You came back for more? I’ll be gentle this time, since your eyes are probably still sore from all the abuse last week. (It was only yesterday for me, so mine are still chafed, too.)
Subjects touched upon herein: story origins, structure, foreshadowing, and stage-2 gardening.
Where do you get your ideas?
Where don’t I get ideas? Ideas are thick on the ground. Ideas are in the air like swarms of gnats. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and they’re overpriced at that, considering I’m wading through the damn things and blowing the pests out of my nose all the time for free.
So I’m going to proceed as if “Where do you get your ideas?” really means “Where do stories come from?”, and I’m going to do it now because (a) these chapters nod at the origin of WCAD and (b) I just read a writing prompt that filled me with happy-writer spirit (unlike the students in the class, who were so bitchy about it, several of them murdered the teacher in the assignment), so the topic is fresh in my mind.
Ideas are only worth something when they provoke questions — lots and lots of questions. Who, what, when, where, why, how? Is that the truth? Do you know, or are you wishing? Would someone else tell a different version of events, and could both sides be true? Because this is a creative process and not an investigation, the answers to those questions in reality are irrelevant; reality will/did happen without any help from a writer. The idea is nothing but a prompt. All that matters is what the imagination makes of it while answering the questions.
Now I have all these “facts” (which I just made up) that might be the framework of a story… if answering all those questions didn’t satisfy my need to know, if I’m still hungry for more, if there’s enough meat on those bones to sustain me for a good long while because it takes a good long while to write a novel and it would suck to get halfway into it and discover the remaining mass is nothing but gristle.
How do I judge a potential story’s meatiness? Probe the “facts” with Maybes and What Ifs and What Nexts until they bleed possibilities. Any “fact” that isn’t dripping with possibilities isn’t usable material. Before the writing begins, nothing should be impossible. It’s the story’s job to narrow possibility down to probability down to necessity, and the story doesn’t want some uptight, inflexible piece of information dictating how the job is done.
Idea → Questions → Framework → Interest → Possibilities → Story
So what was the prompt for WCAD? I was on an airplane (a unique occurrence), traveling to something unpleasant (not a unique occurrence), so not in the best frame of mind. The woman next to me was a fearful flyer and talking nonstop about everything-but-nothing. I’m not a social creature, but I’m not heartless and didn’t want to abandon her by feigning sleep or something ruder, and I was also desperate for a distraction from the “something unpleasant.” I was trying to pay attention, but there was truly no content in what she was saying to get a grip on, so I tried to imagine what would motivate me to be more attentive. Me being less of a grouchy hermit would help, so tonight, the part of Myself will be played by A Person Who Actually Has Some Social Skills. Okay start, but even APWAHSSS isn’t enough of a saint to focus at length on this elderly woman shrilly expounding on the evils of self-adhesive postage stamps and digging her lacquered bear claws into our protagonist’s forearm, so can we get a new actor here, too? Handsome Man With Nice Voice And Trimmed Nails, enter stage right. It’s no hardship for APWAHSSS to comfort HMWNVATN in his hours of need.
Or maybe she’s the one who’s afraid of flying. Maybe neither of them is. That doesn’t really seem important right now, so forget it and focus on the basics: They meet on a plane. They like each other. But their destination isn’t home for one (or both) of them, so if they want to see each other once they get off the plane, their relationship has a time limit on it.
“Ren, sweetie, none of this is in WCAD.”
THE TIME LIMIT. That’s the idea.
The idea provokes questions. How do two people fall in love in a week? Do they just plan on having a fling? When does it turn into something more, and for whom first? What effect does the business one or both of them traveled to this destination to deal with have on the relationship? If this place is home to one of them, what effect does the insider/outsider dynamic have, or one of them being in “real life” while the other is “on vacation”? And on and on and on.
Any of those questions can be answered a number of ways and I discount none of those answers, but some of them just naturally start clicking together with other answers, and I play more with the ones that gather the most mass. The plane isn’t important, so forget that. A week really isn’t a lot of time, so it would help if they already knew each other. One of them is still in their hometown, and the other is coming back to visit. They were close, not just casually acquainted; let’s say young love until we know otherwise. They parted ways because one of them left for better things. And on and on and on.
