Tuesday, 28 April 2015

How To Turn a Story Idea into a Story: Part Four

What's It All About, Alfie?

So here we are, at Part Four of our story experiment. We started out with a simple premise for a possible story that, on its own, wasn't going to go anywhere. So we went shopping for some more ingredients, and so far we have:

1 - The So What in our Plot (the special and specific reasons for our plot to exist in the first place,)
2 - The Right Characters for the Job (characters whose personal wants and needs - and darkest fears - are what drive and shape the plot,)
3 - Some Fuel for our Conflict Fires (making sure there's conflict on as many levels as possible - in the Main Plot as  a whole and on personal, individual levels for the main characters.)

So what else do we need? We've got a lot of Story Lego to play with already, but... have we really thought about what we're trying to build with it? If a stranger were to look at our stack of primary-coloured plot-bricks and ask us "What are you making?" would we be able to tell them?

If it really was Lego we were working with, we could easily say "I'm building an evil dungeon where all the naughty Lego men will be tortured for my amusement" (that was only the one time, and those Lego men had it coming...) What we wouldn't say is something like "Well, I'm starting with a  two-block-high layer of red bricks, and then I'm going to add a three-block-high layer of yellow bricks, and then I'm going to put window-blocks here, here and here..." because the poor guy's eyes would quickly glaze over and he'd wish he never asked. 

It's the same with readers, both actual and potential. When they ask "What's your story about?" they generally don't want a laundry list of plot events. They want a snappy summary that tells them instantly whether it's something they'd be interested in reading (or not.) With Lego bricks, it's a brief mini-tour of the completed Lego Dungeon (they can look, but as yet they can't play with any of the equipment unless they're good boys and girls and want to find out more, bwah ha haaa...) For our story, it's the theme.

Theme translates to 'What am I aiming to make people feel when they read this story? What are the messages I'm trying to convey?' This can be something darkly serious, like 'War is the worst way to settle an argument' or as frothy as 'if you hate trying to keep up with the latest trends, don't hang out with people whose lives revolve around keeping up with the latest trends.' But it's mostly 'why am I writing this? Why is it so important to me?'

When we find the themes it's our job to really make the most of them - but without screaming it into our readers faces like an over-zealous pastor in the pulpit. Better to think of it more like the golden thread that's woven through a piece of fabric, contrasting with and at the same time complementing the other colours in it.

So now we need to identify the themes in our experimental story. Obviously the 'why am I compelled to write this?' part of this equation is going to prove somewhat less passionate than a story written from a deeply personal standpoint ('to see if we can get it to work, in spite of our initial reservations' was our original motivation... mmm yeah, makes it kind of the runt of the litter in that respect...) but it'll do to get us started. Okay, now let's pull up our story-baby-so-far:

We have a long space journey for the purposes of humans colonising a new, Earth-like planet, so distant the timespan will take two generations to complete. Since it is the offspring of the current crew who will eventually become the new colonists, all children born aboard the ship are implanted with microchips that can be tailored to censor all 'inappropriate' thoughts, ideologies and prejudices, with the intention of creating a more tolerant and peaceful race of humans for the new colony. But Mikel, a Tier 1 doctor, realises his daughter Aeryn has Asperger's Syndrome, which becomes harder to conceal as she gets older in spite of his best efforts to teach her how to 'hide' her condition. Inevitably, some of the other elder crew members feel her 'disability' will compromise the 'perfection' of the rest of the group. One of the most vocal naysayers is Mikel's ex-wife Tamira, a Tier 2 class he split from just before they set off for this mission. Even though she's since married Brynn, a Tier 2 man, and has a son with him, she's still bitter that Mikel left her for a Tier 1 woman, and Aeryn - the daughter they had together  - is 'automatically' a Tier 1 even with her Asperger's diagnosis. Meanwhile her own son, Ronin, is 'only' a Tier 2 like her and her new husband. She is leading a movement to have Aeryn 'downgraded,' purely on the strength of having Asperger's Syndrome. However, it seems Ronin is not helping her in this endeavour; as a fellow Implantee, he and Aeryn are best friends, and he doesn't understand the motives behind his mother's actions.

