Happy Saturday and welcome back to my series on writing short stories.
We’ve talked about why to write short fiction, we’ve talked about what short stories are, and we’ve talked about ideas and structure. But I’m feeling like maybe we raced through the last two parts a bit. So I wanted to spend a bit more time on going from idea to story before we jump in and start drafting. .
After you’ve been doing this for a while — and especially after you start getting some sales under your belt — you’ll be amazed at the number of people who tell you that they, too, have a brilliant idea for a _______. They will even try to get you to write it, for…say…a fifty/fifty split. The fact is, ideas are free. Twisting the idea into a story can be hard work until, like most things, you’ve practiced it enough.
So how do twist an idea into a story?
A lot depends upon the idea you’re starting with. It could be an interesting person you think would make a good protagonist. It could be an interesting problem that you’d like to explore. It could be a fascinating place (by that I mean the entire setting, supporting cast and all that goes with it.
And self awareness also informs some of this. Do you know whether you are a more instinctive, “discover as you go” writer or a more careful, “look before you leap” writer who works best with a sense of the story nailed down before drafting? The only way to find out is to try each and see what feels most natural. And even then, you could be missing out on other approaches that might work. Because I really do believe that regardless of our comfort zone, we CAN adapt new processes if we’re willing to let go and try it. Because like I said two weeks ago, I think our process is whatever tricks our brains into writing. And we may require different tricks on different days.
But let’s say you’re a planner. You know you need a person, place and problem along with some plausible attempts at solving the problem…the failure of which should ideally make matters worse or cost our hero more. Someone in those three, hopefully your idea can find a home and start to grow up into a story.
If it was a person that grabbed your muse’s eye (like the track-suit Jesus I saw bearing his cross in a Safeway parking lot however many years ago) you might start asking questions about that person. A grand game of “what if.” Was it really Jesus? My belief system says “Nope,” but I love being a speculative fiction writer. I can actually pretend “Well, what if it was?” and find a story in it. And I have my setting — a Puget Sound area in the modern era complete that includes laws of the universe that allow crucified messianic figures to come back from the dead and interact in our modern day. Now you just have to come up with a problem. Maybe Jesus needs to be somewhere. Maybe he needs a hand carrying said cross. And maybe, in turning the story around and around in the soup of a writer’s brain, we’ll even cook up a different person — the still-drunk redneck who is sleeping it off in his truck when Jesus taps on his window and asks for a bit of help hauling said execution device in said Chevy.
If the idea originated rooted in place, I would start there. For instance, the Okanogan area in northeastern Washington, scattered with rocky hills and a scattering of evergreens. If it’s a place nearby, I might even go there and sit and see what kind of story comes out of that environment, keeping an eye out for people and problems that could serve a story well.
It works the same way if you’ve got the problem identified first. Again, it’s just like playing with your food. You sit with the information and you fiddle with it until the idea becomes complete enough to start drafting.
Some will do best to just fly by the seat of their pants, jumping in with what they know and letting the story inform them as they write it. So your mileage may vary. If you’re that writer, then you go in knowing that you can shore things up later in your revision process if everything doesn’t fall into place as you draft it. And if you’re the other kind of writer, then the secret is to know when enough is enough and it’s time to sit down and make words happen.
Next week, we’ll do a bit of dissection on my story “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk.” So if you haven’t read it yet, you may want to if you don’t enjoy spoilers. Or you can listen to it if you prefer.
And that’s all for now. Trailer Boy out.