Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lunatic Space Pirates Falling in Love During Free Fall

So that's our prompt. This seems ripe for a romantic comedy, but sometimes the obvious is just too obvious. If the idea is too easy, doesn't stretch the boundaries and really explore the concept, even a well written story can be difficult to sell. At best, you'll get comments like, 'well written, but not very original'. Never stop at your first idea. This is the brainstorming stage; you want a typhoon, not an LA drizzle. And even if you go with your first idea, figure out ways you can twist it.

During the brainstorming stage, you might decide to alter or discard part of the idea. In this case, maybe they're not lunatics, maybe they don't fall in love, or maybe you eliminate free fall. This is fine. Ideas need room to evolve and this is where you'll start to find out what kind of story you really want to write. If you're writing for an anthology prompt, make sure to keep the important thematic bits per their guidelines.

This is the point where plot and character start to overlap for me. I take one of the ideas and follow the line of thought through to the end. But then I ask what kind of character would make this story most interesting. Often, I come up with, 'If I do Plot A, then I'd use this character and it would end like this. If I do Plot B, it would go this way.' And this gets batted around for awhile, sometimes substituting characters or creating backgrounds for them. Example: The janitor on the pirate ship who is a burned-out former special ops guy finds himself lusting after the Captain but she doesn't pay him any notice, and his confidence is in the toilet after his last mission gone wrong where lots of innocents were killed.

The janitor is just one (wordy) example, but let's run with that. So now we ask, what's his journey? What is he striving for? At this point the janitor needs to be the protagonist because he has everything to lose, and the most to gain. Also, play with the gender of your protag. See how changing their gender changes the story. In this case, I didn't want to have the needy woman chasing after a man, even if she is tough. I want to flip expectations, so the protag is male. At this point, I also decide the basics of his personality. Is he surly or cheerful? Bold, or shy? Quirks? Likable? How do those things change how he responds to the situation?

It's pretty obvious what he's striving for, right? He needs to find his confidence again and use it to win the Captain's heart. Now a few more questions crop up. Do we let him succeed? If so, what's the happy ending? If not, what's the tragic ending? Then the big question, what is learned in the end? This learning can be by the character, and/or the reader. This is where your theme starts to develop. Don't let that word, theme, scare you. If you have a solid plot, it will evolve out of the story naturally, though feel free to help it along if you recognize it. Just don't beat it to death.

I want to give our protag a happy ending. Admittedly, I rarely go tragic; it's just not in my nature. I like to have a sense of victory and accomplishment. So for the happy ending he needs to get his confidence back. (Getting the girl is secondary, and not actually necessary for him to be successful.)

Throughout the story, he'll need obstacles to overcome, and hopefully, each one will raise the stakes which increases the tension. Maybe in the first, they have to fend off being boarded and he gets into the fight, after vowing he would never fight again. After that, he changes his parameters so that he will fight to protect his own. Also, the Captain notices him for the first time.

Then, maybe, a tactical situation comes up that he is particularly adept in, from his spec ops training, and he has to decide whether to get involved. It was his command decision that got the orphanage blown up so he's gun-shy about making any decisions. But he feels strongly and overcomes his doubts to advise her. She listens (because of the first encounter), and agrees and the task goes well because of his advice. Confidence points and respect, earned.

At this point, you'll see a lot of 'maybes' in my notes. Some stay, some leave. This is truly the hammering out stage. Ideas fly in and out until I pound out a reasonable plot.

The next trial really needs to raise the stakes. Something needs to set our protag back and then force him to face that of which he is most afraid. Then, after sinking as deep as he can go, he needs to confront that fear, stand up, and take action. Hint: Innocents are involved.

The important part here is that throughout the story you've set up this ending accomplishment, making it feel right for both plot, and character. Our janitor's interactions with the Captain need to have been meaningful and leading to this. That's the flesh to this skeleton and you can't know exactly how it's going to turn out until you start writing it. I've had endings change on me two-thirds of the way through because the characters evolved differently than I expected.

This is where I've learned the value of outlining in a way that doesn't remotely stifle creativity. The skeleton of a plot is ultimately flexible so even if you're a pantser, this method doesn't dramatically tie you down. If just gives you an idea of where you're going. Part skeleton, part road map.

So this is my way of getting to a story. It may seem haphazard, or it may not. But hopefully I've given you some ideas for how to approach story construction. The only real rule is to do what works for you. Oh, and keep writing.


  1. These are so interesting to me. I've never actually thought my process through to this level. I'm afraid my process is so lunatic I won't be able to put it into words at all. This is a great idea, and a fun post Trina! Great job.

  2. Fascinating. We work in a similar way, Trina. I love to twist too. And I like this janitor captain story. Have the Janitor be played by Andrew-Lee Potts, and it'd be adorable.

  3. I think there need to be more janitor heroes in fiction. :)


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