I started telling stories when I was in the second grade. I’m not talking about fibs or white lies or “whoppers,” although I certainly had told my share of those. (I was never very good at getting myself out of tight spots by lying; my mother and grandmother saw through me every time.) I mean real narrative storytelling, flights of imagination that take my listeners and readers to other places to discover things that we may not be willing to recognize in the real world. I clearly remember the day I first did that in second grade.

We had a substitute teacher that day, and she had shot her wad of lesson preparation about an  hour before we were due to dismiss. So she asked if anyone had a story they’d like to tell the class. Uneasy silence. Nobody had asked us to do that before. We knew she was trying to fill time and save face with this roomful of country urchins, but there would be some benefit to us as well. She hoped several of us had the guts to stand up and tell familiar fairy tales to while away the hour, but we didn’t. We were terrified by the prospect of standing and talking ex tempore in front of her and our classmates, so nobody moved.

Then she played her trump card: “If nobody has a story to tell, we’ll do homework until the bus comes.”

I was on my feet. I went to the chalkboard, turned around, and started to talk. I just started making up stuff (told you I could do that). My classmates were enthralled (for good reason). But after 5 minutes or so, I realized my story was about to die. It would be just another fib or “whopper,” quickly and pointlessly ended, unless I could introduce some sort of complication.

So I did. I gave the story a twist. And I started talking about how my characters tried to deal with that twist. The story suddenly became more interesting; even the substitute teacher seemed to be listening now.

(You may want to know what my story was about, who the characters were, and what kind of story it was—funny, sad, ironic, or tragic. Sorry. I haven’t a clue.)

Whenever their interest started to flag, I threw in another twist. M’gosh, how was the hero [or heroine] going to get out of THAT mess? Everybody wanted to know. (I wanted to know, even more than they did.) So the story continued until the next…twist.

“Are you sure you’ve heard this story before?” the substitute teacher asked about forty minutes into my exposition.

And I lied.

She either didn’t see through the ruse or was unwilling to try to impose discipline over a room of tempestuous second-granders. She let me go on…and on…until the bus came.

I remember my buddies’ clapping me on the back and thanking me for sparing us from a fate worse than death—a substitute teacher’s homework assignment!

More important, I remember learning an essential principle of storytelling that day: Get your protagonist into trouble, and let him find his way out. That’s what makes a good story. And the worse the trouble, the better the story.