But suddenly all of this is over-ridden in importance by a series of major setbacks; parts of the ship begin to malfunction and a mysterious virus afflicts all the elders, leaving them increasingly unable to manage routine tasks and keep everything together. As the elders all talk of sabotage and hurl blame in all directions the implantees feel powerless and vulnerable; with their own instincts to regard others with suspicion blunted, they have no clue what to do for the best. Even worse, ship sensors indicate that one of the implantee's chips is no longer functioning, although it's not clear whose it is. The elders immediately conclude the one with the broken chip MUST be the 'saboteur' - and some start pointing fingers at Aeryn, the implantee with Aspergers.

And yet somehow Aeryn seems to be the only person still able to keep a cool head and rationalise the situation. It's not long before she concludes that, because of this, SHE is most likely the one with the broken chip. This means only she is both physically and mentally capable of solving the problems they now have - but if the wrong people find out the truth about her, she may not even get the chance to save everyone before the ship fails completely.

That's quite a lot more stuff than when we first started this experiment! And for me, the most obvious themes that stand out are:

1 - Conflicts occur when people with prejudices try to coexist with people whose abilities to prejudice are blocked.
2 - When people with censored minds are no longer 'responsible' for their own thoughts and opinions they become apathetic and afraid to take risks.
3 - Prejudice and discrimination can sometimes have a positive function in society. Eliminating all forms of prejudice and 'inappropriate thinking' is actually a really bad idea.

Now let's take each of these themes in turn and see how much of what we've devised so far fits in:

1 - Conflicts occur when people with prejudices try to coexist with people whose abilities to prejudice are blocked.
Our protagonist, Aeryn, is a central hub in this theme, which is great - for the story, if not so much for her. Her peers, who are implantees like her, will harbour no prejudice towards her for being on the Aspergers scale, and so those elders who do feel she should be downgraded to Tier 2 - and later that she is most likely the 'saboteur' - will receive no support from that quarter. Unless of course an elder with the means, motive and opportunity 'doctors' all the chips somehow to change that... mmm, another potential plot nugget perhaps? Maybe this 'saboteur' could be real after all. Particularly if that also ties in with how they discover someone's chip isn't working anymore! What if that person knows it's Aeryn, but can't tell everyone they know that much, because that'll give them away as having tampered with the chips. So they try to make more of an issue of her Aspergers as a way of discrediting her - in case she starts getting too clever and figuring stuff out that the still-brain-censored implantees aren't capable of?

This obviously marks out Tamira - Aeryn's dad's ex - as a prime suspect, since she has her own, previously existing reasons for being prejudiced against Aeryn. But we'd be idiots to actually make her the saboteur for that very reason, because it's too darned obvious. How about Brynn - her current husband and father of Ronin - instead? He'd have equal means, motive and opportunity, but because we could paint him as the long-suffering guy who just wishes his wife would stop feuding with her ex, he'd stay under the radar as a suspect.

2 - When people with censored minds are no longer 'responsible' for their own thoughts and opinions they become apathetic and afraid to take risks.

This theme underpins the main plot, where the ship is gradually falling apart and failing and the elders are all getting sick and slowly dying. With their minds still uncensored, the elders are free to grow more and more paranoid as time goes on, wildly blaming everything and everyone for each new disaster. The implantees, however, would be incapable of feeling that way, and indeed would probably end up feeling more and more helpless and vulnerable, suddenly having to be the 'responsible' ones when their heavily-censored powers of reasoning aren't up to the task.

This is also why Aeryn wins the lead role; the combination of her non-functioning brain chip and some particular emotional and intellectual qualities of her Aspergers, added to the fact that, unlike the elders, she is still physically fit and healthy, marks her as the only person who can realistically get to the bottom of the mysteries and find ways to solve the problems (albeit with some help from friends and allies.)

3 - Prejudice and discrimination can sometimes have a positive function in society. Eliminating all forms of prejudice and 'inappropriate thinking' is actually a really bad idea.
Obviously the prejudice Aeryn faces for being on the Aspergers scale is not cool - we're not saying okay to any of that shizzle. Along with any of the other prejudices we're fighting in the real world; racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry - basically any kind of prejudice that hurts or otherwise reduces the quality of life for people who are doing no harm to anyone else, but are simply different in some way from the people with the prejudice.

Buuut... if we were to see a new creature for the first time, it would not make much sense to just go skipping up to it trilling "Oh hiiii there - let's be friends!" It might be as sweet-natured and happy-go-lucky as we are... or then again it might just let out a mighty roar and chew our heads off. And if we don't know which way that cookie's gonna crumble, it pays to go in with at least a plan for dealing with the latter rather than just blithely assuming the former. That's prejudice in its purest form, and in unknown situations, it can save lives.

