Friday, July 26, 2013

The Evolution of a Story

While I was living in Dublin, I received a phone call from my brother, Kevin, who spoke to me about an assignment he had received in his English Composition class.

"Write a story," the teacher said, "But at the beginning is a group of men hauling an SUV out from under the ice of  Lake Winnipesaukee."

No sooner had my brother told me this than my writer's imagination began to churn into a whirlwind.  Immediately I knew there was "something rotten in the state of Denmark" regarding the circumstances of the incident, and I had a rough motive and cause of the murder; and I began to piece together the narrative, as I have ever since that day, eight years ago.

This post is about how a story evolves in the mind of the writer.

What's In A Story

Robert McKee, Syd Field, and every major author I've ever read on story theory reiterates the same general principles.  You have Act One, Act Two, Act Three: setup of the plot, finding the solution, and the ending or resolution.  You have the problem, followed by the solution.  The main character battles with the enemy, who or whatever it may be; and wins or loses.  It's simple; and no matter how far an "innovative writer" may try to run from it, it is always present.  It's the classic plot: the heart of every "once upon a time."

The Big Idea

Seldom do stories up and plant themselves into our laps.  No; they are nurtured as they develop; and even upon hatching do they need precious time to gather themselves and learn to walk and grow until they are fully mature.

A story begins with an idea.  It may be a large, involved notion; or a tiny little aspect of a thought.  It can come from an article one has read, book he is reading, from a photograph (as with Ron Howard), an instance in one's life, the persons one meets, the very small characteristic of an odd thing noticed - all of this, everything has a story to tell; and the imagination can fill in any blank.


Would you like to know how that vehicle ended up submerged over night in freezing cold water in the first place (at least as I imagined it)?  Of course you would.

It was nothing short of murder, but the strangest kind.  You see a scientist had been driving the car, not even knowing if he was in reality or strapped to his contraption he was perfecting to manipulate the human imagination.  Our protagonist (now dead from freezing to death under water and drowning - which of the two was the final cause, I have not yet decided) had taken his own father from a nursing home and strapped him in his vegetative state to his machine; because, of course, it needed a living human brain to work from to surpass all purely artificially intelligent CGI.  However, the father becomes conscious of what is going on, and, though paralyzed, finds his revenge on the son who plays with fire by tricking him into believing what is real is virtual reality.  Hence the car in the lake, if you follow me.

Those are the bare bones of the plot.  Over the course of the years, my mind has churned over so many diverse stories, this being one of them.

Springing from the idea clings many other aspects to support it and give it life, limbs, form.  It's a mutation formed by a gravity of ideas becoming compelled to bind to each other in the writer's imagination.

In the writer's mind, he siphons out all that does not work: each plot element that comes to mind, characters, locations.  He then plays out the drama: he acts it out, a thousand times in his head.  He feels it; he almost lives it.  From there the drama is born: characters naturally exude dialogue, reason, action; the climax works itself up.  The writer repeats this over, and over, and over until something of substance is formed.

The writer wakes up countless times at night with the perfect idea to add to his project; he thinks of something else while on the John, while doing dishes, running, during class, driving, during work, or throughout any random moment of the day.  The ideas flow and the writer organizes them, orders them, and cuts out the ones that are rot.

Just the other day I was running at night, thinking of this story, listening to music.  I felt that the protagonist's "breaking bad" would need other consequences when others became suspicious of what he was doing.  Therefore, I saw him lock his friend and research associate in a radiation chamber, and after a few poignant words with the thick glass between them, he flips the switch, and kills his friend.

Will that make it in the final cut?  Probably, but it may be different by then.

This is how a story evolves, at least in my mind.

And at long last there comes a time after all the manipulation of events when the writer feels the story is a breathing animal and is ready to be unleashed and put to paper.

The End

It could be days, or years when the writer finally completes his work.  This is a catharsis second to none. It is similar to giving birth.

I once write an extensive project that took me six months to research and a full year to write.  I woke up every morning in agony because "it wasn't done," "I'm behind schedule," "it will never be any good."  After I finished it, I slept like I had never slept before.

Show me a better analogy for this.  If you have ever accomplished something as such you would say the same: that at the end of it all, you, as a writer, are reasonably happy (a writer is rarely satisfied with his work).  And a beautiful baby is born.

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