Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fundamentals of Story Writing with Jim Baumgardner

This is the third and final installment of the series 'Fundamentals of Story Writing" by Jim Baumgardner of the Sarah Books Series.

Mr. Baumgardner, an award winning author, has shared with us over the last 2 months free lessons in story writing for our homeschool students of any age!  Thess articles have blessed my family, and many more! You can see the original articles by clicking here for #1 and here for #2.

Pull up a chair and and bring along your student and enjoy the final chapter of The Fundamentals of Story Writing!

Fundamentals of Story Writing

Part 3


What’s a story without conflict? What’s life without conflict? All of us have conflict in one form and to one degree or another. Sally is conflicted at breakfast. Does she have Cheerios or Wheaties? Sometimes it’s more serious. Which college should Sally attend?

Writing stories is life condensed onto a page. As a writer wanting to write a great story, ask what do people find interesting about others? Is it what Sally had for breakfast? I think not.

How about while Sally was eating breakfast she heard a thud against the outside wall and when she opened the backdoor a man fell through the doorway with a knife in his back? Trust me, the knife in the back story will keep a person reading longer, and with more interest, than anything you can write about the taste of cereal.

And, the reader will really be hooked when Sally finds a note in the man’s hand that reads ‘you are in grave danger’. Now what? Then, as she turns the note over Sally sees scrawled on the back the rest of the message—‘don’t go to the police or you will never see your children again’. Whoa!

This opening has satisfied two important elements in writing the beginning to your story: the hook and the conflict. The man with the knife in the back is the hook. It will keep the reader reading. The note produces the conflict which will make the reader want to know what happens next in Sally’s life. Of course, this scenario would be told over the first chapter. I have condensed it for illustration. Here are a couple of examples, and these are just excerpts.

From Sarah’s Wish chapter one:

The Hook - It all seemed to have happened in one of those slow-motion moments. Actually, the horse heard it first-the rattle sound. The sound that leaves goose bumps on a big man’s neck. By the time the girl caught eye of it, Blackie had instinctively shied to the right.

“Snake!” Rachel pointed at the coiled serpent, its mouth gaping, fangs laid bare.

Blackie bolted. The sudden jerk slammed Rachel against the seat, wrenching the reins from her hands. Immediately she reached for twelve-year-old Sarah. Careening wildly along the narrow lane they furiously clutched at the buggy seat.

The Conflict - Sarah leaned over and kissed her mother’s soft hand. “What will happen to Joseph and Polly? They need you, Mama. Tonight-what about tonight? I promised never to tell. What should I do now?” she begged, her tone frantic. “Tell me!  Please wake up, Mama. Oh, Please! I need you. Oh, Mama, don’t leave me.”

From Sarah’s Promise chapter one:

The Hook - Before the sun peeked over the horizon, while the morning star still shimmered in the western sky, they attacked. The earth shook under the pounding hooves as two riders whipped their horses furiously, pushing them to the limit. Out of the dim eastern horizon they raced across the field, swiftly closing in on Sam and Eliza. Slowly, the Negroes turned to the sound and squinted into the first gray light of dawn. Graybeard jammed his boot into Eliza’s side, the blunt force slamming her to ground. She groaned pitifully. Then, holding her side, she curled into a ball. Finally, after catching her breath, she screamed for her husband. Sam started for his fallen wife, but never made it. Tall Man pistol-whipped him, opening a bloody gash on the black man’s forehead. Crumpling into a heap, Sam lay dazed, eyes half-closed. The brutal, hardhearted bounty hunters had the devil in their eyes. While gazing down at their terrible work those ice-cold eyes turned mean—real mean. Unhurried, they swung down from their snorting horses.

From chapter two: The Conflict - “Sarah, I’ve brought bad news to your door. The slave catchers kidnapped Sam and Eliza. Esther rode to our place on her mule, and she’s in a bad way.” His lip quivered. “I’m sorry…

Sarah’s face drained of color and she felt her heart quake. The news gave her a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and questions raced through her mind...

Sarah touched her chest. “Granny,” her voice trembled, dropping to little more than a whisper. “My heart is breaking!”

Doc pulled her closer. In a quiet, soothing voice he assured, “God will provide. He always does.”

