I’m writing this new story, or at least I’m plotting it – though even that statement is premature. What I’ve really been doing for the last week and a half is imagining the world of the story. It’s not something I’ve ever written before, and frankly, I’m frightened I can’t do it. That’s a good sign. I’ve learned by now that the thing I’m most afraid to do is always the thing I need to do most.
So instead of dissuading me, I’m using my fear to drive me and I’m pretty happy with the story elements I have so far – a contained time and space, a ticking clock, a beginning and end – a couple of twists in the middle – and a protagonist with a great desire. However I was struggling with my antagonist. I didn’t know him, why he did what he did, or why he was faced off specifically against my protag. And I want it specific. Specificity ups the stakes and makes the story more immediate and personal on a number of levels.
Still, I couldn’t figure him out, and the more I tried, the more complicated the story premise became. I don’t want complicated. I’ve done complicated before. I want a story that can be boiled down to one simple, memorable sentence: It’s a book about A + B = C. So I began talking it over with my S.O. last night because he’s a writer too, and he’s fantastic at generating simple, high concept ideas. He also doesn’t get offended when I cut him off halfway through a sentence with, “No.” Just no. Not: that doesn’t work, won’t work, I don’t wanna … just no. (Mind, he does the same to me, so it’s fair enough.) Yet he’s also not shy in saying (again and again), “Just hear me out. That element doesn’t work for me, and here’s why…”
There was one particular element, key to my protag’s background, that he was hung up on, stating it was impossible to relate to someone with that motivating force. It’s not normal – and I do want normal. An Everywoman, like you or me (or someone you know). It’s very difficult to generate story ideas – all the magical ‘What if’s’ and still hold on to them loosely – especially as the story really begins to take shape. You’re trying to weave these elements together into something elegant, but still retain the mental space necessary to unravel those threads as needed. That’s why I haven’t begun writing yet. I’m still maneuvering, trying to figure out what this piece is supposed to look like when it’s finished, and what the hell do I use to make it – silk? Cotton? Chicken wire?
Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying that by the end of the night I was mentally fatigued, and unsure if this story really had legs. There are risks in speaking too soon of your burgeoning story to someone else. One is that you might lose the energy to write it. (Why bother? You’ve already told it.) But I wasn’t telling the story, I was trying to work it out, so my risk was self-doubt. Like I said – I’ve never told this sort of story before (though I’ve wanted to since ’05-’06). So I went to bed dejected, knowing only I had a protag, a beginning and an end.
Today, rested and fresh, we batted the story around some more as he shaved and I had coffee – and again, loosely; just a bunch of ‘what if’s’ after going back to the basics: what do you love about this story? What do you know? (See the second paragraph above.) And, finally – after again telling me what he didn’t like about a particular element (grrr!) – he nailed it for me. The perfect* “What if.” It’s a simple, contained, and personal solution. It tells me exactly who the antag is. And with that, I can go back and rework with very little trouble who my protag is.
All of this is a circuitous way of explaining a very circuitous process … and an admonition to keep going when your eyes are crossed and your mind is muddled and you’re starting to forget why you’re writing your story at all. That’s where a lot of stories flag and writers quit and they move on to the next idea that seems shinier and simpler (until it’s not). Hold your ideas loosely, keep it simple. Breathe. Write.
I need to see things laid out before me like a road map when I get confused, so I’m off to scribble on a stack of notecards. I’m going to lay them out in a three-act structure**, shift them around, remove them and fiddle as needed. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like at the end of the day, but at least I’m excited (and afraid) to find out.
*The perfect ‘What if’ may only be perfect for now. It could easily change again tomorrow, but you need today to get to tomorrow anyway, so it’s all a necessary part of the process, right? So write on.
**If you’re interested in studying the three-act structure, I highly recommend reading Alexandra Sokoloff’s e-book, SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS. There are excerpts of this book on her blog, so you can test drive it, but I say just buy the ebook already. It’s only $2.99 – less than a cup of coffee, and I think it’s wonderful. I’ve used it to help me with at least three books now, though caveat: plotting and geeking out about structural issues is my thing. Not only does It work for me, but I almost like it better than writing the damned thing. If you think you might like it too, or want to try something new, I can’t recommend Alex’s advice enough.