This is part 2 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 1: Story ideas
Part 2: The Focus Sentence
Part 3: The XY Story Formula
Part 4: Chronology and suspense
Part 5: Framing and the Story Matrix
It’s the best feeling: You’ve got a big idea. You dive in, and go deep, following your taste. You’re hooked…. But how do you know if you’re on to something that other people will find compelling?
Or, perhaps more precisely, how can you make clear to everyone else what it is that makes this idea so gripping for you? Because it’s not always clear to us what it is that keeps us interested in our own work.
How can you get at the crux of what’s so intriguing to you, yourself?
I’ve talked about how to find and feed an idea, how to identify your taste and pay attention to your attention. But even if you’ve got a whole stable of ideas, how do you figure out which ones work, and which ones don’t? How do you know if your idea is even worth pursuing?
Your ideas are seeds. Making stories is impossible without them, but you need to water them to figure out which ones are big strong oak trees and which ones are just scraggly little weeds.
That’s not as easy as it sounds to figure out. But by a very fortuitous coincidence, the very first reporting trip I made for Out on the Wire was to the Transom Workshop, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, an eight-week workshop where Rob Rosenthal teaches up-and-coming radio producers how to make better stories.
What was great about that was that the students at the Transom Workshop were trying to figure out exactly what I needed to figure out as I was just starting a giant new project: how to discover what was at the heart of their stories.
Finding the pulse
Jessica Kittams forged into the unknown while I sat in on the class. She came in with four interviews with people involved in a pilot farming project on Martha’s Vineyard. Her idea had been to do some kind of overview of this project, but she was stuck.In a way, it was a problem of too much information: It was all interesting, and there was no one thread pulling things together other than the basic topic of “there’s a pilot farming project on Martha’s Vineyard.”
The class started digging into the interviews, and it quickly became apparent that the most intriguing character in the bunch was a young farmer named Lily with strong ideas about how she wanted to work.
Rob Rosenthal asked Jessica:
Rob: What is your focus sentence?
Jess: That’s a great question. Um…
What’s a focus sentence? It’s a format that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.
There are lots of possible variations on the idea. Rob uses one that he found in a book by Tod Maffin, in his book, From Idea to Air.
The Focus Sentence:
Someone does something,
Let’s go over that again.
Someone does something…
A main character. A protagonist in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.
The protagonist has a motivation—an internal need or exterior circumstance pushing him or her forward—for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.
There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.
Here’s an example:
Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”
But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
Now, Here’s Jessica Kittams’ first stab at a focus sentence.
Jess: Lily wants to run a farm on the Vineyard, but it’s really hard to find land. This is how she’s starting?
Hm. Sort of.
Andrew Norton: what interests you about the story, about her?
Jessica Kittams: You can tell she just has this vision for future that she’s pretty sure she’s going to get there. She wasn’t…She is facing challenges but she is positive about it and excited about it.
Rob Rosenthal: So what if focus sentence went like: Lily, who very much wants to be a full time farmer on Martha’s Vineyard, is now in charge of her first farming project, But the cards are stacked against her…
Does that sound accurate?
Jessica: Mm hm, yeah.
Once Jessica identified a main character, she was able to peel away the inessential and figure out what that protagonist wanted, and what stood in her way.
And suddenly it became clear that the story was not about the pilot program at all, but about the struggles of a young farmer starting her career under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Notice, this is nonfiction, but we’re talking about character in the same way we would for a fictional story.
Check out Jessica’s final story, One Acre.
What’s my motivation?
One of the places that the focus sentence can easily go off the rails is the “because”. We do things for a lot of reasons. I eat food because I’m human and need fuel. That’s not my daily driving motivation. I mean, it would be extremely driving if I were in danger of starvation. But barring that situation, I need something more specific to my case.
The “because” has to get at reasons that are more personal, and more burning. I try to eat only excellent, delicious, wonderful food because I believe life’s too short to eat crap. (And depending on the character in question, “crap” could then encompass any category of unacceptable food, from stuff that’s not organic and local to stuff that’s not deep-fried, depending on the protagonist’s point of view/tastes.)
If this is a driving motivation for the protagonist , you’re on the road to a solid story. (I.e., while this is basically a true statement about me, I try not to be a hard-ass about it, which might not make me the best protagonist for a story about food choices.)
The big but
Once I learned Rob’s focus sentence, I asked everybody about it.
No one used it.
But I felt like I’d found a magic wand. And I used it myself.
What’s a focus sentence again?
Someone does something,
Trish “Trash” Nupindju is a very talented young hover-derby player on Mars 200 years in the future. She wants desperately to go pro because it seems like the only way to escape a future of poverty and hard labor on her family’s moisture farm in Marineris Chasma. But even if she could make the team, she’s too young to get a contract yet, and her family is going broke faster than her escape velocity. And then a half-dead Martian shows up on her doorstep…
Writing a focus sentence for my sci-fi epic-in-progress was a piece of cake. It’s a story about a central character who has her own ambitions, but who also is stuck in a system that basically won’t allow her success.
That’s the BUT. Mars sucks. And if Trish wants to succeed, she’s going to have to not only be a hot derby player, she’s going to have to fix Mars.
