Thursday, April 2, 2009

Where Does a Story Begin?

Where does a writer get their ideas from? For me, and I suspect for most writers, it begins with daydreams. ‘Begins’ is the key word there. What happens because of the daydream distinguishes audience from storyteller, storyteller from writer, and writer from author.

A daydream is our imagination, often our sub-conscious, telling us a micro story, a fragment of a scene. We are our own audience. We listen and watch as a scene plays out in our head, enjoy the moment, then go about our day. Usually the dream is forgotten almost as soon as it is over. We never cross the boundary from audience to storyteller.

A storyteller sees something in the daydream that makes them stop and pay attention to it. It may be no more than a flash of stray thought, but it is enough to wake the conscious mind and bring to bear its full faculties. There are questions to answer and details to flesh out. It is not enough for the storyteller to merely experience the fragment of the scene, they must expand out it until it is but one small part of a story arc.

For me, my major work, Gods Among Men, began decades ago when I was a teenage geek. I was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons. One day I was having a daydream in which I envisioned a dwarf, dressed in armor, carrying a war-axe, creeping through an overgrown forest. Any player of role-playing games can see where this goes. The dwarf is part of a diverse party, there are monsters nearby and a fierce battle ensues. The party’s wizard is isolated, trapped by an Orc warrior, with no hope of escaping. In desperation he reaches into his satchel and…pulls out a .44 Magnum Revolver and shoots the Orc.

That was the moment I stopped and thought, Where the hell did that come from? How had a modern firearm ended up in a medieval fantasy world? Is it from the distant past? If so, how could both gun and bullets be in good working order and not rusted or otherwise degraded? How did the world change from one based on technology to one based on magic? How did the wizard get the gun? Where did he find bullets? How did he learn to use it? How and why did the gun end up in his satchel? Is there something special about the satchel itself?

These and a host of other questions began to plague me. I had to have answers that made sense to me. I began to fill in these details, to turn the scene into a consistent part of a larger story arc. I had crossed the line between audience and storyteller.

The jump from storyteller to writer is much harder. A writer takes the raw elements of story and translates them into words. What doesn’t work is thrown away, what does work is refined. Characters are developed, given motivations, and put in opposition to each other. Comedy, drama, and tragedy are included in careful measurements to move the plot forward. A beginning and ending for the story is found. The original daydream may be lost entirely or made unrecognizable to any but the writer.

I am now a writer. My work is incomplete, but I am writing it day by day, week by week. I know where it starts and how it ends. I know all the major plot points. I have defined the principle characters, what their motivations are, and determined their character arcs. I know who lives and who dies, whose dreams are fulfilled and whose are shattered.

The distinction between writer and author is simple to define, but is a jump harder to make than the one from storyteller to writer. An author has a completed work published and read by others. An author has readers that turn each page wondering what will happen next, an audience emotionally invested with the story. An audience that knows nothing about the origins of the story, of how the story was written in fits and starts over months or years. They only have the author's completed work before them. Whether they enjoy or hate it is a combination of their personal tastes combined with the author’s skill.

I am not yet an author. I have a first draft of the first book of my series. It has good elements and bad. It requires a lot of rewriting before it is ready for publishing. Because of the nature of my story, I will likely have to write at least some of the other books in the series before I have a realistic chance at publishing any of them. I fear I may have to write all seven books in the series, or at least the first four, because there are no other places where I can say, “Here is a completed story arc.”

I am not deterred. After all, what worth is victory that comes without obstacles? I will be an author some day. How this will come to pass I cannot say. It is a mystery. One I am dying to find out how it ends.

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