Storycrafting 2 – Assembling a Story

Posted on May 16, 2016

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In which I pontificate out loud hoping that if I can’t solve your story problems, at least I can solve mine.

Storycrafting 1

Dream Storming

Almost all of my stories start with dreams. Only recently have I been able to consciously craft a story from an idea. For example, a while ago I was in the half-state of sleep. I could wake up, but I didn’t need to. I’d had a dream I was trying to remember. I love this state and if I can maintain it, often this is where I  capture stories from dreams, as I did in the novel I’m working on. In this case, I don’t really remember the dream, maybe I just had an idea, a premise, and as I often do I wonder: can I craft a story out of this idea, and if I do is it worth the telling?

The premise: What if you could capture an immortal?

Of course this begged the questions: What kind of immortal? Why would you want to capture it? What would you do with it?

One of the niceties of the half dream state is that my mind oscillates between rational, problem-solving mode, and more image-related thoughts. So I envisioned a character and then the words came to me, the title, the character, the concept all together: The Forest God.

Part of the vision put this cage in a New England town square. So colonists had captured this forest god how and why? And then a strange question: Can you starve an immortal to death? I would imagine not. So what would happen if you captured and then didn’t feed a Forest God? I imagined the villagers keeping him alive for a while, tormenting him. Eventually, they lower the cage into a dry well, and only bring him up on occasion. Eventually, they kind of forget about him. He becomes a legend.

So, far, it has some possibilities. How did he get here? Why did they trap him and more importantly how does he get out and what happens then? Because he has to get out, right? I saw a huge battle in which St. Patrick drove the army of Faerie into the sea. It was only a slight rewriting of the “snakes” myth and I thought was very sell-able, in the sense of suspension of disbelief. So St. Patrick drives the pagan mythology into the sea. As a last resort, the Forest King freezes the ocean into a bridge and his host disappears into the night.

As a side note, I had that image in another dream 20 years ago, so nice! Tying it all together. But magic, where does it come from? Does the back story need a story? This is also a problem I’d been considering in world-building on the original dream. It turns out Christianity has a really good answer to this dilemma; it exists in The Book of Giants, one of the many missing books of the Bible. The premise here is that angels mated with men and beasts to form all sorts of magical creatures. (I think the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, is also in this gospel. Been a while since I read them all.) At any rate, I can sort of see a mythology that ties all of these things together, and of course the Church would be set on the eradication of the Misbegotten, as I call them, because they are the spawn of the Fallen whom God has cast from heaven (you know for all of the mating and stuff). So St. Patrick casts the “snakes” from Ireland (which happened around 400 AD) and for like a millennia, they are all chilling in North America.

Then the Puritans show up. And for at that moment, for some undecided reason, capture the Forest God. (Later I decided that the Puritans actually came here explicitly to hunt those Misbegotten that had escaped.)

After that I imagined a little girl in a modern day town square, listening at this pipe stuck in the ground, The Devil’s Trumpet, which goes to the dry well where the Forest God sits still in his cage, weak from being iron-bound (the magic killer) and not eating in 400 years. I saw this creature being released and somehow taking the girl as his wife (in that kind of We Can Remember it for You Wholesale twist that as long as she’s alive, he will be merciful). So, by the time I actually got up, a few minutes of real time, a few movies worth of dream time,  I had this premise:

  • Angels mate with earthly beings creating creatures not designed by God, who because of their heavenly lineage are imbued with various types of magic and immortality.
  • There is a centuries-long purge of these creatures from their native homelands in Europe which culminates when St. Patrick and his forces drive them into the sea.
  • They do not perish, though, but merely migrate to North America, where the Puritans follow to finish the job. (Get it Pure –i- tans).
  • They capture the Forest God, and they decouple the land of faery from that of mortal men, removing magic from the world. They cannot kill him so lock him away permanently.
  • There is a little girl who becomes fascinated with the legend, makes contact and is (somehow) instrumental in his release.

There is the start of a narrative arc there, but I would not call it a plot by any means. It’s a premise. It’s a back story based on existing mythology and history which might make it interesting enough to pursue. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But each time period will also need it’s own narrative arc.

From Premise to Plot

Usually, if I have that much fleshed out, I can just sit down and begin writing. In fact, I only took this on because I thought I saw it from beginning to end and I could bang it out in a few days while I percolated on my novel. While I think the premise is plenty rich for a novel, I did not want to drop one novel for another. I originally saw it as a short story and I wanted to complete it as a short story. I flew up to page 10, covering the Irish and Colonial periods of the story and writing a good deal of the modern day, and then I seriously started to consider the endeavor.

Normally, I work out story plots in my head on my commute, and as a result, when I sit down at the computer, it’s largely a typing exercise. In this case, I hadn’t done as much of that as I usually do. While I was putting a bunch of words on paper, I wasn’t so happy with them. I realized that I was doing a lot of telling instead of showing, especially in the first two parts of the story.

While I always tell people to “just write,” I’m also completely conscious that every story I write teaches me something specific about the craft. I decided to figure out what the lesson was here before I moved on.  I’d written enough of the story to have the “bones” down, so I wasn’t in danger of forgetting it, but I decided to work out some of the technical issues now to save myself some time later in rewriting. It took me a while to figure it out, but this story hinges on point of view. So there is something else each section will need: a viewpoint character.

Point-of-View

The first really big problem was in the first two sections, the Irish battle scene and the Colonial hunt, capture, and prosecution of The Forest God. They were written in a very almost historical third-person voice. It was a potentially fascinating story, poorly told. I pondered this overnight and realized what the issue was: I had not consciously chosen a point of view to tell the story from.

Always before my stories have been fairly simple and the POV has been almost automatic for me. But here, with the three mini-stories separated in time, it wasn’t so clear. Certainly I could much more easily “show” the story if I chose a character’s POV for each section. Clearly they are important the back story, but are they important to this story? Does the reader need to read them?

