How to write a story

From idea to story (Story series-Part 5)

From Rick:

This week I’m going to finish the rough draft “Jury Duty,” but I’ll do it in two stages. Let me explain. A story needs five elements: setting, character, plot, conflict, resolution. The first two are easy to understand. “Plot” is sometimes vague thing to some people, but a good definition is “the main events of a presented as an interrelated sequence.” Plot isn’t what the story is about, some believe. Plot is merely what happens in the story.

“Conflict” is often defined as what prevents the character from achieving his or her goal in the story. Conflict can be external or internal. Many stories have both. Which type does David Blayne have in “Jury Duty?”

To answer that, let’s look at his goal as stated so far. He’s hoping for a memorable (or at least significant and non-boring) jury-duty experience. He’d love to see justice done to some deserving law-breaker, but his gut tells that’s probably not going to happen and that he’ll likely be disappointed with the outcome. He has both external and internal conflict.

The external part is the reality of his situation. He’s on a mission to find adventure, but external factors are probably going to prevent that from happening. His search for excitement is also his internal conflict because he’s not the type of person who will act in any way to change that (cause a disruption, make a scene, etc.). The best he can do is create his own fantasy of an interesting day, which is exactly what he’s about to do. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Bear in mind that this storyline came from the character as I created him. A different character would have led to a different outcome. At this point I can’t stress enough how important character is to the story and the plot whether you write character-driven or idea-driven stories. The characters should be believable in the story’s setting.

I write mostly character-driven stories, so for me getting the character right is the most important aspect of the story. For me, interesting characters generally make for an interesting story. I find it difficult to write an interesting story with dull characters. Likewise, as a reader I find a story with boring or flat characters less engaging no matter how good the plot. And I suspect many of you feel the same way.

A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Right now, all it has is a beginning–the setup and a lead-in to the middle. After I got the idea for this story, I realized that I needed to take it somewhere over the top. My quirky mind started to work over the various methods of capital punishment. I twisted them with a bit of humor and blended them with my character’s imagination. And voila, I had my middle. Let’s look at that. David, still sitting in the courtroom, begins to construct a speech he will deliver to the judge at the appropriate time.


Meanwhile, I required diversion while awaiting inspiration and the appearance of the central participants for today’s debacle. I picked up my reading material, fingered my bookmark, and flipped the pages over. Chapter Three. The second line of the headings caught my attention immediately: “Tribulation Among the Patriarchs ** Seeking Amusement Under Difficulties.” I took out my pencil, changed the first part to: Trial and Tribulation.” In the margin I wrote “One clear voice among twelve.” I closed the book and fantasized….

“Your Honor, I present myself as amicus curiae.” I’d heard that once in a courtroom drama. The judge arches an eyebrow, clearly impressed.

“You are a juror, Mr. Smith. You do not qualify in that regard.”

“Then I beg the court’s indulgence, Your Honor. I see a flagrant miscarriage of justice about to occur. I also see this trial as completely unnecessary. There is no doubt in my mind about the defendant’s guilt because we’re all guilty of something. You know it, I know it, they all know it.” I gesture grandly around the courtroom. “And I’m proud to live in a country where the guilty have the opportunity for a jury of their peers to proclaim that guilt to the world.

“As I see it, there are only two reasons for a jury trial–three actually, but lawsuits represent such a mockery of our fine legal system, and I’d like to highlight the positive in your courtroom.

“First possibility, the poor sucker was framed and nobody believes he’s innocent. His last hope is to convince myself–I don’t think so–plus eleven of these pinbrains of his innocence. If whoever framed him is good at his job, the defendant hasn’t a prayer unless he has a very competent (meaning high-priced) attorney. Frankly, if this defense attorney’s attire is any indication, his client might as well throw in the towel.

“The second possibility is that the defendant actually got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and he is guilty of the crime he is charged with, guilty again being the operative word. Therefore, let’s save time and taxpayer money and proceed directly to sentencing.

“In that regard I’d like to offer some helpful suggestions. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is overcrowding in our prisons, Prison is not the answer. This insignificant piece of humanity couldn’t stand up to the repeated abuse that his love-starved, fellow inmates would inflict upon him. Many would consider that cruel and unusual punishment, and I need not remind Your Honor how the Bill of Rights views that.

