Week 1 Lesson & Assignment: Situation and Story

The Situation Drives Your Story

In her excellent book on the art of personal narrative, novelist and essayist Vivian Gornick writes,

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

You may know what you want to say before you ever begin your novel. You may want to write a novel very specifically because you have an emotional experience of the world or a guiding belief about human nature that you want to convey to your readers. On the other hand, you may come to the novel knowing nothing other than the situation. And that's okay. 

While you can start without theme and you can start without knowing exactly what you want a reader to take away from your book, you can't start without a situation.

Would it surprise you to know that Stephen King doesn't think about plot? (It sure surprised me!) That's the claim he makes in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He thinks, instead, about situation:

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England town? (Salem's Lot).
What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo). 

King goes on to say that none of his book were plotted. A situation occurred to him, and a novel grew out of the situation.

Which is to say that you don't have to have this whole thing planned out before you begin. Certainly, you can, if that works for you, but you don't have to know your plot in order to start writing your book.

You do have to know your situation. You have to know why this particular story is being told at this particular time. What is at stake? Why should the reader care?

If you can phrase your situation as an intriguing "What If," you're on pretty solid footing.

Of course, your situation needs to be novel-worthy.

There are some situations, for example, that are more suited to a short story than a novel. For example, A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver centers on a man who has to go pick up a birthday cake for his son's birthday party after the child is hit by a car and goes into a coma, and the party is cancelled.

It's a heartbreaking story, beautifully crafted, with several plot shifts that keep the story interesting. But it's a situation made for a short story, not for a novel.

What makes a situation novel-worthy?

  • It has to be risky enough that readers will care.
  • It has to be complex enough to drive the story over the course of at least two hundred pages.
  • It has to be interesting enough to you, the writer, to keep you engaged for as long as it takes to write a novel.

Many years ago, as a freshman at the University of Alabama, I took my first creative writing workshop. The text we used was Pamela Painter's What If. In the two decades that have passed since I took that class, I have always approached my own stories and, later, novels, with that question. Here are the "what ifs" for my last three novels:

  • What if a promising young mathematician is murdered, and the man who is suspected of her murder disappears, only to be discovered years later by the dead woman's sister, who must recalibrate everything she thought she knew about her family's history?
  • What if the citizens of California decided to vote on whether their state should secede from the union?
  • What if a couple receives a wedding gift that promises to help them achieve a lasting marriage...with some rather serious caveats?

(I tried distilling these sentences as King has done, but I couldn't quite master the brevity...it's a work in progress!)

For the novelist, "What if" is a powerful question.

Here's one from a novel I just picked up off my shelf (I wanted to test the whole "what if" hypothesis). The book is Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, and the what-if is:

What if a young MI5 officer is tasked with the mission of infiltrating the London literary scene in order to offer a young aspiring writer the assignment of a lifetime--being paid by the government to do nothing but write--as long as his novels espouse certain ideals? What if she falls in love with the writer and comes to question her own deception?

As you can see, there's espionage, there's deception, there's romance, there's conflict. It's both intriguing enough and complex enough to fuel a novel.

And here is the first sentence of that novel:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn't return safely.

Here, the narrator, Serena, is introducing us to her story four decades after the fact. We don't yet know why she's telling it now, but we know it's going to be a doozie. The rest of the chapter moves pretty slowly, giving a lot of background about her childhood and family, her education, and her love of reading. Which is why it's crucial that she tells us something big is going to happen. There is going to be danger, there is going to be disgrace, there is going to be pain. Setting us up for the pain in the first paragraph gives us a clear reason to keep reading.

But my novel doesn't have espionage, you say. It doesn't have murder. That's okay. You can find danger anywhere. Take this opening paragraph from Mary Gaitskill's Veronica:

When I was young, my mother read me a story about a wicked little girl...The lamp shone on us and there was a blanket thrown over us. The girl in the story was beautiful and cruel.

On its face, nothing more is happening than a mother reading a bedtime story. The menace of this paragraph is in the tone. We can tell something's going to go wrong, because of the word "wicked" in the first sentence, and the characterization of the girl in the story as "beautiful and cruel." You don't need espionage or armed bandits to have danger. Some of the most dangerous-feeling novels take place wholly in the domestic sphere.

This week, I want you to think about your What If. You'll be sharing your "what if" in the discussion, and in your assignment you'll be honing in on your novel's situation.


  • First, the "homework:' Download and fill out the "Big Questions" worksheet that you'll find included in this module.
  • Now, the writing: Write an opening paragraph that plunges the reader instantly into your novel's situation. Be sure there's something unsettling about it. You can begin with a very clear statement of a particular conflict or an implication that there is trouble to come. The implication may be only in the mood of the paragraph, like the Gaitskill excerpt, or it may be something more direct, like the McEwan excerpt.
  • Don't worry. This doesn't have to end up being the opening paragraph of your novel. As always, think, "I'm writing a few paragraphs today," not "I'm writing a novel today."
  • Once you've written the paragraph, keep going. If you get stuck and can't keep going, write, "The trouble was..." and fill in the blank.
  • If you can't think of anything after that, write, "But the worst thing was..." and fill in the blank.
  • If you can't think of anything after that, write, "It shouldn't have turned out this way..." and keep writing.
  • If you make it to 2500 words, fantastic! If not, choose one or two of the prompts from 25 Writing Promps in the welcome section and do the prompt with your protagonist in mind. You can write from the protagonist's point of view, or write about the character using the point of view you think you'll be using for your novel. If you're not sure about your point of view yet, don't sweat it. You can always adjust point of view later in revision. If you're not sure about your protagonist, we're about to spend two weeks getting into your main character...stay tuned!