I started to think about this somewhat. In the battle scene, it seemed obvious, I had to either tell it from the Forest God’s POV or from St. Patrick’s. Those were the two characters that had the most to lose. And of course depending on whom you chose the hero/villain dichotomy could go either way! I could introduce a secondary character but then I would need a subplot to validate the new character. And that subplot would have to continue forward. Seems a bit much for a short story. (Editor’s note: I’ve since reconsidered the importance of the minor character to the plot. They are the reactionary character. Showing how they react to the main characters through their own story is the main value.)

For the founding of Plymouth colony and subsequent pursuit of the magical beings I used an omniscient point of view, but again, it was really dry. The main character in that telling was Miles Standish, whom I tied in as a relative of St. Patrick (who was actually English, so again at least plausible on the surface). Later I added a secondary character, Solomon, for perspective to react against Miles’s fanatical leadership. Would that be my POV character? What does he stand to lose? I could write it as him questioning the acts and fearing that in doing so-called God’s work he actually is terrified of losing his soul. Again, this would require at least sketching in a subplot and it would be almost solely to “show” the story by his reactions to it.  Is it worth it? (Editor’s note: yes.) Should I tell it from the Forest God’s POV, the one character who has continuity across all of the time lines? That would simplify some things but I’m not sure it would really tell the story I wanted to tell.

The current day story also boils down to two choices: the little girl or the Forest God. But again, unless I have a very good reason to pick him (like continuity across the timelines), the choice would have to be the little girl. Is she the one with the most to lose? In each case the POV character is a reactionary character.

And that really is the crux of the matter, I think. I cannot really pick the POV character until I know what the story is about. I could tell it 3rd person as a classic good versus evil story with the Forest God representing Satan topically, but in actuality the roles of demon and church are reversed.. But that seems boring and certainly not how I originally conceived it. I could tell it from the Forest God’s point of view, but ultimately he is an unchanging primal force. Perhaps I could humanize him and make it very interesting. Certainly, I subscribe to Blake’s incarnation of the devil in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell as being the repository of creativity and change, representing innovation and the deshackling from the status quo. So if the story is a metaphor against man’s war on nature, of what we lose through domination and disbelief, then it would be the little girl who has the most to lose, because Patrick (the priest) is merely the symbol of the church and the Forest God represents what we lose when we take magic out of the world.

And if the little girl is the point of view character, then everything that happened before she is introduced is back story, and I cannot use it as written. Again you could argue that the Forest God has the most to lose, but it would be a different story and I cannot see it.

I think this is interesting. Perhaps I have always before done this subconsciously, but there is a rule here:

You need to know your theme before you can choose your POV character, because you need to know who stands the most to lose.

While it may not be the character herself that stands the most to lose, that character’s reaction to the story is going to expose the real problem – the drama – in the tale. What do you think?

Theme Stated

While I don’t think that you can start with a formula and get a good story, as I mentioned in Storycrafting 1, I do sometimes find it helpful for me to use some of these templates or pointers to solve a problem while I’m brainstorming for a story. For instance, beginnings and ends are easy, but working through the middle can be somewhat problematic. I see  such difficulties more like questions to ask to get unblocked. I was reading about Save the Cat Beat Sheet (which basically decomposes a story into beats, I highly recommend printing the beat sheet out and watching one of your favorite movies to deconstruct it), and one of the “beats” is:

Theme Stated: Early on, the theme is introduced, often by stating it outright.

When I read this article, I realized I actually did this very thing in Die with a Human Heart (I know I always reference this, but it’s because it’s my one story that I deconstructed to analyze, and besides, it’s a damn good tale. It comes a bit late (the story bends up the formula a bit) but at one point one character clearly states the entire point of the story “Sometimes the only thing is not the right thing.” Tell me that doesn’t hook you.

In the Other America, I devote an entire scene to this (I am, after all a thematic writer).

He stood there suddenly exhausted, slumped by himself on an exposed corner of grass, not quite swallowed by the fair.

“Maybe it’s not here, Tom.” Tom looked up and saw his father leaning against an old-fashioned street lamp, a solo artist in its mercury glow. “But it’s not out there, either.”

The night seemed suddenly cold and alien: foreign stars raced across the sky.

“Billy couldn’t find you. Thought you might be here. Or there.” Tom’s father cocked his head generally towards the shadows.

“What, dad? What am I looking for?” Tom asked.

“You’re looking for you, son. For what makes you happy. The thing is you can’t find it outside of you. You have to make it inside.” He uncrossed his arms and took a step closer.

“Maybe you have to go places to find it. Maybe things have to be new to recognize the difference.” Tom was defiant.

“All of a sudden what you have out there isn’t good enough. You thought that back here you’d find the answers–backstage answers from outside. All those people spending all of those hours in their cars, never time to think about the here, always about the over there, keep going and going. The answer is never where they are but only where they are going, so they are never anywhere. Those people don’t fish, or fly kites, or sit so quiet so long in the woods the squirrels nibble on their lunch. When they’re with their families, they think of everything else. Then they do everything else to be with their families. They don’t live. If you leave here and get on that road, you’ll never be able to find this place again, and if you do, you won’t be able to stay. That’s what ‘here’ is, Tom. It’s people who decided to stay put, and find happiness inside. People who decided that what they have is better than chasing and chasing and chasing. In fifty years, not one person has ever pulled over, parked his car, walked up that bank and taken the road into town. Not one ever wondered what was right beside them, instead of in front or behind.”

So even though for Forest God I have my premise, my plot, and my characters, I don’t have a pithy little theme statement like that for Forest God. As soon as I do, the rest becomes a typing exercise.

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