“We live in enlightened times. Our courts need to consider enlightened sentences. Punishment under our judicial system has become pedestrian. Let us consider, for a moment, capital punishment in its various forms. Watching someone gag on gas is just plain disgusting. And if lethal injections are supposed to be humane, then we need to convince our pharmaceutical companies to design drugs to give the victim a memorable just-before after-life experience.

“As for electrocution, our electric bills are high enough without having to pay someone else’s. If capital punishment is supposed to be a crime deterrent, give it some meaning. Strap the perp to a lightning rod: cheap and spectacular.

“But, renaissance man that I am, even I realize that turning a human being–no matter how repulsive he may be–into a charcoal briquette borders on the barbaric. A spark of creativity–pardon the pun–showed itself with adopting community service for minor offenders. But given that this is a jury trial, such a meager sentence would offend those who have come here to see justice done.

“I offer a perfect solution. Give the defendant the following choices. If he wishes to continue with the trial and is convicted, he will be castrated (with local anesthesia or not, depending on the mercy of the court), as a permanent reminder to him and to others of the consequences of antisocial behavior. And on the chance that the defendant is also an undiscovered sex offender, you’d never have to be concerned with him offending in that regard. Now I consider that a sentence with balls, again pardon the pun.

“Or, he can waive his right to a trial, plead guilty, and be turned over to Sparky.” I indicate the juror with the earring and pause for effect. “Sparky has been eyeing the defendant. I’m sure that he could teach the defendant a lot more about loving his fellow man. And Sparky would leave this court a happy man, having been deeply touched by our remarkable judicial system.”

But, alas, it’s only my fantasy. I catch Sparky’s gaze, smile, and shrug my shoulders.


And there we have the middle. It’s rough (remember that I said this was an early draft of the story), but it sets us up for the ending. We know that no such speech could ever happen in a real court, which is why I made it David’s fantasy. Now, we need a good ending. For me, the hardest part to write of a story is the opening because without a good one, the reader will never get to the middle or the ending. But once you’ve got that and have a successful middle, you want a satisfactory ending that pulls it all together.

One problem with “Jury Duty” is that the opening is largely reality, and the middle is all a fantasy. How do you blend those? A second problem is that the real event was totally anticlimactic as stories go. A jury trial never took place for me or for David in the story.

So I thought about it and decided to use the character I’d called “Sparky” to bring this to a conclusion.


At five minutes past ten a post-retirement bailiff in a gray uniform with patches sewn on both arms directed us to rise. The black-robed judge–the implications of the color were not lost on me–walked in from a previously closed door at the rear of the courtroom. He sat, bidding us to do likewise, leaned his forearms on the bench.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the delay and thank you for your patience. Under our system of justice two types of trials are possible: the jury trial and the bench trial. You were called here because the defendant, as is his right under our judicial system, had elected to have a jury trial. After an extensive pre-trial meeting, the defendant has chosen to waive the jury trial in favor of a bench trial, as is also his right. In a bench trial the judge, rather than a jury, decides the outcome of the case. While we try to avoid such inconveniences as these, they do occur sometimes as a result of the due process. Again, I thank you for coming. Your jury service is satisfied and you are all hereby discharged. If you need to have anything signed for your employers, please see the court clerk at the front of the room.”

I could sense the disappointment ripple through the courtroom. I looked down at my library book, thought for a moment, then opened it to the title page. At the end of the title I added a question mark. Beneath it I scrawled, “Probably.”

I donned my coat and gloves, tucked the book under my arm, and shuffled toward the exit. I paused there to look back at the fiasco. Sparky walked by me, the smell of new leather and mildly pungent cologne.

I had the whole day off work and nothing to do in it, now. I remembered seeing a bar up the road on my way here, but that’d reduce me to the grunt’s level. The intensity of seeing our legal system in action was not to be so easily diminished and discarded. Mark Twain decreed adventure; today shouted bravado.

Outside, the clouds had broken; brightness poked through the former gloom. I began to whistle, watching the puffs of my breath, and picked up my pace.

I caught up to Sparky in the parking lot. “Got any plans for the rest of the day?” I asked. What the hell. Maybe we could raise our spirits together.


Now we have a completed draft. Next time, in Part 6, we’ll look at the whole story and at where we can revise and improve it. In the meantime, here’s a link to the completed first draft so you can look at the whole piece.


You’re free to print this out and keep an electronic copy for reference, but please respect that it’s copyrighted material.


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