“I believe it,” her hushed voice broke with emotion. “The Lord promised to be with us, even to the end of the world. I know He will be with Esther and her parents. I will, too. I promise! Somehow, I’ll help get Mr. Sam and Miss Eliza back. I promise I will!” Putting on a brave face, she continued. “I don’t know how, but I will!”

So, in Sarah’s Wish, what happens to Sarah and her mother? What will happen tonight?  In Sarah’s Promise what happens to Sam and Eliza? Sarah promises to get them back, but how will she do it?

The first chapter is usually the most important in the book. For a short story the first paragraph or first page is critical. After that it becomes the writer’s job to resolve the conflict so the reader is satisfied with how the story ends.


Dialogue and action are the elements that put the wind in the sails of your story, propelling it forward. Without dialogue your story just sits there. Sure, you could tell your story without it; and then hand it out as a sleeping aid. “Read this if you cannot sleep at night.” To keep your reader engaged takes meaningful dialogue through which you develop plot, and in turn it develops your characters. The reader gains understanding of your characters through their words and actions.

In the Sarah Books the reader learns that Sarah has a sense of humor, can imitate voices, is caring, very smart, etc. This information about Sarah and other things is conveyed by means of dialogue and action. In writing your story, do not say: Jason is a jokester. Show the reader what makes him funny. Have him play practical jokes. Let the characters discuss it.

Always make the dialogue relevant to the story and what the characters are doing. Do not “throw in” paragraphs of dialogue or narrative that have nothing to do with moving the story along. Good dialogue has purpose.


I love cats. When I was a little boy I learned a cat is smart and very cagey. I came to know my cat’s feelings by her actions. When she lay on the floor with her paws up I knew she wanted to be petted. When she crouched low, creeping slowly next to the wall I knew she was about to pounce on something. Another thing—a cat doesn’t get its back up often, but when it does, look out. She’s ready to fight, and unless you want to wear claw marks for a few weeks get out of the way.

Actions tell a lot about cats, and so also people. Consider this statement: Sarah’s lips drew tight across her teeth. Depending on the context of the story you know she is angry or frightened. It is not necessary to tell the reader Sarah was scared. The action shows her emotion. Keep in mind that action is not all gunfights, car chases or throwing someone out a window. It is body movements, too. What do you think Sarah’s actions tell from the following description?

Sarah’s face grew ashen. Her eyes darted from one hard-faced man to the other; she swallowed hard. Taking a step back the girl slowly reached into her bag grasping the derringer. With shaking hand she raised it and eked out the words, “Don’t come any closer.”

I would think it is obvious what Sarah is feeling. Now, which is the better description? Is it the one written above or the following? Two mean-looking men confronted Sarah and she was scared. Hmmm, this also should be obvious.

Remember: action is as small as a wink or large as a train wreck. Write your story using actions and dialogue. An important writing rule is: show, don’t tell. As a reader I want to be shown that my hero is brave by what he does, not by being told that he is brave. As a writer you must give some examples—prove it.

So, you have a story to write. How are you going to approach it? Go back and review all three installments of my series on the Fundamentals of Story Writing. Then, take a sheet of paper and write down some ideas. Play the “what if” game mentioned under Ideas—Where Can I Find Them? Be sure to write what you know. This is a good way to start. Don’t pick a storyline that will take a lot of research. That story can come later after you have gotten your feet wet with an easier project.

Pick a setting for your story, one you know. And, as you write remember the five senses: hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. All five do not need to be in every paragraph, but make them part of the readers experience. Add to all of these things a likable character or two and you now have a beginning. Start writing your thoughts. Rough drafts are just that—rough. Later you can smooth it out with additional thoughts and remove other things that drag it down.

I hope these things will be helpful to you. I realize this is only a beginning and much more can be said and learned. If you love to write, do it. The more you write and use these methods the easier it becomes. It is like practicing your music lessons—repetition, repetition, repetition.

If you have any questions you are welcome to email me at:

Please visit my blog and website:

If you would like to read a little more about using conflict in a story go to my blog and read the post: In Sarah's Wish: Why did you have Sarah's mother die?

God bless, and may you always have happy trails, partner.

Jim Baumgardner, author of the Sarah Books

1 comment:

  1. [...] today’s third and final installment in the series, check out Creative Learners. Share and [...]