So, I was at a poetry class the other day (poetry! I know! It totally happened to me!) and someone there said, “I want to write fiction. How do you start?”
What a damn good question that I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about.
To my fiction brain, poetry seems to just kind of happen to you, which I realize is a gross oversimplification of poetic craft. Perhaps one must be more calculated going into fiction…which is also a gross oversimplification. Let me try to expand.
The seeds of fiction can be pretty dang spontaneous. Sometimes fiction starts when characters speak to you; you have a voice or a person that you can’t get out of your head. (Poets go for ecstatic mania, fiction writer for obsessive schizophrenia? Something like that.) Sometimes fiction starts when you hear someone tell a funky anecdote and you go “ohh, there’s a short story there.” Sometimes fiction starts when you have a topic or a place you know you need to write about: Russian mail-order brides, or the Isle of Skye, or the family farm in Texas. Sometimes the seeds of fiction start from a compelling what-if question: What if I had been telekinetic in high school? What if there really IS a global conspiracy to keep the American government under the control of corporations? What if we could share dreams, literally, when sleeping? What if Jesus had been reborn as a gay Mexican boy?
I find freewriting an important place to let that stuff out. Subconscious dribble turns into stories. Sometimes exercises turn into stories. Italo Calvino called the Tarot “a machine for generating stories,” and I often play with Tarot cards while freewriting…but that is another post, to be told another time.
Today, I want to talk about what happens after you have that initial moment of recognition: “Ohh, that’s a story.”
Say you just heard your friend talking about how her mother sent her newspaper clippings about women who got raped or attacked in the mail all through college. No letter. No note. Just these creepy stories. That story instinct buzzes inside you at this, and you want to do something about it, but you’re not sure what.
First: Ditch reality.
A rookie mistake I’ve both committed and seen other folks commit, especially when writing fiction set in this world with nothing supernatural happening: justifying mediocre choices because, the author cries indignantly, “That’s the way it really happened!” This isn’t reality. It’s fiction. What happens in reality doesn’t necessarily make good fiction, and the catharsis of fiction rarely extends to reality. So, give these characters some space to not be your friend and her mom, but to spring from those seeds.
Okay, so maybe not like this…
Second: What do your characters want?
In our pretend story, we’ve got two main characters so far: mom and daughter. Exploring what they WANT is gonna be fuel for your story. Does the daughter want independence? Maybe she’s annoyed by her mother’s persistent article-sending and does reckless stuff to compensate. Does she want safety? Maybe her mother’s articles secretly terrify her and therefore she is afraid to talk to people or do much of anything. What does mom want? Is she lonely/does she want her daughter back in the house? Does she want safety for her child? Is she afraid her daughter will get raped because of some past trauma in her own life? Is she just really controlling, and if so, why does she want control so bad?
Character want is more obvious, quite frankly, in longer fiction than in shorter fiction. You can track the wants of characters in Pride and Prejudice or The Master and Margarita or Anne of Green Gables pretty well–each novel has a several characters who all WANT something. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy wants Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants Darcy, but also wants independence within her family structure. In The Master and Margarita, Berlioz wants to prove his secular reality to the world; Satan wants to expose people’s selfish idiocy, and Margarita wants love and revenge against those who’ve wronged her lover. (The narrator actually has a direct discussion about what Margarita wants, and says, “Evidently, however, she spoke the truth in saying that she wanted the Master, not the Gothic house, not a private garden, and not money. She loved him. She spoke the truth.”) In Anne of Green Gables, Anne wants a rich, romantic life that lives up to her imagination.
In terms of dramatic structure, distilling your character’s wants can lead you to find something called the Major Dramatic Question. The question that, when it is answered (or decisively not answered,) the story is over. Will Anne find her way? Will The Master and Margarita be happily re-united? Will Satan be foiled? Will Elizabeth and Darcy get married?
Third: What does that want LOOK LIKE?
So, props. I was used to props from theater; you don’t have a prop on stage unless it’s doing something in the scene, and it’s extra bonus points if the prop can be symbolic or hold visual weight: Yorick’s skull, anyone?
Props also apply in fiction: not so symbolically blatant as film or practically chosen as theater, but hey. Oftentimes there are things or people that represent what a character wants.
Take Elizabeth Bennett, for example. She wants independence within her big ol’ family. What does that look like? Marrying Mr. Darcy. Darcy becomes a symbol of Elizabeth’s wants, and a nicely mutable one considering all the times he’s got a giant stick up his ass and Lizzie’s re-calculating if he is the answer to all her problems or not.
Margarita has a prophetic dream in which she sees herself flying over the landscape to a shack where her lover resides; that’s why she’s so eager to use the magic ointment she’s offered to go flying and meet…well, Satan, but it was a nice try. The ointment is tied right into Margarita’s desires, and is a nice concrete object. The dream helps her actions make sense and help us believe she’s acting rationally.
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne freaks right out about puffed sleeves on a dress: a nice, concrete metaphor for that rich romantic life she so desires.
In our hypothetical story, those newspaper clippings are a GREAT prop to play with. Perhaps the mother comes to visit the daughter, who’s hiding out in her dorm room with, like, every article posted on the wall by her bed, and Mom realizes how much she’s freaking out her child. Perhaps the daughter’s final act of rebellion is to NOT open the letter and toss it out or burn it with a cigarette she’s smoking at a sketchy frat party.
Fourth: Why NOW?
Here’s how *not* to do it!
So, that roar of ignition for your story: the moment it begins. In dramatic structure, it’s sometimes called the Passover Question, as in: Why is this night different than any other night? Why is this moment different? There has to be a tipping point that gets things started.
In Pride and Prejudice, the story starts when Bingley moves into Netherfield Park (and the Bennetts hear about it, prompting the daughter-hocking to begin in earnest). In The Master and Margarita, the story begins when Satan, that old catalyst, comes to town. In Anne of Green Gables, the story starts on the day when Anne comes to live with Marilla in Green Gables.
In our story, perhaps it’s the day Mom is finally coming to visit, and the daughter has to hide signs of the lesbian relationship she’s been having with her roommate. Or Mom’s visiting her daughter at college for the first time, and we’ve been following the story from Mom’s POV, and she has aforementioned “oh crap I’m making my daughter a completely paranoid shut-in” moment. Or it’s the night the daughter goes out for the first time and something traumatic does or doesn’t happen. Or it’s the night the daughter is actually attacked at a sketchy frat party and either she gets raped or dissuades her attackers. Maybe she fights off potential rapists and then goes home and rips up all the articles her mom keeps sending. There are all kinds of different stories to choose from here.
Also, this happens.
A final thought: In the same way that I must read more poetry if I want to write poems (and make it specific: watch videos of slam and/or go to slams if I want to write slam poetry), if you want to write fiction you must read it. Want to write short stories? Read short stories. Want to capture the aesthetic of Russian literature? Read Russian literature. Want to retell fairy tales? Read a lot of freakin’ fairy tales. Read what you want to make, and steal its tricks. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”