Saturday, December 17, 2011

There Must be a Story Behind the Story

Once upon a time, a woman whose dark brown hair was streaked with gray stood in a pool of water. She wore damp capri jeans rolled up over her knees. Next to her, a great, green frog hunched in the water, its mouth open wide. The woman peered into the frog's cavernous mouth in some consternation. After several moments, she leaned forward and stuck her head inside. "Are you coming?" she asked. Her voice echoed, but no one answered her.

 Quickly, the woman splashed around the frog. Where the frog's back should have been, there was an empty set of stairs. Whirling around, the woman caught sight of a tiny pair of wet footprints leading toward another pool. "Not again!" she muttered and pulled herself out of the pool onto the rough concrete sidewalk.

She didn't need to follow the footprints to know where they went. She ran to the round kiddie pool with the whale and the turtle. Her three year old boy was already trying to climb onto the turtle's back. "You're a quick one," she said, and stepped into the cool pool. Already both sets of footprints were fading in the heat.

Day after day, the woman and the boy came to the pools. The average observer might have thought they were merely waiting for her other children while they took swimming lessons at the big pool. Though that was partially true, something much larger was going on, something that would eventually change that woman's life. She was turning into an author.

 The conditions were perfect for such a transformation. A beautiful spot with lots of sensory stimulation. The need for her brain to stay alert, but with plenty of downtime And a question...


 That's the question that transforms me from your average ordinary woman into a super-being capable of creating whole worlds inside my mind. Why would a character interesting enough to be the main character of a novel be standing in a kiddie pool? 

 Obviously she's a fairy with an affinity for water.

 Well yes, but why is she here? In this place? 

She's, um...helping a friend, yeah. Taking her friend's daughter to swimming lessons. This place is great and everything, but it's obviously not magical.

Why is she here at all? 

Hmmm....maybe she's trapped on Earth, and she got a job taking care of an elderly woman. Yeah! And she's falling in love with the woman's grandson, and this is his sister's daughter. Yeah. 

Why is she on Earth? 

 Ooh. Good question, and I'm glad you asked. Because she was being hunted for her particularly strong magic on her own world. Once she got here, someone closed the gates between the worlds, and now she is trapped.

Why is she so sad? 

 And so after day. By the time I noticed what was happening, I'd already been daydreaming about it for weeks. I backtracked so far that the book I wrote was all about Jenny's time in her own world, not on Earth. If I ever write a sequel, however, this scene will be in it, for sure.

 It won't be a major scene of course. In fact, it may only be there for sentimental purposes. (Yes, I know, I know, kill your darlings. But surely, there will be a way for me to work in the setting at least. Only time will tell.)

 Nearly every story I have ever created began with me outdoors, doing a physically repetitive activity. Last summer, I took up jogging. The place where I live has a lot of hills, so, being an inherently lazy person, I like to jog on the nice, flat track. It can get boring though, so I asked myself why a character interesting enough to be in a novel would run in circles day after day. I discovered a girl named Amye, living in the dungeon of a castle in a fantasy world. Luckily for Amye, this was a relatively humane dungeon, and the prisoners are allowed two hours of exercise time in an enclosed courtyard every day. She has discovered a plot to escape, and she spends her time running around the courtyard trying to prove she is strong enough to be included. Whenever Stephen, another prisoner, passes her, he trips her and sends her sprawling. Again I had to head backwards through the maze of story ideas...Why is she there? Why is Stephen treating her like that? The answers turned out to be very interesting. And so another book was born.

WHY are you telling us this, Melanie? 

 My way of imagining a random scene and using it to create a whole world is probably not the method you use to create a story, and I wonder if we could learn from each other. It's good to find many pathways to creativity.

 My particular method works well for creating strong characters and rich worlds. It's not usually so great at helping me with story arcs, and that's something I really struggle with. So tell me:

Where do your story ideas come from?


  1. I get bogged down with WHYs in my story. Especially the "Why wouldn't she just call the police?" and "Why doesn't she see that she's headed for trouble?" My personal favorite: "Why doesn't the villain just kill them already?"

    Story ideas seem to come from magic that pops in my head out of nowhere (and only once in a long while); I often lose them before I find a pen. I like the idea of using WHY to generate ideas, rather than just tear them down ;) I'm going to give it a try.

    Great post, Melanie. Thank you!

  2. :) Great post! I love that you begin with an interesting character. I usually begin a Shiny New Idea brainstorm with What, not Who - and then spend years figuring out the characters that fit the plot idea. (As my stories tend to be character driven in the end, I'm pretty sure I'm doing things backward, here)

    I love the WHY game - Have you tried interview your characters? Sometimes I'll play Character Therapist and force my characters to talk everything out - the answers to all the WHYs tend to pop out during therapy sessions :)

  3. Marisa, I don't know how sane it is to pretend to be a therapist for the voices in your head... You must be a writer.

    I love this post, Melanie. I always find it interesting how stories start, what nuggets of interesting can expand into with enough time and sunlight.

    I like the question, why is a character interesting enough to be in a novel doing this? Great idea.

  4. My stories started when working with other people and having insane things happen like one girl thinking the Christmas lights were candy and screaming at the top of her lungs each time we drove by them. One day I'll write my book...on day.

  5. I'm like you.

    Story ideas can come from anywhere. It is important to take your imagination with you everywhere you go. :)

    Nice post.

  6. every day life..through observation like you... that's what we are good at, us writers...observing...i could observe people all day long. But i wouldn't be necessary able to transform ideas into plots/stories like you...someone very famous said (but i don't remember who it was) the talent of a writer is to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary...and you seem to have it.

  7. Thank you, L.A. Speedwing--that made my day!

  8. I was so glad when I found writing back again because I was 'what if' -ing and 'why'- ing myself to death over real things. Now at least I can fill my brain with imaginary stuff I can control.

    Great post!


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