Last month I had the privilege of speaking to sixth graders graduating from elementary school. Around this same time my debut novel was releasing. Writing this talk was a monumental task, as I had never given a commencement speech before. But my rambling thoughts turned out well enough that I want to share an abridged version with you. This is a more personal post than I typically contribute to Thinking Through Our Fingers, but much of what I said to those sixth graders applies to writers on the path to publication. The following is my revised speech.
Over my years of writing, I have learned that no matter what genre you read or write most components of storytelling stay the same. First, stories start with a main character. He or she has strengths and weaknesses as well as opinions and attitudes about life in general. The reader sympathizes with the main character and is interested in seeing what happens to them. He or she isn’t perfect. Main characters make mistakes and have fears, but they are someone readers care about and cheer on. Since art mimics life, for the time being, I’d like you to consider yourself a main character.
The next story component is the main character’s goal. Their goal drives them forward and establishes to readers what is important in the story, not only to the main character but in their world. Every main character has something they want to accomplish, so I would like you to think of a goal for yourself. In the next year, what do you want to achieve more than anything? Roald Dahl said, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whatever your goal may be, think big. Don’t be afraid to believe in a little magic.
Now that you have your goal, hold onto it. Because we’re about to meet the next story component: the inciting event.
The inciting event propels the main character forward on a path they cannot turn back down. It’s when Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts or Percy Jackson sets out to find his mother. Think of the inciting incident as a door that locks behind you. The key to the inciting incident is that no one can shove the main character through the door. No one can make he or she want to go out and save the world. The main character must take that step on his own. But the thing that pushes him through that door, the personal incentive that drives him to take that step, is his goal. Remember that goal I asked you to make? That is your reason to go through that door and start on your path.
Our next component comprises of the bulk of the story, the part that everyone wants to read about in books or watch on TV but never experience in real life—conflict. Conflict is any obstacle that seeks to prevent the main character from reaching his or her goal. Think of your goal again, the one you want more than anything. Again, conflict is what will prevent you from achieving it. We all have rough days. At some point or another, you may even have a really bad day. And then it may get even worse. The ultimate conflict happens at the climax, which is when the very hardest, very worst thing you can imagine tries to stop you. What do you do when life gets hard? Do you give up?
Reflect over your past year. Think of one thing you did that you are really proud of. Was it always easy to continue? I’m certain it wasn’t, but you kept trying. You did the work. You put in the time. You believed in yourself. Your conflict did not put an end to your story.
The thing about conflict is that the hero pushes onward. Notice I said “hero”, because the main character of the story starts off as someone the reader sort of knows, sympathizes with, and roots for. But as the main character goes through trials and triumphs, over the course of those challenges, they become more than a character the reader sort of likes. They become a hero we cheer on to beat opposing forces and win. JK Rowling said, “It is our choices that make us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Perseverance over obstacles makes a hero.
Let’s recap. The components we’ve talked about so far are: the main character, the goal, the inciting incident, the conflict, and what comes next? The resolution, or the happily ever after. This is the end of the story when the hero celebrates their triumph.
One year from now, your resolution will be this: Did you reach your goal? Did you stick it through no matter what?
I wrote for nearly ten years before I became published. I wrote thousands and thousands of words. I completed several manuscripts. I was rejected dozens of times by literary agents and editors. I had a lot of conflict, but I also had a goal to become a published author. This wasn’t a year-long goal. As I said, it took me much longer. Your goal may be the same or different. But whatever it may be, you are the hero of your story. You are likeable, other people sympathize with you and understand what you’re going through. You are someone your family and friends are rooting for. You are someone we want to see succeed and live happily ever after. You are worth cheering on. No one is saying you have be perfect or get everything right. Neither can others attain your goal for you. You must go through that threshold by choice, travel down that path, and push onward. But you’ve already proven you have the courage to aspire to more, and your story isn’t finished so long as you keep trying.
Dr. Suess said, “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” I’d like to end by extending a challenge: Dream big. Think of a goal you want to achieve. Fight for it. Believe you can persevere. And don’t ever forget that you are worth cheering on.
Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the USA, she has perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat. Visit Emily at emilyrking.com.