For a moment there, I was getting uncomfortably good at filling out witness reports for the local police department. We had moved into a neighborhood where the conflicts of old, longstanding street gangs were amplified by the rise of gentrification. Shootouts in the streets were not uncommon.
On the night of the first report, I asked the officer if he had another sheet of paper I could use. I had written well beyond the dozen or so lines the form allowed. “It ain’t a novel, just throw down the facts as you remember them.”
They didn’t need my commentary or the level of detail I could offer them.
There was shouting The guy in the red shirt shot the guy in the white shirt. I heard about ten shots.
Not my finest work, but it was all they needed to piece together the timeline of events. Later, over beers, I would retell the events to friends who wanted to know what it was like to witness a drug-fueled shootout in your front yard.
Writers are great at getting lost in the details because it is what we know the finished product will have. In our reading of other work, we pick up on the details other authors lace through their stories and know our own work will require much of the same. And they will.
But early on, as you start to figure out what the story needs to be, keep it simple. While the events of your life hold a rich, emotional weight, the mechanics of the story are astoundingly simple.
The guy in the red shirt shot the guy in the white shirt.
The farmboy learns about his powers and saves the galaxy.
The hobbit walks a while to throw a ring into a volcano.
The story, dry as a bone. Action, effect. Once you know the primary idea of what you’re working with, then you find out what it takes to get someone else to care about it.
The source of every river is usually a mellow marshland or a trickle from a spring. It’s small, pure, there’s not much to it. Rivers become the size of the Colorado or the Mississippi because they’ve merged with countless other streams, each of which started as something boring.
Working with your story, fiction or non-fiction, start with “and then.”
First, this happened.
And then this happend
Until you reach a conclusion. Until there are no more “and thens.” This is your source, the trickle from a spring. Now it's a matter of finding the right combination of other sources to mix with.