Am I interested in playing with that more? Hell, I was ready to run with it back at “time limit.” Any time a romance brings its own reason they can’t be together (“I’m leaving the state in seven days”), it reduces the possibility of manufacturing something stupid to keep them apart (“My cousin’s friend’s sister’s coworker saw a man somewhat resembling you engaged in smutnasty pornytimes with another woman, so it’s over”). In fact, I like the idea so much, it’s a factor in at least two other maybe-someday stories generated during the same Q&A (which may or may not ever be written; depends what looks most viable when it’s time to commit to the next project — as you’re reading this post, that decision has probably been made and put into action, but when I wrote this post, I still had two-thirds of WCAD to work on, and “What’s on deck?” was the least of my concerns).
I can squeeze half a dozen different stories out of the time-limit idea without even straining, so there’s no shortage of possibilities, and the answers that eventually shaped up to be WCAD yielded plenty of possibilities to work with. Maybe he comes back and is greeted with “small-town boy makes good” celebrity status. Maybe she has “small-town girl makes bad” status in contrast. Maybe those roles were reversed the last time they met. What if the family he came to see has conflict with her? Why didn’t it work out the last time, and what has changed that will allow it to turn out differently this time? What happens when the week is up? Who sacrifices what to bridge the gap between their lives? And on and on and on.
And after the lengthy process of creating information and sorting and culling and organizing and reorganizing and fine tuning until it rings true, we end up with a story called WCAD, in which Tally is currently (Chapter 16) turning the corner from “I wish he’d leave sooner” to “Don’t get attached, he’s leaving soon.”
(The woman on the plane was delivered safely to the bosom of her family and didn’t seem aware that I’d been lost in space for most of the flight.)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
Structurally, this is the end of Act I.
As you may or may not know now (but will certainly after I tell you), the end of Act I occurs when protagonists commit to a course of action regarding their story-worthy problem (or what they think their story-worthy problem is). This is frequently referred to as committing to the “journey.”
After I did all the “fact” inventing involved in story genesis, I did a structure outline to make sure all the essential storytelling elements were covered and happened in the logical sequence.
This was the first time I’ve ever outlined a story. I was actively discouraged from doing it in the past. I was told it would inhibit creativity and kill my enthusiasm and make the story wooden and formulaic, and of course I didn’t want any of those things, so outlines were the devil. Now that I’m no longer young and naïve, I believe what they meant was “We have a hole in the catalog and need a novel in seventy days. We don’t have time to deal with writers who want to ‘think,’ so just slap some readable garbage together so we have product to sell.” Agreeing to those conditions will keep you in favor for winning those below-minimum-wage writing gigs, and as long as you have no artistic integrity, you can carry on quite happily in that fashion.
The awareness that every piece of writing I’d ever had published was shit bothered me, however, so I resolved to do things differently this time, including actually putting some thought into the story’s DNA.
The structure outline is vague on details. It doesn’t contain much action. It’s basically a worksheet for breaking down the protagonists’ current state, deficits, wants, needs; the function of supporting characters; themes, sequence, pacing, etc. I used it as a what-goes-where guide when making my plot outline (which is the absolute bare bones of what happens in the story — Ben comes to town. The gas station is closed. The cop arrives…), and then I put the structure outline away and didn’t look at it again for a year because I thought it had served its purpose and given up all its juice to the plot outline. Then I wrote the rough draft from the plot outline.
I finished the rough draft, and it was a logical telling of “this happened, and then this happened as a result, which caused this to happen but inadvertently also caused this,” which is all I wanted it to be. When I was talking about sex scenes, I said I don’t know the characters well enough in the rough draft to really know all their hopes and fears and wants and needs — that’s true to some extent for every scene. It doesn’t matter how closely I examine one piece of a story, until I’m holding the whole story in my head and can zoom out to see how all the pieces relate, I don’t have enough understanding of the emotional stakes to instill any nuance into the physical happenings. The first draft after the rough draft is the beginning of getting that nuance into the story (and every draft thereafter is for getting more nuance into the story — the physical happenings never changed significantly).