And once I had that formulation, it gave my writing more focus.
I also just straight up stuck it on my Trish Trash Facebook page in the “about” section. It really does lay out the basic conflict of the book.
Conflict. That’s the heart of the focus sentence.
The But equals conflict.
But why do we need conflict? Can’t we all just love each other? I mean, don’t get me wrong here. You can do whatever you want with your story. And I’ll talk more about that later.
But if what you want is to hook your audience and hold them, the strongest tool you have is suspense.
What is suspense?
Suspense is an unanswered question.
And that’s what you get when you’ve got conflict.
Because when there’s a conflict, there’s always a question, which is: Will this get worked out? How? And because we’ve been introduced to the protagonist and his or her burning desire (that’s being thwarted somehow), we CARE. We want this conflict to get resolved. And that all adds up to a giant question, and that magic quality: suspense.
These are questions you have to keep asking yourself throughout the whole process. This is crucial in order keep yourself interested, and make sure the story is interesting to your reader
Craft a conflict that matters
Working on a focus sentence for my hypothetical food-centered story, my next question would be: What stands in the way of not-eating-crap? A family trip to some middle-American town where there is nothing available but fast food and low-level national grocery chains? (I have been there. Oh lord, have I ever.)
There’s a common error with the but. Often, it’s placed too early in the action. You might have…
Dana is a finicky eater because she believes life is too short to eat “crap,” as she calls it. But then she is dragged to a family retreat in the mountains where there’s only a 7-11 and the processed food her relatives bring to tide her over.
The but here essentially comes right at the outset of the story, and doesn’t guide you as to where the arc will lead. If you place it further along the events of the story, though, you might have this:
Dana the food snob goes on a trip with her crap-eating relatives because she was kicked out of her apartment for throwing out her roommates’ food. But then her refusal to eat anything but “fresh, local” nuts and berries she finds in the woods for days lands her in the hospital, where she has to confront the reality of her relationship with her family and how they feed her neuroses around food.
That’s a lot more interesting, and a lot more helpful in actually writing the story.
What does the focus sentence help you accomplish?
Sometimes, what the focus sentence does is excavate the story out of what you’ve found, and shine it up nice and pretty so you can really see what it is you’re going for.
The focus sentence did three things for Rob’s class:
- It helped Jessica choose among the many threads she had available for her story.
- It gave the story a narrative arc (Lily wants A. She will have to overcome B in order to get it.)
- It gave Jessica the structure to guide her questioning in her next interviews.
The focus sentence sets up a question that begs answering, which is the foundation of the story’s overall structure: Because whatever question you ask at the beginning tells you what your end is.
The end is the answer to that question.
I learned that from another quasi-student: Julia DeWitt, who, in 2012, was an intern at Snap Judgment, a themed weekly radio show that focuses on propulsive first-person storytelling. She’s a full producer now, by the way.
While I was there, Julia was working on a story about Rocky, a guy who lost his mother as a kid, and then left home to work at the carnival at the age of 13. He kept traveling with them until he was involved in a tragic accident on a ride, where a girl was killed.
It’s a great story. It has drama, conflict, and an interesting character at its heart, But you’ll notice, those are all things that make good BEGINNINGS, not endings…
Julia Dewitt: If you’re gonna get into such a sad, or personal story, you really need to think about how it’s gonna end, for example.
Jessica: I’m sorry, can you take that apart for me a little bit? What do you mean?
Julia Dewitt: I was like, there must be a good story here. There’s tragedy, there’s recovery, Rocky had a hard life. He’s a really interesting guy, he’s got this very particular way of talking
…If I’m naturally good at anything for radio, I’m good at recognizing the ingredients. The thing I need to get better at is understanding… the recipe.
The recipe. That’s a powerful formulation. A focus sentence is a kind of recipe for a story arc.
Julia Dewitt: I would have been better served, and the story would have been better served if I had thought about the ending ahead of time, or possible endings.
The key is to stay open enough so that you can see when a new unexpected opportunity opens up for the story, but that you have a clear enough idea of what you’re trying to do so that you don’t come out with a bunch of…gobbledegook.
There’s an old saying in screenwriting: “Your movie is about the last fifteen minutes.” and nailing the ending is definitely super important. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at.
Map your path
Knowing the ending, knowing where you’re heading, allows you to do the right research, write in the right clues, to set up the path to that end convincingly and compellingly.
You may have heard the famous rule Russian playwright Anton Chekhov laid down,
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
The inverse of that rule is, if in the second act your character fires a pistol, you’d better have hung it on the wall in act one.
This article is adapted from and expands on Episode 2 of the Out on the Wire podcast, “Focus.”
Next time we’ll examine the daunting task of getting and keeping your reader’s (or listener’s) attention. And figuring out who that reader/listener is in the first place!
This time, I want you to take your idea from last week, and craft a focus sentence for it.
Figure out what your story is really about—story formulas aren’t magic, but a story without structure will eat you alive. Sign up for my cheat sheet!
This is part 2 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Part 1: Story ideas.
Part 2: The Focus Sentence.
Part 3: The XY Story Formula.
Part 4: Chronology and suspense.
Part 5: Framing and the Story Madlib.