Updated: Feb 16
We’re taught the rules of fiction in school, things like plotting the story arc and developing the characters and setting. Teachers often use the following outline: Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. By the time students have been compelled to map famous stories to this outline, they may think there’s no other way to write.
We’re also taught how to write essays—with an introductory paragraph containing the thesis, followed by a primary argument with supporting details, a secondary argument with a few more details, and the (by now inevitable) conclusion. Yawn.
The thing is, great writing creates rules of its own. Form follows function, so if you want to write about someone who discovers something they did not expect from their own past, then that story arc–with the denouement being a startling discovery–is the rule of the road and nothing else matters as you build toward the big moment. Or build back from it… Why not open with the protagonist being blindsided by an unexpected revelation, then tell the story of their struggle to come to terms with it? A backwards plot can be a compelling one too!
Rules are crutches. Crutches are for people who have trouble walking on their own. However, for most young writers, having trouble writing on their own should be viewed as something to grow out of as quickly as possible.
I was on crutches in elementary school after what seemed an interminable confinement to a wheelchair due to a massive injury sustained while skiing. It might make a good story some day, but now that I’m recovered and grown up I don’t keep the crutches around.
I was adopted (while I’m telling stories) and there was always a fog of vagueness in my rear view mirror. Who am I? It’s a question we all ask–and so should any good protagonist. And a mysterious adoption can make for particularly fun story-telling. I spent many years trying to track down my birth parents–I even hired a PI from Chicago at one point—but could find no more than tantalizing clues. Was my mother really Mary Elizabeth Ford, aged 20, from Illinois, who as a college student had an affair with a painting professor visiting from France? If so, why couldn’t the investigator find any birth, graduation, marriage, or death records for someone of that name? And why were all of the father’s details omitted from my original birth certificate?
I did find out something: That I was originally identified as an orphan by the name of David Ford (whether my birth mother lied about that name or not), who was born in Evanston Illinois and assigned to an orphanage there.
A social worker’s report, based on interviews with my birth mother, indicates that her parents lived somewhere in the state of Illinois and were of English and German origins. My birth father, according to the interview, was Catholic and went back to France where he had a wife and children, leaving her pregnant with twins.
A genetic test only partially supports this story. It shows the UK on my genetic map, but also the Mediterranean: Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Was my birth father of Moroccan descent, perhaps Arabic instead of Catholic and passing in France for someone who might be more socially acceptable?
My birth mother was hiding her pregnancy, which she covered up with the story that she’d gone to a New England college for a semester. Did she ever get together with my father or did they part ways forever? And did she ever try to find my twin brother and I? According to the orphanage, no, but I can’t get out of my mind a strange incident some years ago, where a woman in an old camper truck with Illinois plates parked across the street from my house for a week and seemed to be watching my kids and me with more than idle interest. I had a feeling about her, and had just resolved to knock on the door of her camper and introduce myself when she disappeared. I’ll never know who she was or why she decided to drive a thousand miles that summer only to spend her vacation on a seemingly random residential road in Massachusetts.
That’s a set of interlinked stories, and stories make the most interesting writing. Is it a novel? Short story? Memoir? Or an essay about identity and writing and how the rules we learn in school are best forgotten.
If I were young and applying to college, I might write an essay about the mystery of my origins. I’d explore not only the facts–elusive as they are–but also the feelings. What is it like to wonder who you are and where you come from? If you don’t know your origins, do you lose something? Yes, but you gain something too; the ability to see others for who they are and look past the categories with which society tries to label us.
The same story could be told in varied forms because good essays, like good novels, are stories first.
All forms of writing need an underlying story. It’s always about the story, actually. Essay, novel, college application–even a cover letter and resume are best viewed as ways of telling a story, and (hopefully) telling it well.
My Silent Lee novels follow the adventures of a teenager who is trying to sleuth out her own past at the same time she solves magical mysteries and saves the world. Why? I suppose because it’s another way to tell the story of being adopted and alternately excited and mystified by the clues, just as I have been for so many years. It’s always about the story, regardless of form.
Alex Hiam teaches creative writing and is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com