How to turn a real-life situation into a story
This little adventure happened to me yesterday, and I thought I’d use it as a story example. Perhaps it might help you or your kids in writing stories.
Set-up – My petrol light had been flashing low for a day, and I decided I’d better fill it up now, rather than tomorrow. Even though it was almost five o’clock in the evening and I could potentially be caught up in a little traffic. Even though I just wanted to go home and start cooking my chicken curry.
Inciting incident – I pulled up in front of the petrol tank, jumped out of the car and started to flick the petrol cap open. But it didn’t open. I yanked it. Still didn’t open.
I stood for a minute, confused. Maybe I should press a button from inside the car? But this is what I always do! But maybe this isn’t what I always do?
First attempt to solve problem – I sat back in the driver’s seat and looked at all the buttons – the same buttons that I’ve looked at for the past ten years while driving this car. Nope. There was definitely no button to flick open the petrol cap.
I jumped back out, yanked on the petrol cap but it didn’t budge. I thought of the flashing orange light, indicating a low tank of petrol and of the hour or so of driving I needed to do tomorrow.
Second attempt to solve problem – So I called out to the man next to me who had just finished filling his car with petrol. ‘Excuse me, would you mind helping me with my petrol cap? I think it just needs some more force.’
Secondary characters – The very kind man, and his equally kind friend, spent five minutes trying to help me. They agreed there was indeed no button to click open the cap and they did not want to force the cap. Google suggested I lock, then unlock the car, but that didn’t work.
I thanked them, and said I would call my car service centre.
Third attempt to solve problem – Once home, I called the car service centre and was put through to a lovely man, Stefan. I followed his instructions for manually overriding the petrol cap from over the phone. Open the boot. Lift the mat. Find the triangle piece of felt in the corner. Take it off. Locate the white control box.
Dark night of the soul when all is lost – Couldn’t find it. Maybe it was because I was sitting on the open boot, holding the boot mat up with one shoulder, shining the torch on my phone into the black depths of a corner of my car I’d never seen before.
So Stefan sent me a picture of the control box. ‘Lift the felt off the side of the car.’
A moment of hope – ‘I can see it!’
‘Great! Now pull forward between the two white sections. It’ll release the petrol cap.’
A final gathering of courage by the protagonist to solve problem – It moved but it didn’t do anything. I still couldn’t open the petrol cap.
A potential solution – Stefan offered to stay back at work if I could drive my car to the service centre – fifteen minutes away.
‘I’ll have another go, then I’ll drive over if I’m not successful,’ I said.
I called Mr 14 – who had spent the day on the couch sick – to help. ‘I just need you to hold up the mat and then shine the torch here. It’s so I can open the petrol cap.’
‘Like this, Mum?’ he asked, flicking open the petrol cap.
The ending – ‘Yes! Exactly like that!’
Now, don’t judge me – because I wrote this story in five minutes! It’s ok for a first draft – all the material is there. But this is where it gets interesting.
Let’s develop the main character. Instead of a woman in her forties, let’s imagine she’s in her twenties. Instead of needing a tank full of petrol for driving kids around, maybe she needs her car for a work conference where she’s presenting a paper on new ovarian cancer trials to a room full of doctors and journalists. Or maybe she needs her car to visit her dying father – it’s a two-hour trip and she needs to leave immediately. Or maybe she’s about to go on a date, and she’s already running late.
Setting – instead of a ten-year-old car, maybe it’s brand new. What does that say about our character? Or maybe it is indeed a ten-year-old car – what does that say about our character? Is she in the street, trying to fix her car? Maybe someone walks by and has a conversation with her. Does that person walk on or do they stop to help? Maybe it’s raining and her freshly dried hair is now looking limp.
Theme – maybe the theme is kindness. After all, three strangers gave up their time to help me. Or maybe it’s about the character learning that she needs to be more organised and fill up the car with petrol the moment that lights flashes (ahem!). Perhaps the theme is taking a risk – that woman is more capable than she thought.
Problems – if we’re turning this little incident into a story, we need more problems. Maybe the woman can’t unlock the petrol cap, and she needs to drive to the car service centre and ask the mechanic, Stefan, for help. Maybe she misses her date, but she connects with Stefan and realises she’d rather be with him. Maybe Stefan lost his mother to ovarian cancer and wants to support our woman character to present her paper. Or perhaps the person walking by the street when she’s trying to unlock the cap wants to help her but she refuses his help because he went through university with her and mocked her publicly in a presentation. Maybe she can’t sort out the car problem, gives up and catches an Uber instead to her presentation and is an embarrassingly half an hour late, running to the podium at the last minute.
Antagonist – there wasn’t really an antagonist stopping me from unlocking the petrol cap but our story would definitely need one to add interest. Maybe it’s Stefan, who could have fixed the problem in a minute but decided he couldn’t be bothered because he didn’t like young women who drove fancy cars and expected quick service. Maybe it’s the old university colleague who mocked her.
Can you see all the possibilities here? I think we have the potential for a literary masterpiece – all from this one tiny real-life incident! It’s a good example to show kids how they can use their own holiday or weekend events to create a story.
And if you ever need to manually override the lock for your petrol cap, I’m your girl!