You know how when you re-partake in a book or movie or any other form of story after the first time, now knowing what’s going to happen and how it ends, you see things you didn’t notice the first time and little things take on “new” meaning? No one snuck in after your first time and put new things in the story; you’re simply viewing it from a perspective now informed by “story wisdom” — you’ve already had this experience, you don’t have to devote mental energy to speculation and anxiety about the unknown, so you have all this available RAM that can now be directed toward analyzing smaller aspects of the whole. Same thing for the writer, except instead of “new” meaning, the writer sees voids where meaning is needed and has to invent and deliver that meaning into the story so it’s there for you to find later. A lot of the meaning you see the second time around didn’t exist before the writer’s second time around.
Thing is, writing nuance is hard. Maybe it’s just me and my “only one person in this family is allowed to have emotions and it’s not you” childhood (when I put it that way, yeah, obviously, it’s just me), but feelings are uncomfortable and messy and inconvenient, and it’s so much easier and more efficient to perform an action than to feel feelings. In light of this, on my first attempt to add nuance to the rough draft, it grew from 55,400 action words to a whopping 55,800-word emotional extravaganza.
Hence, at the end of the first draft after the rough draft, it occurred to me I couldn’t do this, after all. Writing the book I wanted to write was simply beyond my ability. I was best suited to churn out thoughtless crap, and if I was too proud to do that again, I needed to call the time of death, close up the incision, and go do something that requires less sensitivity than exposing and poking at an aspect of the shared human experience.
But I was so unhappy when I threw up my hands and walked away from writing in 2010. Oddly enough, when you abruptly stop being the first thing that comes out of your mouth when people say “Tell me about yourself,” it damages your psyche. It’s a death. There’s mourning, and I went deep into that. What eventually pulled me out was a story — which I haven’t written yet because it’s huge and I truly don’t have the skill to do it justice… yet. First, I needed to be educated in good storytelling (which is always an ongoing process, but it’s not a new art — there’s an ocean of wisdom to drown yourself in). Then, I needed a simple, linear, straightforward project to prove I have a grasp of the basic concepts (WCAD was to be the first such project), the ultimate goal being to develop the competence to do something grand.
I wasn’t looking at this little project like “bleh, homework.” I was excited to do it. I was excited to learn. I was excited to be building toward something in the future.
I DON’T DO EXCITED. I’ve seen other people get excited, and it leads them to reckless behavior and disaster. None for me, thanks. Excitement is a cue for me to take a step back and amp up security so I don’t plunge headlong into a snake pit because I can’t take my eyes off the ooh-shiny on the other side of it.
And writing is the snake pit, isn’t it? Didn’t it just poison me and strangle the life out of me? Isn’t writing why I was in mourning in the first place?
No, actually. Writing is essential for my health and well-being, which is why I atrophied when it died. Publishing was the snake pit, and we now live in a world where that chasm is totally bridgeable for those willing to leave a chest or two unlooted. I was foolish enough to go after those chests on my first playthrough, and there was nothing in them but more snakes. I’m not going down there again on the off chance they respawned full of gold and rare Gwent cards. I’m not even curious. I’ll take the bridge.
So story heroically came down into the abyss of death to drag me back to the land of the living. I’m not going to be a dick and abandon the quest we’re on the first time we stumble into an area we’re under-leveled for and get our asses handed to us in a fight. We’ve held our own up to this point. We’re not noobs. We’ve just reached a point in the game where we need strategy, and we’re going to have to make use of some of that inventory we’ve been lugging around since the beginning — like that structure outline that has no action in it but, upon closer inspection, is 18 pages of NOTHING BUT NUANCE.
Structure doesn’t dictate the events that occur in the story; if it did, every story would be exactly the same series of events and there would be no reason to read them. Structure is a map for the character arc, the growth the character undergoes between Once upon a time and The end so we don’t end in exactly the same state as we began (which would make the story a waste of time), and the writer grafts events onto that form to create context.
Structure (Character Arc): Spurred by a greater fear, she overcomes her fear of the dark.
Plot (Event): She waits, in the light, for him to return. Minutes pass. She hears a crash. He doesn’t respond to her calls. She descends into the dark cellar and drags the unconscious man to safety.
