Story ideas are everywhere if you keep your eyes open! Driving home from the garden store last spring, I wondered if buying tomatoes was a bad idea in Seattle, particularly this year, with May as chilly and drizzly as November, January, and March put together. Everybody I talked to said I was crazy to spend money on something bound to fail.
Then the sign on the right caught my eye – and my mind flew to the rich story possibilities hiding inside every dubious decision.
We don’t love characters because of what goes right for them. It’s how they respond when everything goes wrong, especially when they create their own disasters. I once heard Wendelin van Draanen (Flipped) offer the perfect description of how she compels readers to root for her characters: “My characters get themselves up in a tree. Then I throw rocks at them.” Middle grade novels are full of characters that climb that tree and struggle to fend off the rocks. But they get back down, battered perhaps, but in one piece.
Here are five of my favorite examples:
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis Byron Watson could be the poster-boy for bad decisions. Really, where to start? Nearly everything that Byron does ends in disaster for him or someone else. Who can forget what happened when he couldn’t resist his own image in the frozen side mirror on the family car? The flaming Nazi parachutes? The accumulation of bad decisions sets Byron and his family on a journey that intersects with national and personal tragedy, and ultimately leads to healing.
OK for Now by Gary D. Schmidt Doug Swietek grabbed our attention as a bully in Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. In OK for Now, he’s got his own book, and from the first pages, readers are hiding their eyes thinking, “Ooh, don’t do it!” But we also quickly see what’s behind the bad decisions he makes. Doug has a good heart and a strong will to overcome the oppressive forces in his life, and readers everywhere will cheer him on.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos Some bad decisions are very hard for a character to control. We can be pretty certain that Joey Pigza would rather not swallow keys, lose control, or have a crazy family – but he does. We love his strength of spirit, even as we ache for everything that goes wrong for him.
Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff And some mistakes are born in desperation. Hollis Woods has bounced from home to home when she finally lands on an elderly artist’s doorstep, and Hollis and Josie form a strong bond. When it becomes clear that Josie’s memory is failing, Hollis fears that she’ll be moved yet again. Her decision to run away with Josie makes us cringe, yet ultimately leads her to resolution and a sense of peace.
Baseball in April by Gary Soto Soto weaves bad decisions throughout his series of short stories set in Mexican-American neighborhoods in California. Each story captures the unique as well as universal dilemmas that confront young people, including the consequences of lying, the pain of envy, and the hard work of growing up.
Writers of all ages can mine our own (and others’) lives for epic bad decisions to transform into good stories. Use them as writing prompts or weave them into the fabric of your stories. Here are a few to get you started, compliments of some decision-makers I know who didn’t hesitate for one second when I offered this invitation: It was a bad decision to …
• hard-boil an egg in the microwave (moral: you can clean that mess up, but you can’t get rid of that smell!)
• take my parents’ car for a test drive in the fifth grade
• put my eye to the water jet to see what was inside – and then turned it on.
As for me — was it a bad decision to plant tomatoes in rainy Seattle this year? Not if you discover that your unused hot tub room makes a perfect greenhouse. That’s a story I’ll be telling for a long time!
Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. She is webmaster of the Literature Circles Resource Center. Her debut novel, Something to Hold, will be published by Clarion Books in December 2011. Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.