So far I’ve spent a lot of time explaining a lot about the mechanics of writing, techniques and mistakes to avoid, but how do you actually handle the conception of a story? How do you build one? How do you create a complex, inter-weaving, multi-layered, emotionally-moving, laugh-out-loud-funny, scare-the-crap-out-of-you, story?
As it turns out it is remarkably similar to the formation of a snowflake. Both are complex structures that seemingly appear out of nothing, and while they all look the same—no two are ever really alike.
So how is a snowflake born?
A snowflake begins to form when an extremely cold water droplet freezes onto a pollen or dust particle in the sky. This creates an ice crystal. As the ice crystal falls to the ground, water vapor freezes onto the primary crystal, building new crystals – the six arms of the snowflake. —NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
Snowflakes then are nothing more than structures built onto bits of dust. Now imagine for a moment that in this analogy, dust is an idea. I’m not talking about grand ideas, nothing so elaborate as amber encasing a mosquito that feasted on dinosaur blood making it possible to access dino DNA and clone them in modern times. Those are the “what-ifs” of novels. What if an obsessive compulsive detective begins looking into the murder of his own wife to discover real vampires living in San Francisco? That’s the kind of thing you get from watching an old episode of Monk followed by an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No. I’m talking about what happens next, when you face that blank glowing white box of your word processer. Where does all the other stuff come from? A fully formed novel doesn’t just plop out of an author’s head. There is a process of growing it like an ice crystal, but ice crystals can’t form on nothing, they need a bit of dust, an idea.
One of the best ways to provide this is to start in a logical place and ask yourself a simple question like, who is your main character? Even that is too big a question, so you break it down to what does he or she do for a living? Maybe the story is actually a what-if about a virus that kills most of the world’s population in just a few months, so really what your character does for a living might not seem terribly important. They can do anything because they won’t be doing it for long. So you pick something at random. You think about people you know, people you meet over the course of an average day and what they do. You just had lunch at a Ruby Tuesday and so you decide she will be a waitress at a chain restaurant.
Boom! You just made a bit of dust.
This is now a platform you can build on. The character is a woman who is on her feet all day, meeting people. So one of the most important things in the world to her are comfortable shoes. You just made a character attribute that grew out of the dust speck. Building on that you realize she never wears heels, she rarely dresses up. Great, you now have a mental picture of this person that you did not have before.
Staying with the original bit of dust, you can continue to build off that. Since you know where she works, since it is the one setting you have, the first scene of the story is now going to take place in the restaurant where she will meet her love interest. He will flirt with her while all around the other patrons are sneezing and coughing more than normal. Must be flu season? Over the course of the story, as the virus spreads, less and less people will come to the restaurant. Until it is only her and the love interest who will have a touching scene on the night before the restaurant closes. Is one or the other sniffling?
Voilà! The first fifth of the novel has just been fleshed out. That one particle of information, that was so irrelevant when you conceived it has led to a huge plot advance—just think what might have happened if instead of going to Ruby Tuesday, you had just gone to a Seven-11 for a gallon of milk.
One particle of dust provides the foundation on which you can slap extensions. You start with one idea about a character. That idea leads to the next. If the character works in a library, they can be very bookish and read all the time, or you can play against type and make him hate books, or better yet—he’s illiterate. At this point you need to explain why. That leads to other answers and other questions. Soon you have a pretty defined character. Now if you want to try weaving a story, flesh out several characters and a few settings, and see where unexpected connections occur.
1. Protagonist: An orphan boy, actually the illegitimate grandson of a wealthy man who’s daughter ran away from home.
2. Setting: The streets of a bustling, dirty city filled with crime.
3. Antagonist: A hoodlum who uses orphans to steal form the rich.
Put these three together and you can weave them so that the hoodlum ensnares the poor orphan to rob from a rich man’s house…who turns out to be the boy’s grandfather, causing the story to have a happy ending. (Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is almost like this.)
Sometimes people have what some might call writer’s block. They just can’t think of anything. (Note that different people have different definitions of this affliction. Some consider it when they can’t think of any ideas, for others, they have ideas, they just can’t bring themselves to write, being too easily distracted.) The traditional solution to this problem is to just start writing. Write anything. It doesn’t matter what.
Hello. I don’t know what to write. I must be the worst writer in the world because I can’t write. This is what most people must call writer’s block…
How does this help? Random writing can accidently result in random bits of dust forming, that your writing mind can start building ice formations around.
…Writer’s block. An odd phrase. Is it a person, place, or thing? Is it an actual block like a brick that an author can’t move? Or better yet something he can throw when he is as frustrated as I am? Or is it an obstruction like something they have to remove from a bowel? How cool would it be if it was a city block? A street somewhere inhabited by authors. Not just random writers either, but famous authors…living and dead. Ghosts of Hemmingway, Joyce, Twain, and Dickens haunt the likes of Stephen King, James Patterson and Danielle Steel inspiring them to greatness. What if a new aspiring writer managed to obtain a home on that street. A home no one else wanted. What if all the writers who lived there were successful because of the ghosts who haunted their houses, but no one wanted to live in the house that the aspiring author was about to move into, because the ghost that haunts that house has caused the last five aspiring authors that lived there to commit suicide. Hey…I don’t think I have writer’s block anymore.
Writing throws up dust. Dust forms the nucleus of an ice crystal. Ice crystals gather more ice crystals, growing in all directions until at last, when they gain enough weight they fall as snowflakes. And if you create enough flakes, very soon, it will begin to snow.
And there’s nothing quite so lovely as a blanket of new fallen snow.
That’s the bell. Next week—A Reason to Read