Get Ready, Get Set, Go!
Research is one of the basic elements to writing and I travel frequently to accomplish that whether to the Caribbean Islands or to the local Costco (a membership warehouse frequented by hordes of people of different ethnic origins.) During a recent jaunt to Mexico there was time to sit in a hot tub and talk with people (Unaware they were being studied as potential characters.) No matter where a writer goes when people discover what you do someone always says, “I'd like to write a book, but I just don't know what to write about.”
In The Way to Write, Rudolf Flesch and A.H. Lass (1955) say, “[Writing isn't just spelling . . . or just about grammar.] Writing is grasping ideas, seeing images, harnessing words [to] give shape and form to thoughts. What matters most in writing is not the rules and conventions for putting words on paper. What matters most in writing is the writer's mind.” If a person can't think of anything to write about, then continue to daydream. A person who has the soul of a writer has ideas buzzing around their head as if walking through a field of butterflies until seeing one in particular, grasping it, and then running off to nurture it.”
Photographs are often my inspiration butterflies stimulating ideas. Other things are people, conversations, books, magazines, TV, movies, even those celebrated prompts proffered by other writers. Mostly likely an idea will never be used because there are so many and not enough time to develop it, but so not to lose the thought, I generate a note with picture(s) if appropriate, and a summary not unlike what might be sent to an agent or publisher except it can be longer than 250 words. Usually, that summary is just long enough that the essence of the thought can be recaptured, but on occasion it has moved right into a full-blown short story. This summary is an important guide, becoming the beginning of an outline.
From Idea to the End of Life
A summary helps suggest initial players and location in the story. It also suggests what research is needed. For instance, if players are travelling on a bus or train, what do you know about the feel and experience of such travel. Cars, yes, but a bus or train? Let's say the story takes place in Durango, Colorado. What do you know about that place? The weather? The scenery? The history? The people? The things to do? You either have been there, have a person who can help answer questions, travel there (oh, yes), or Google the heck out of it.
When a story starts to percolate between the ears there is one thing that must take precedent—How is it going to end? What are you trying to say? Once that is settled, how did the players reach this point by backtracking to the beginning.
Did you say read the last chapter first?
But how many times did Miss Penworthy in high school English admonished us to not read the end of a book? That will spoil the whole story.
Not so. Knowing how it ends adds a special dimension; The reader sees the twists and turns the players negotiates to get to that point, becoming actively engaged by questioning, “Why that way and not this way?” or “Hey, not the alley, stay on the street and this will happen.” It's a different way to read a story, but for the author, knowing the end is a necessity so not to drift off course. For fun, let's plot out a story.
Bored to Death
Two brothers live in Fresno, CA. Frank is in the 11th grade. Fred is in 9th grade. Frank is a good student, but Fred is smarter and school is boring. There is no father in the home so Frank tries to fill in. Fred resents his brother's “interference.” He sets curfew times and criticizes the people he runs with. They are still very close despite Fred's rebellionish nature until Frank kneels in Fred's blood and pulls his lifeless body close, sobbing because he didn't arrive soon enough. The story is to tell how a bright, young man, bored with school and too much time on his hands, gets into a deadly situation, and pays the ultimate price. (I like twists, so Fred is not with his gang this day, but seeing them go into the store, he walks across the street to join them, in effect becoming an innocent victim.)
Backtracking. Okay, Fred got involved with a gang whether a member or not, but how did he die? He was shot by a store owner. Why? He was standing outside the store when it was being robbed. Why? He was joining his friends. Who? The guys robbing the store. Why were they robbing the store? How did Fred get involved with these guys? Did he know what was going down? Where was Frank? Did he know what was going down? Did Frank try to intervene to prevent his brother from running with these guys? What did he do? Why did Fred chose to ignore his older brother with whom he had a very close relationship and start associating with the gang?
By backtracking, we have a beginning, an explanation how it happened, and who was involved by repeatedly asking the ultimate questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?
The information can be plugged into the traditional A. 1. a. format, or it can be a sentence or two, or expanded with more detail into a short paragraph describing each act of the story. What you want is something to guide your writing along by highlighting events—this happened and the players respond by doing this because of these characteristics or these events, and because they do this, this happens and the players respond by . . ..
A story is like a game of dominoes when stood on end. Here is a passage from a book I wrote several years ago.
One evening, instead of putting the dominoes away after finishing a game, [Aunt Florence] began standing each one on end. I loved this game, making twists, and turns, and all manner of deviations from a straight run.
That night, seated on the edge my bed, she said, “Francis, life is like the dominoes we played with earlier. Each one represents an event in your life. One might represent the day your father and my Eben were killed. It falls into the next representing your mother starting her business. That one falls into the next which is you coming to live with me. That would never have happened if the first hadn't moved into the second.”
The older I got the more I could see the domino theory working in my life. Many years later I came to understand, one's chain did not necessarily begin moving at birth. What has happened within our family could be inexorably linked to something that began four-hundred years earlier.
That story was built by setting up life-event dominoes starting at the end where the protagonist wins fame, fortune, and discovers the truth about his family. The chain snaked around and had side adventures that rejoined the main theme, so it is not a solely linear tale.
There are many ways to write a story, but something has to be in place so not to miss important elements as discussed in previous eFiles AND to keep your writing from wandering.
How do you plan out a story?