Friday, 16 June 2017

Story elements I need to figure out in advance: "Why this character?"

Quick note on my blogging schedule: for June, I think it's going to be this: at least 3 posts per week, no set topics. In July I'll increase it to at least 5 per week, mostly with the theme 'Camp NaNoWriMo day x: title'. I'll think about August and beyond if I manage to keep the blog alive for June/July. At the moment I'm mostly thinking about blogging as an extension of journalling - similar to how I use my PPT on Steve the WriMo Forum.

Now, on with today's topic: the things I need to figure out in advance.

In my notes for one of my current classes (Writing the Short Story), there's this question: do you think some story elements look after themselves as long as you concentrate on others, and which do you think are the important ones to focus on?
Being me, I automatically answered that the important elements are 'character' and 'setting'. Everything else - plot, structure, voice, viewpoint, style and so on, I tend to assume will grow out of solid characterisation and setting-building. However, while this is a nice idea and makes me feel all writerly and creative, there's a big problem.
I don't actually do these things.

Right now I have this tangled mess of characters, settings and plots that I believe can be divided into (I think) five entirely separate stories. So, if I believe the two most vital building blocks are the characters and their worlds, you'd think the way I'd try to untangle it would be to make solid versions of the characters and settings and then work outwards from there. Am I doing this? No. I'm just sitting here flailing, and the stories are still tangled and largely unwritten.

A more honest answer to that question would be that I believe some elements look after themselves as long as I oncentrate on others... but that I don't actually know which elements fall into which category. For example, in my last (entirely pantsed) story, I tried to end the world with space-sunflowers. I came up with that basic premise, and then just sort of sketched the rest of it in. The story almost worked and I got a pretty good mark for it, but there was something missing. Specifically, there was a giant hole in my characterisation and I think this points me towards one of the elements I really need to have in advance. The element is this: "Why this character?"

As soon as I read the comments, I knew it wasn't just a problem with that particular story. I could come up with a list of other things I've written where that question casts a dark cloud of uncertainty over the whole thing. So often, when I'm embarking on an editing/rewriting project, the only answer I can come up with is "Because the writer said so" as an answer, and I always know it's not good enough but can't come up with anything better. I conclude that the character I've created and the plot I shoved them into are so hopelessly incompatible that there's no way to fix it. The number of drafts in that category right now is slightly bigger than I'd like to admit. This is a problem I really need to learn how to fix.

While I was trying to answer the study question, I came up with an idea for a writing exercise that I think would help. Basically, I find a question I don't know the answer to ("Why this character?") and come up with a brief answer.

"Why this character?"

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Why was she in the wrong place?"

"Because her handbag strap broke and she had to sit down for a moment to figure out an emergency fix."

...and so on. That example has nothing to do with anything, but it sort of illustrates the point. I ask myself a question, answer it, and then construct a new question out of a problem in the answer. I don't know if it's really going to help, but maybe if I can dig deep enough into those questions I'll at least be able to come up with a concrete answer to the original "Why?" question.

So, readers, have you ever tried anything like this before? Liked it? Hated it? Disappeared into an endless void of circling around the same questions, then given up and used the story as cat litter?

Although, I guess most of us do these things on the computer, so maybe 'hard drive clutter' is more likely than 'cat litter'. You have to go to special effort to turn it into something for your cat, while consigning it to the folder of abandoned WIPs is just a quick click-and-drag. That might be a fun idea for an app - something that produces a short animation of some kind of destruction (cat peeing, setting it on fire, shredding) and then moves the file to an archive folder.

Charging up her virtual flamethrower,

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