Knowing what I know now, I’d change that last sentence to “Afraid he’s dying because she’d been too cowardly to go into the dark cellar herself, she descends and, despite her terror, drags the unconscious man to safety” and get that fear and shame and guilt into the plot outline from the beginning, and add “Though she escaped from her lifelong nightmare, she felt no relief until he opened his eyes” to show the fear of the dark has been reduced to a triviality in comparison to the fear of losing him. It will save a lot of distress and time in the future to integrate everything the structure outline provides into the plot outline.
I went way off the rails here, but I was so in love with that structure outline when I found it again, I can’t help but gush about it.
What I’d meant to get at all along was the end of Act I. I had a bit of a crisis when comparing the structure outline to the rough draft because Ben and Tally go on a “journey” back in Chapter 8 when they get in the truck to go buy gas. For one thing, there’s a lot more Act I needs to do before it can end. For another, that is really on the nose. They do that a lot in bad horror movies. When it’s time for the “journey,” they go from one place to another. When it’s time for the “call,” the phone rings. When it’s time to “gather tools,” they go a shed and, well, gather tools. Not only does ending Act I in Chapter 8 screw up my structure, I don’t want to be that literal.
I eventually realized the problem wasn’t the story being too literal; it was my fumbling attempts at being writerly that were too literal. Whether the characters are moving nonstop or chained to a wall throughout Act I, the “journey” begins when they commit to a course of action regarding the story problem. “Let’s go get gas” isn’t addressing the story problem (which, in a romance novel, is always about deciding to be together despite whatever horrendous obstacles are in the way instead of being smart and doing something easier) and therefore isn’t the end of the act. “Make her love him enough to stay” and “She had to have him one time” are their stated goals and set up their respective missions for Act II, so this is the end of the line for Act I.
- Earlier, Ben wanted to protect Tally from “prying eyes and stupid jokes” — now he’s getting all ruby-throated about Shane inferring things of a personal nature about her because of his condom purchase.
- Ben was wrong about Tally’s dad and felt like a jerk about it — now he apologizes (even though Wayne wasn’t affected by his misplaced animosity), showing he’ll freely admit it when he knows he’s wrong and try to make amends.
- Tally mentioned twice she hasn’t had time to do her laundry and is down to raiding her dad’s closet — now her dad is doing her laundry (because they’re a team).
- That smudge of dirt on her face in Chapters 1 and 2 wasn’t a pointless addition to her physical description — now she’s embarrassed she went out in public and got semi-naked with Ben with a grimy face, but he didn’t even notice it after his initial inventory.
- Earlier, she worried about comparison to her mother — now she likens her sour expression to “looking more like her mother every day.”
- Ben has noted a couple of times that Tally doesn’t aim for the lips right away when kissing — now we know she’s “waiting for him to pull away,” as if she thinks he might reject her.
- We know sex hasn’t rocked Tally’s world in the past — now we learn she’s never experienced desire for anyone other than Ben and thinks she’s “sexually defective” because the world didn’t flip on its axis when she was with men she didn’t want.
- Tally has pinned her chronic disappointment on overly high expectations in the past and vowed to lower the bar — now she’s going to indulge in good expectations about Ben, just for a little while, and “work on lowering her expectations to a realistic level next week.”
- Besides, he wanted to make sure he was invited to dinner. — expect him to be invited to dinner
- Doing something was the solution to everything. — expect her to take her own advice at some point on a grander scale and stop stagnating where she’s unhappy
- If she behaved herself, she could make it last a little while longer. — expect her belief that if she would just behave properly, everything would be better (Abuse 101) to be an ongoing theme
- He’s leaving, Dad. Don’t get used to him. It’ll hurt worse than anything you can imagine. — expect leaving and unimaginable hurt
- she could always count on him to be honest — expect his tactless honesty to be relevant in the future
- She couldn’t keep him, but she needed to be with him one time — expect her to be with him one time
- no harm would be done — expect harm to be done
- Calling out provoked a burst of barking from the neighbor’s dog. — expect I wouldn’t have mentioned the dog if he wouldn’t be making an appearance later
I was wrong about keeping this brief. I hadn’t intended to get into all that “Life is pain, Princess” stuff. Fingers crossed this isn’t the trend.
If there are any mysteries of the universe you’d like explained, comments are in the usual spot. Otherwise, on to Chapter 17.