Tiptoeing into story

How do stories come to a writer? Usually they don’t arrive whole cloth, with clarity and stunning originality.

Sometimes stories don’t even start with an idea, but with a seed. Just a tiny proto-idea: a scene, a person, a place. We can’t be sure if this seed is alive or dead, good or bad. Will it grow into something worthy? Maybe. And maybe not.

As we all know, there is a difference between an idea and a full blown concept which one might use an an elevator pitch to an editor. It’s the difference between “an air force comprised of dragons” and “dragons deeply bonded to their aviators fight for England against Napoleon.”

But sometimes there is a stage before “an air force of dragons.” I don’t know where Naomi Novik began with her Temeraire story, but it could well have been something like: “a dragon that speaks like an 19th century aristocrat.”

Think for a moment where you as a writer might have taken that story seed. Dragons rule Britain? A lone dragon educated and pampered, treated as a freak in London? Dragons run a school for magic? If this is where we would have gone with that little seed, perhaps we would have been best off quietly putting the idea away. Point is, Novik likely built up her story a bit at a time, veering out of such dead ends. Perhaps she took time to follow the power lines of her initial inspiration, building it slowly.

About two weeks ago I woke up at 3:00 a.m. wondering how many pairs of shoes to bring to a big convention. Do I really need walking shoes? Will I have use for something nice? Black or tan? And then an image flashed into my mind. It was of a young woman bending over the unconscious form of someone, and she was wondering whether to help them or not. Without giving away my idea I’ll just say that she had a very intriguing reason why she might not help this stricken person. The scene was loaded with emotion. I hurried downstairs to find pen and paper to write it down.

This was certainly not a story idea, not yet. Later, I realized the woman in my vision was not exactly human. And that caused the seed to sprout. It soon grew into a story idea. But it has only become a story concept in the last week or so.

I am, of course, building the story.

But not all in a rush, all at once. Unless your mind works very unlike my own, one must at first circle around the elements of story: plot, character, milieu, even genre. Here is where the tiptoeing comes in. If at the beginning one rushes the story elements into place, the result may well be less original and dramatic.

It is at this time that the writer does best to move slowly. To court the muse, and avoid chasing the best ideas away in the rush to concept. This can be a giddy but frustrating time. You are excited to have an idea in hand, but it is so thin and pathetic, and it needs meat on the bones. The longer that it remains shapeless, the more you worry that it will never get up off the floor and fly. That’s when the amateur forces things, settles for cliche, ignores the inner story that might be asleep or just plain hiding.

I have become so careful of this stage in story development, that I often set my notebook aside after one or two hours and do not work on that story for the rest of the day. When I come back in the morning, I have a clearer sense of where the story is starting to get derivative or boring.

Yesterday I trolled the internet for names. I found an excellent name for my protagonist. It’s the one all right: snappy and original, yet believable. This morning I tossed it in favor of a much better one. Now, with her real name, I can start asking who she is. Who she really is, at all levels.

Names are important; but they will be influenced by things like genre and milieu. This is just one example of how aspects of your story will affect each other. So as you spend time with backstory, you are building up the world, and those aspects in turn will suggest plot. And then we must come back to the name again, and ask: who is she really? Settling for a provisional answer, we circle away once again to the milieu.

At this point you are making lists of questions to be considered: Using The Entire and The Rose as an example:

–What exactly is the Entire?

–Is it a natural phenomenon?

–What happened to Titus Quinn the first time he went there? How did he lose his memories?

–Why has the Entire wished to remain secret?

–Who are the Tarig, really? What lies will we believe at first?

The answers to these questions are at first dumb, to use a term of art. Your first efforts to answer them are seldom brilliant; and if they are, you do not need to be reading this blog. For the rest of us, if we can persuade ourselves to be patient, the snowballing of story can pay off hugely. We will allow each piece to inform every other. We will give ourselves permission to explore.

Do you want to do trial scenes and a bit of writing here? I urge against it. Until you have a solid concept, the words on the page will only convince you that the story is there. It’s not. Don’t rush.



6 Responses

  1. Calandria says:

    I love your blog and your informative posts. I am working on a concept for my first (hopefully) novel-length story and am caught in exactly the stage of development you describe here. The hardest part for me has been deciding what to throw out and what to keep. Keeping a list of questions to be answered in mind seems like it would help in making those decisions.

    Once the story takes a bit more shape, my impulse is to play out trial scenes in my head, though I don’t write anything at that point. I need to see the story elements “in action” to see if they work at all, but I do become somewhat attached to scenes I like. Do you have any recommendations for what to do instead of imagining or writing trial scenes?

  2. Kay says:

    Calandria, to my mind there’s a big difference in the effect on ones story by imagining scenes and writing them out. In the first instance, no harm. You aren’t rushing, you’re just *thinking.* I can’t tell you what’s enough planning; I have a very high tolerance for planning–front-loading the subconscious in Robert J. Ray’s term. Others grow weary and need to start to write, fixing things as they find problems. One exercise I can recommend–it’s very hard BUT: When you’ve about got to the limit of the planning, try writing a 10-30 page story summary. Pretend you’re telling the story to your best friend. You will find many problems that way: things that bore you, ideas that are too unwieldy, holes in your casting. Fix these things in your planning notes. THEN start writing the real deal.

  3. Calandria says:

    Thank you very much for your response! I will definitely try the story summary exercise once I’ve planned a bit more.

  4. Ben says:

    Hi there. I have been reading your blog for some time but have seldom commented. I just wanted to say thanks. Your thoughts on writing contain some of the most cogent and practical tips I’ve ever seen.

  5. Kay says:

    Hi Ben–thanks very much for chiming in; oddly today I was particularly wondering who is out there and if the blog takes too much time away from my writing. Very nice to hear from you.

  6. I agree that there’s something deflating to the embryonic creative impulse by putting it down on paper too soon. I find it useful to remind myself on a regular basis that “daydreaming,” that is, letting ideas and questions mull around in blissfully unstructured ways, is an essential part of writing. I’m not farting around, I’m working. The fun, secret, delicious part of working.

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