Why Your WIP is like a Train

Yesterday I began teaching an online course for a small group of writers. For the next five weeks (three weeks on, two off), we’ll be examining how to write effective scenes. It will be fun.

I posted an introduction  that included the following little story. Some ideas cleave onto a person’s brain because they are simple and memorable and make a lot of sense. The train story is one of those:

Here is a simple analogy to help you think about your WIP in scenes. I stole it from an elementary school teacher. I was a parent volunteer in Mrs. Z’s weekly Writers Workshop. Mrs. Z was delighted to have a published writer offer to help her creative writing students. After a few sessions, I was the delighted one. There is nothing like going back to the elementary level to hammer home some basics.

One of my favorite lessons was Mrs. Z’s Story Train. This was a long drawing of a train, laminated, and she used it to illustrate the following analogy:

“A story is like a train. At the front of the train is the engine. A train engine is big, strong, heavy and noisy. That’s because the engine has to pull the train on its entire journey. If it is not strong enough, the train will stall on its tracks.

Driving the engine is a conductor. If the conductor is lazy or confused or incompetent,the train will derail. If the conductor is competent, the train will reach its destination, going swiftly through some parts of the trip, taking care to navigate dangerous sections of track, slowing down and speeding up when necessary. Always, the conductor is cognizant of the cargo and the people he is charged with transporting.

At the rear of the train is the caboose. The caboose is usually bright and shiny. In the caboose is an engineer. He’s in constant touch with the conductor, whom he trusts to lead the journey and bring the caboose safely into the station.

In the middle of the train are the cars: coal cars, passenger cars, freight cars, food cars, refrigerated cars, hazardous materials cars, etc. For a safe and swift journey, cars are placed and loaded carefully. Overloaded cars are dangerous and cumbersome. Empty cars rattle and make a lot of noise, but don’t deliver anything. They just take up space.

The engine, the caboose, and the cars all need one another to make a good journey.If any one piece falls off the track, the whole train wrecks.”

It has been a long time since I helped in Mrs. Z’s Writers Workshop, but I often think of her Story Train.

Your WIP needs a big, strong, opening scene because, like a train engine, this scene will jerk the story to life and propel it on its journey.

Your WIP needs balanced interior scenes because, like train cars, overloaded scenes slow down the pacing and empty scenes make a lot of noise but contribute nothing.

Your WIP needs a colorful, memorable closing scene because, like a train caboose, this scene is the payoff for the reader who has been with you for the story journey. It’s the last thing the reader reads, so it will leave the last impression.

Each scene you write should be like a train car. It needs to carry a story part. A good story journey needs to have a destination, a firm hand to guide it, a balanced middle that stays on track, and a memorable ending.


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