get a handle on the tone, style, and feel of the story. But then I pause to work on the all-important next section of my notebook: PLOT.

On the PLOT pages I do what I sometimes describe as "writing the book report before the book is written." I know there are some fine authors who, after getting to know their characters and beginning situation, simply start to write and "just see what happens." I also know it doesn't work for me. It's fun, I'll admit, but it just doesn't work. The usual result is that my characters immediately get themselves into predicaments that I can't get them out of in any logical manner. Also, I really can't understand how one can do the necessary foreshadowing of events, if one is unaware what these events will be.

So as I slowly and carefully (because this is one of the most demanding and crucial steps in the whole process) write the one or two pages of my PLOT section, I clarify in my own mind the barebones storyline that I will be following. Of course I don't, at this point, know everything that is going to happen in the story. Totally unexpected events, surprising and sometimes wonderfully exciting, are certain to occur as the story progresses. But what I must know is the major problem or mystery to be solved and, in particular, the final climax of the story and its resolution. Then the story can zig and zag as new characters come on scene or minor events occur without causing the story to wander off into uncharted wastelands--as long as the writer always keeps one eye on the resolution that is the final goal.

Having completed the PLOT section I move on to the CHAPTER OUTLINES, which will be done one at a time as I begin each new chapter.

Each CHAPTER OUTLINE consists of one page divided into two columns, one of which is titled Action and the other Exposition. On the left-hand side, as I begin each new chapter, I jot down a few notes about the on-scene events that need to happen in the next few pages. And on the righthand side, I remind myself of information that needs to be presented to the reader--all the background material, descriptions, character development, etc., that should be included in the chapter. I find this brief outline helps me remember to weave expository material into dialogue and action continually, rather than dropping it in occasionally in huge clumps.

The next section of my notebook is labeled REWRITE, and it consists of brief notes that I make as the writing progresses to remind myself that I should, perhaps, "look for a good place to foreshadow Grub's reaction to Robinson's death", for instance. Or perhaps, "go over Chapter Nine to see if some cutting would pick up the pace."

Such notes are usually made when 1) someone in my writer's support group (seven writers who have been meeting twice a month for over twelve years) points out a flaw; 2) after hearing from my editor who has just read the manuscript; or 3) I suddenly discover, all by myself, that what I've written is less than perfect.

And that's about it except for one final section labeled RESEARCH, which is self-explanatory. I may refer to this section relatively little when I'm writing a book like Libby on Wednesday, a contemporary story set in California, but when I wrote Song ofthe Gargoyle, which has a medieval setting, the research section was almost book length.

So there it is, my own personal "Notebook Method," which has evolved slowly over the years since, at the age of eight, I resolved to be a writer after it dawned on me that there were people in this world who, instead of being scolded for being a "storyteller," actually could make a career of it.