Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. -- Gene Fowler

Monday, August 2, 2010

Abandoned Stories: Analyzing the Stakes (January 21, 2010)

In 2006 I attempted National Novel Writing Month with an idea I got from the film, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" The film postulates the possibility of every person having the ability to literally control his or her world just by his or her attitudes and beliefs. Pretty touchy-feely, but this supposition is coupled with science, particularly quantum physics.

I was struck by how powerful this simple idea was: if matter is thought, then thought could be matter, and if I thought about it and believed it hard enough (the believing's the tricky bit), I could have anything I wanted. It sounds crazy, but then so does what little I know of quantum physics. Things randomly appearing and disappearing, things being in two places at the same time ... this is normal for quantum physics. But does it translate to the real world?

I haven't really tried 'creating my day', as one interviewee says he does in the film, a reference to deciding before you get up in the morning what your day is going to bring you. But my story idea centered around a woman who /could/ control her world, largely in the form of selecting the outcome she wanted from the possibilities at any one particular time, without being truly aware she was doing it. Like the concept in the film, the idea sounds simple enough, but the execution is beyond complex.

So I wrote on this story, wherein this woman comes to realise what power she has, largely through the intervention of another party, a person who begins to train her to use her abilities properly, for misuse can be dangerous to not only herself but to others. Immediately upon being told there were restrictions on how she ought to use the power, she disobeys them and rescues a friend from danger. Flash forward to years later, when she's part of a freak show as 'The Amazing Disappearing Woman' - a side-effect of improper use of the power.

But that's really as far as I got. I tried to do too much, tried to net a nebulous idea, and failed. The story got away from me. It was never well-defined to start with, but after a week or so it quietly crawled off and died underneath the baseboard like that hamster you had when you were six. Let it be said that the adage about spellcraft applies to writing as well: Never try to write something that's bigger than your head.*

Jack Heffron invites the writer to look at failed stories like this and ask, "what's at stake?" If there's no risk, there's no reward and the story stagnates. I don't think that's at the heart of what's wrong with this story, but it's part of it. Somewhere in that story mess is a potential stake: the welfare of the friend, but that gets resolved fairly quickly. It's what comes later that needs to be compelling.

Heffron advises the writer with a story whose stakes are not high enough to examine the reason for the story: why do you want to tell /this/ story? Perhaps you should choose another moment in the character's life. If the reasons for choosing this story, this moment, are valid, then it's time to raise the stakes. More than wanting a better job, the protagonist should /need/ to quit his job in order to ... do something that's important to him, or to save himself from the ill effects of some dastardly thing that's happening in his life.

I may revisit the story one day. Though it's only about 12000 words and a mess of characters, locations, and who knows what else, there's a nugget, however tiny, of potential in there. Having not looked at it since I wrote it, I can't recall what particular issues it may have, aside from general nebulousness. Until then, it will sit in the virtual drawer of abandoned stories, waiting for its time to rise again.

* I looked, albeit briefly, for the origins of the phrase "Never summon anything that's bigger than your head", which is probably just a goofy re-wording of old witchcraft adages about not summoning something you can't handle or put back. I came up with no convincing results. The best I could find was that the phrase came from a Cthulhu cultist. I've always attributed it to Dungeons and Dragons, but that's because I'm a geek.

1 comment:

  1. I was just reading how Christopher Nolan did that with Inception. He had a cool idea, but the story was flat. He found a way to up the emotional stakes, and that BECOME the story... the rest was just a cool way to tell it. B)