I suppose that requires more explanation.
Many authors talk about their “big idea,” or where they drew inspiration for their novel. I generally think of myself more as someone who glues a lot of little ideas together, but the principle is the same. The truth is, a newly conceived story idea is an amorphous mass of potential plot, characters, and setting.
A story is a cage
In other, words, a jellyfish. The story is the cage we writers put it in. And we don’t get to use a glass-sided aquarium that holds everything in neatly. No, we have to make do with bars of nouns, verbs for a solid bottom, and a roof of adjectives topping it all. With a set-up like that, naturally a few tentacles are going to slip through the bars. There’s also the danger of bits of the jellyfish’s oozy body managing to squeeze through the spaces. Here’s the kicker: the only thing our readers can see—and what they judge us on—is what’s inside the cage. They don’t care about the tentacles dangling in the currents.
So, how do we writers grab hold of that squishy, almost intangible, jellyfish that is an idea and put it on display for all the world to enjoy? For me, the most crucial element is identifying what kind of story I’m writing. Oddly, that means deciding on the tone, first and foremost. I say “oddly” because I consider myself a character writer, and it seems logical to presume that I’d start with a character and find their story. I did try writing this way, back when I first started writing. Let’s just say it never led anywhere, and I finally ended up throwing out the dozens of notebooks filled with indecipherable scribble.
Choosing a structure for the jellyfish
For example’s sake, I’m going use my short story “Forever Now,” which was published in Fireside Magazine in April. The jellyfish of that story was a girl trapped in a magical mall. Any readers perusing this blog at this moment may be nodding their heads, thinking how they would approach this basic concept. Some may like the idea of a haunted, creepy mall, and make the story a scary one. Others might want to write a very simple story for very young readers, perhaps in rhyme. I went, as it were, to my default setting of whimsy. I wanted the story to be humorous, yet carry serious undertones. I wanted it to be appropriate for young readers while also appealing to older ones.
As I write this blog, I find it ironic that I chose “Forever Now” as an example, for the theme of that story is about how when you make choices, you lose certain options. The same is true when you set a tone for your story; if you write for young readers, certain types of language become inappropriate. If you’re writing a serious family drama, you have to leave out that scene where the unicorn trots by and farts out a rainbow. But there’s also something liberating about making that choice because it helps clear the path in front of you. I often think writer’s block is caused by having too many options, rather than a lack of them, like the proverbial story of the donkey that starved to death when placed between two equidistant bales of hay.
Building the Cage
Having identified my jellyfish, I now had to go about constructing its cage. I needed a goal for my protagonist, Rita. It had to be high enough to cause tension, but because of the choice in tone I’d already made, it could not be high enough to cause horror. Having her be stalked by zombies, for instance, would’ve changed my whimsical jellyfish into one of horror or black comedy—both of which are perfectly fine options, but not what I’d chosen.
I decided that Rita’s parents had gone missing, and she had to find them before the mall closed or she’d be stuck there forever. I’d like to point out that this put her in an active position, which is something we writers should always strive to do with our protagonists. (Yeah, I don’t always succeed, either. I think, like us, most of our characters would prefer to sit in their slippers, eating chocolate, rather than go out and slay the dreaded seven-headed dragon of Wobblenaught, or whatever.)
Now that Rita had a goal, she needed an antagonist. I’d wanted to write a Mad Hatter type character for some time, so I came up with the Man in the Many-Colored Hat, who both fit in with the whimsical element and performed the useful function of providing Rita with information even as he confused her and made her task of finding her parents more complex. Another writer might’ve made the mall itself the antagonist, or perhaps an annoying younger sibling. And again, these could’ve been delightful choices—but not the right ones for my jellyfish.
A series of Choices
By now, you’ll have notice I’ve evoked the word “choice” a lot in this essay. It’s because, in the end, that is what writing a story is: making a series of choices. We all know that a story has to flow logically; all that means, in essence, is that once a choice is decided upon, others vanish. You can’t have your hero swear vengeance on your villain in one scene, and then, in the very next, look tenderly in the villain’s eyes and profess his love,—unless, at some point, you explain how your hero shifted from hatred to true love. Everything that you put in the cage needs to stick together. If it sticks out, let it go. I know it hurts. I’ve had to trim some scenes and dialogue I loved from my books, but unnecessary material is like a stray tentacle curling up, obscuring the readers’ view of the jellyfish.
There are more definite techniques we need to learn as writers, such as how to write convincing dialogue, evoke setting, and simply constructing a compelling sentence. Technique is our carpenter’s tool, style, the flourishes we put on our jellyfish’s cage. But in essence, the writer’s art is casting a net of words over an idea. Whenever I think about it, I realize how scary, strange, and maddening it is, trying to make a coherent shape out of goo. My own shortcomings frustrate me, and I’m constantly distracted by the glint of other amorphous forms floating in that boundless sea of possibilities.
But I’ve made my choice. I’m a writer, and for me, there’s no greater delight in the world than hearing someone tell me they enjoyed my story. I hope you’ve experienced that pleasure yourselves.
Now, go catch yourself a jellyfish.
THE MEDDLERS OF MOONSHINE
Something is rotten in the town of Widget, and Rags-n-Bones knows it’s all his fault. Ever since he snitched that avocado from Miss Ascot’s pack, things have been going wrong. Armed with a handful of memories he never realized he had, Rags-n-Bones searches for a way to put right whatever he did to Widget in the past. If only he knew what it was! Unfortunately, the only person who seems to have answers is a half-mad youth that only Rags can see.
Widget is also suffering from a ghost infestation that has the townsfolk almost as spooked of outsiders as they are of actual spooks. While Rags-n-Bones seeks answers in the past, Ascot offers the town leaders her service as an exorcist, only to be handed an ultimatum: banish the ghosts or be banished herself!
Who’s meddling with Widget? To catch the culprit, Ascot and Rags-n-Bones must match wits with a shifty sorcerer, a prissy ex-governess, and a troublingly attractive captain before the town consigns itself to the graveyard of history.
E. Decker hails from Pennsylvania. A former doll-maker and ESL tutor, she earned a master’s degree in history, where she developed a love of turning old stories upside-down to see what fell out of them. This led in turn to the writing of her YA novel, The Falling of the Moon. A graduate of Odyssey 2011, her short fiction has appeared in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and in World Weaver Press’s own Specter Spectacular. Like all writers, she is owned by three cats. Come visit her, her cats, and her fur Daleks at wordsmeetworld.com.