And this is why, when the lives of everyone on the ship are in danger, a lack of prejudicial judgement makes things so much worse. Preventing the implantees from forming 'unfair' opinions of others is something that simply can't be done objectively, so the (messy) workaround solution would be cover all bases and block all forms of 'unfair' opinions. And this is why, when some of the elders start picking on Aeryn, even though her friends don't agree with their behaviour they are unable to defend her - because doing so would require them to reject the opinions and actions of the elders. They can't get their heads around the concept of a 'saboteur' deliberately trying to wreck the ship either, for the very same reason. And without the ability to look at another with a suspicious eye, or to go on a 'gut feeling' about a person behaving in an odd manner, they're going to be useless at trying to get to the bottom of what's going on. And as the elders get ever more paranoid and delusional, they're just going to panic and not know who to listen to anymore. It'll take Aeryn a while to get them to side with her - in fact, it probably won't happen completely until the last remaining elders admit she is the only one who can help them.


So... let's look at all the requirements we've put together from Parts One to Four:

1 - The events in our story happen for reasons that are compelling and plausible. They don't happen 'just because' - they happen because a was already there, and then when b came along, that made c happen, etc.
2 - The characters in our story have compelling and plausible reasons to become involved in the events taking place. They make the stuff happen, stuff doesn't just happen to them.
3 - All conflicts at every level matter; the characters must act or lose everything that matters to them - even when they will likely make things worse instead of better.
4 - Our story has something to say - i.e.  'these are the big, universal thoughts we were pondering when we wrote this, and now we're inviting you, the reader, to think about them too.'

But here's the million-quid question: taking all of that into account, did our experiment succeed? Have we turned our original premise-that-couldn't-go-anywhere into a working story now?

Well it's obviously not a complete story, in the sense that you could just type it all up as is and then - voilà! Look out Smashwords, comin' at ya! There's still a lot of work to be done before it resembles anything like a proper novel. But I think a novel could be created from what we've got now, and so overall we've achieved what we set out to do.

I know what you're thinking. Was this whole, four-part experiment just part of a Big Plan, where I took an already-constructed semi-outline of a story and pretended to 'construct' it over the four weeks for the purpose of filling up some blog posts? I don't blame you for thinking that - I probably would too, if I was reading this and I was someone else instead of me.

But the truth is, no, it wasn't - because that wouldn't have been a genuine experiment, it would have been a lesson (and I don't know near enough to go giving out those.) In the years I've been writing, I've read a lot of books on writing and listened to a lot of brilliant writers giving excellent advice on the subject, and I wanted to see if I could use some of that to turn an unusable premise into a workable idea. Not a word of our story with Aeryn and the spaceship colony was pre-planned -  'recycling' an idea from a previous, abandoned work to use in this one was about as close as I got to that

I can genuinely say, hand on heart, that all the stuff I came up with happened week to week, as I tackled each of the four subject posts; I had no more idea what I'd eventually end up with than anyone else. I was even prepared for it all to fail if that's the way it panned out. (Not the most reassuring thing I could tell you, I admit, but hey - at least you'd have got a giggle or two out of my floundering incompetence.)

What I've learned from this experiment is that even the most airy-puffed fragment of an idea has potential to become a story... provided you're prepared to put the work into identifying what ingredients are missing and then hunting them down. I never used to do that in my early writing days, which is probably how my Novel Graveyard slowly grew in that forgotten corner of my hard drive. I should probably be less lazy in that respect from now on.

If nothing else, I've gone some way to allaying that deep-rooted fear that I will someday 'run out of ideas' and not be able to write anymore. And I can only hope that's helped reassure others too.

<<How to Turn a Story Idea into a Story: Part Three
<<How to Turn a Story Idea into a Story: Part Two
<<How to Turn a Story Idea into a Story: Part One

Monday, 20 April 2015

How To Turn a Story Idea Into a Story: Part Three

"Flash - Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!"

Those of you who are as old as me will probably recognise the above quote. It's from the gloriously camp 1980's movie Flash Gordon, and while it is as hilarious as it is melodramatic (even within the context of the movie) it's also a neat encapsulation of the next stage of turning our fledging story-foetus into a living, squealing baby. From our two previous stages we've already cooked up the So What in our Plot and the Right Characters for the Job, and now we're going to take those two juicy bones... and stick them into our pot of boiling conflict! Mmmm, yum!

