Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How-To-Write a story from conception to completion

I begin with a mental image.

Rule number one for me. Let the image write the story. I do not force it, or attempt to direct its flow. If I am stuck, I will stop and find something else to do. The story will usually pull me back.

The following example began when a misplaced sheet of paper in my office grabbed my attention. As I walked past, I saw the color red and printed words.

In my mind, this developed into an image of a sheet of white paper in a drawer with writing or printing on the paper and a red smear that appeared to be a fingerprint.

The paper could’ve been from any source. The printing or words might’ve been a note, a message, or something else. The red might’ve been lipstick, strawberry jam, or something ominous like blood.

I like ominous best.

At first, I considered that the drawer was in a desk, and then moved it to a nightstand.

The printing on the paper became hotel letterhead.

Now, it was used hotel stationary in a nightstand. This was a beginning, but lacked tension.

The red could be lipstick, but then it runs the risk of cliché. It could be paint, which sounds terribly mundane. It could be jam left by a child‘s fingers.

Hmm, a missing child? Something to consider.

By that point, I had what I felt were two workable plot ideas. Since I really enjoy mysteries, be it murder or horror, blood won out.

Therefore, I now had hotel stationary in a bedside nightstand with a smear of blood along one edge.

What I needed then were people. Otherwise, no one found it, and no one cared that the paper was in the drawer.

I decided that a couple would work best. You can adjust gender according to how the plot develops. For my first attempt, I went with husband and wife. The wife finds the paper, and this is the initial result.

She walked towards the bedroom doorway. As she passed the bed, the slightly opened drawer in her husband's nightstand caught her attention. Curious as to what she saw, she stopped as she was about to step into the hallway and returned. Since her husband was normally somewhat secretive, she felt a quiver of trepidation as she reached for the small brass knob.

A glance over her shoulder told her that the bathroom door was closed, yet she still felt the need for caution.

As she turned away, deciding whether she should look or leave, she saw her reflection in the mirror over her dark oak dresser. The frown pinching her thin blonde eyebrows into steep arches changed her mind. She couldn't understand exactly why, and decided she would think about that later.

Once she heard the shower running, she cautiously opened the nightstand drawer, lifted out a sheet of hotel stationary with what she believed was a lipstick stain on the edge.

Pain lanced her heart, but when she held the paper under the light, she realized that the red smear was blood. Hesitantly, she touched the surface. The stain felt slightly sticky as if it had not dried completely.

The water shut off. She dropped the paper in the drawer, closed it completely and lay back on her side of the bed with her eyes closed while she wondered if he'd gotten a paper cut, and if not, how the blood came to be on the paper.

She could not recall seeing any cuts on his fingers or hands, but since he'd just returned from a business trip, climbing into bed at 5 am, she had not had the opportunity to look with the light on.

That takes care of the beginning and the basic plot foundation. Except there is an important element missing, plausibility.

A story must be plausible from the first sentence. Break the flow of plausibility and the story collapses.

In this example, I now asked, "Why would her husband bring hotel stationary with a smear of blood on it home and place the paper in his bedside drawer?" Of course, we know he is secretive, and believes the drawer is private.

The solution could be one of several. However, I decided to add, “printed across the middle of the page, she read a day, time, and location (in the actual story, I'd use a real day, time and place, which can be fictional).”

One more consideration. What I've written of the actual story so far can be "fleshed out" using the protagonist's five senses. The wife is my protagonist.

Here is an example:

Quickly, she lifted the paper to her nose, intentionally staying away from the blood. What she smelled was not what she expected. The odor seemed masculine, not feminine like perfume, and was not the familiar scent she knew belonged to her husband. As she moved the paper, the odor of blood confirmed her worst suspicion. What did he do? She wondered feeling a flutter of fear stir in her chest.

Using this technique, the 289 words I've written of the story, can become four hundred or more, but never overdo description. If your protagonist is walking or driving through a town or city, go easy on the travelogue, unless you are trying to write a fictional guidebook, which already sounds non-fictional.

Too much descriptive narrative becomes an obvious attempt to add to the word count. You will not fool your readers. Keep your characters anchored in place with just enough detail, but always remember it’s the plot and characterization (action and reaction) that tells the story.

The wife in my example faces a conundrum. Should she confront her husband? Should she follow him or be certain she is at the location and well hidden when he arrives for his rendezvous?

She's not about to call the police and perhaps feels nervous about confrontation. That might produce an unwanted result, like his denial, or even anger that she looked at his private papers. We know he is secretive.

In my opinion, her logical choice is to do nothing or be on site when he arrives to meet the man who wrote the note. We also know she is curious, so it is quite plausible that she will spy on him to assuage her concern.

The writer now has several excellent options. The man he meets might assault her husband, or the two men might plan a crime, or discuss how to cover up a crime. The husband might kill the other man. Whichever, the wife will discover that her husband is not the man she believed him to be (character development).

I understand that this is a well-used plot, but that does not mean it cannot be used again as long as the story does not read like any other developed from a similar plot device.

Regardless of how the plot develops, the writer must weave in ideas and clues from the start of the story. Make the blood smear important in the men's discussion. Ultimately, that should help define the story's conclusion.

Finally, the story must end by answering any questions that the plot presented, and add a nice nasty twist if possible.

Next, I'll write a first draft of the story.
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