50 Ways to Tell a (Rescue) Story: 7 Tips for Writers
by Jeff Campbell, TWC Instructor
One good hook? That’s hard enough to come up with. Fifty good hooks, one after another, for 300 pages?
That’s the daunting challenge I faced when writing my forthcoming book Daisy to the Rescue (Zest Books). It’s a collection of fifty real-life stories in which animals save human lives and what those events reveal about the minds and hearts of animals.
Even worse? The book is targeted for teens, whose attention spans, my editor often reminded me, have now been truncated to the mosquito-small lifespan of a 140-character tweet.
Of course, that’s not really true. Everyone’s attention spans are shorter today, and it’s always tough crafting tight, compelling stories that grab and hold readers and leave them wanting more.
In my case, forty-nine more.
But even with an inherently dramatic premise—such as dolphins and dogs fighting sharks and cougars to save people—I still worried. After Lassie saves Timmy from the well once, how many times can you keep going to that well—that is, repeating yourself—before readers start thumbing their devices and not your pages?
Here are seven lessons I learned in the attempt:
- Recast the hero: I chose my fifty stories to feature as many different species as possible. Dogs may be the most prolific life-saving animal, but the book would get boring unless “Lassie” was also a parrot, a rabbit, a kangaroo, a beluga whale, and so on. In other words, if your protagonist feels like a stereotype, switch identities.
- Vary the plot: Stories need more than a costume change. Success, to me, was to keep readers asking: How many ways can a human be in danger, and how many ways can an animal intervene? Whatever your premise, look for opportunities to twist and complicate it. Yes, I told one classic tale of a dog barking to get help. After that, dogs had to be sniffing cancer, riding surfboards, or performing the Heimlich maneuver to get in.
- Research, research, research: The devil is in the details, as they say. Good research provides both surface and depth. I needed raw material to flavor each story, but I also needed other perspectives. In my book, the real purpose is to continually ask why: Why would this animal save this person? I framed rescues within the larger context of science, the species, and human-animal relationships. This required research, as all nonfiction does, but the principle applies to fiction. What are your story’s elusive imponderables? Its wider implications? Keep digging until you unearth something juicy and intriguing.
- Give away the ending: In Daisy, there is no question: the animal always saves the day. Does that kill the suspense? I don’t think so. In fact, I was liberated by knowing the ending. I focused on the simple drama of how each rescue happened without tying myself into narrative knots manufacturing cliff-hangers or outwitting the reader. Most importantly, this built emotional trust. Despite the life-threatening situations, readers could freely invest in each hero. Try it sometime. Give away the ending and see if it loosens your storytelling.
- Recast your hook: On the other hand, readers knew the ending, so I sure couldn’t start in obvious, expected places. To keep things fresh, I varied every opening, particularly the moment in time—stories started years before, moments before, in the middle of danger, and years later. I opened with a joke, a quiz, a quote, someone’s disbelief, the person’s biography, the animal’s adoption, a scientific controversy, the cultural impact, and even an imagined BBC sitcom. Anything to make readers feel they were taking a different road.
- Trust your intuition: With fifty stories to write, I didn’t have time to worry every narrative choice. I was forced to trust my intuition. I found that, if I’d done my homework properly, my gut rarely led me astray. If inspiration flagged, this was an inevitable sign that I either needed more research or to replace that story. Pay attention to that little voice.
- Write with passion: Of course, passion is the key ingredient in all writing. In every story, write something that makes you laugh, cry, or both. Readers will only care as much as you do. So if you want them to listen, and keep listening, even if you’re saying the same thing fifty times, speak with your heart.
Jeff Campbell is the author of Daisy to the Rescue, as well as coauthor of over a dozen Lonely Planet travel guides. He is also a book editor, and he teaches creative writing to kids in Morristown and for The Writers Circle.