Every story needs conflict; it's the petrol (or 'gasoline') that makes the car go. Without conflict your story is not a story, it's at best a setting or a character study. But there's more to putting conflict in your story than grabbing handfuls of brown stuff and lobbing it at the nearest fan.

Most of us, at some point, have read the kind of story where the awesome hero is approached by some random he's literally only just met, who says something along the lines of "Oh, please help me, brave hero - my partner/relative/magical kingdom is under a terrible threat from an evil whatchamacallit! If he is not stopped, my beloved thingy will surely perish and that will be the most terrible thing in the world, like, ever! Everyone else has died horribly trying to do this thing, so now I come to you, because you are my last hope!"

Sounds like the conflict's dialled up to eleven right out of the traps, yeah? Well... no actually. Because here's the thing: if the person who's approached our hero is a complete stranger, and this beloved thingy he's talking about is equally unknown to our hero... why should he give a flying monkeys about any of it? 'Because the hero is kind and selfless and lives to help those in distress' is the line usually offered as an explanation. Well, that's just fabulous... but he's being asked to risk life and limb to save some Macguffin he didn't even know existed until some random showed up and cried to him about it. He might be the nicest guy in the world - but an idiot as well? In the real world, those kind of 'heroes' don't last very long.

Sometimes these kind of stories take this a step further and have the random stranger also say something like "I'm afraid I am very poor, so all I can give you in return is my undying gratitude." Ahem - excuuuuuse me? Even professional hard-men, who aren't scared of having their body parts puréed any more because they've come to regard that stuff as just another day at the office, don't operate as a charity. If they're going to risk getting their asses whupped they want to know it's going to be worth it in the end - and "I'll wuv you forever and ever" don't pay the medical bills, chutney.

All of this means we need to look at our characters and make sure that conflict is specifically tailored to them. Their needs, their goals, their strengths - and their vices and weaknesses. If you're going to throw shit around, they gotta care about that shit. And if it aint messing with their goals, their relationships or their minds... well, it's just shit, and logic says they'd step around it and go on their merry way. That's why that hard-bitten cop who takes on that case of the missing kid for that random woman usually has a backstory involving his own kid that he hardly ever sees since the divorce, or the kid that died on his watch years ago because he didn't follow up the clues in time and he's blamed himself ever since... it works because it gives the character a reason to take on the problem. Personalise the conflict and you make it that much deeper.

This also holds true for screwing things up for your characters when they try to fix things. Sure, you could have the hero shoot the bad guy to stop him hitting the button that sets off the bomb that blows up the city. If he misses the shot, bad guy hits button and city goes kaboom... yeah, that's some heavy conflict there. But why not ramp it up? How about having the bad guy using the hero's girlfriend as a human shield while he hovers over that button, so that if the hero isn't super-accurate with that shot, he could end up injuring or even killing her? And if you're gonna chuck your hero into a pit of venomous snakes in Chapter Two, at least make sure you gave him a phobia of snakes in Chapter One, you twisted little author-monkey you...

Obviously I've used some clichéd examples to illustrate my point (with no shame whatsoever... well okay, maybe a little.)  But they only became clichés in the first place because the theory behind them worked, and still works. So... how can we apply all of this to the story-experiment we're currently gestating?

We already have our Asperger's girl - who we'll call Aeryn. We already have a background conflict of her father's ex-wife leading a campaign to have her downgraded to Tier 2 because of her Aspergers (let's call her father Mikel and his ex-wife Tamira.) We also have Tamira's son with her new partner being Aeryn's best friend, which causes conflict between him and his mum (let's call him Ronin.) Is this in itself enough to drive a story? We decided previously that, no, it wasn't. It certainly isn't the worst thing that could happen to any of the people involved - and that's what we need to really kick this story into overdrive. So... what is the worst thing that could happen?

Well, something life-threatening is an obvious choice. And since they're all on a spaceship, heading for a new planet they've only ever seen through telescopes and unmanned probes, there's plenty of scope for that. What if the spaceship started to malfunction somehow? Hmmm, yeah... how and why though? Oooh... wait a second...

I once wrote a short story, told in diary form about a scientist who had joined a bunch of gung-ho astronauts on a mission to terraform a distant planet, where they were all being mysteriously killed, one by one. My main character scientist insisted she had seen strange shadows outside, and was convinced the planet was occupied with lifeforms who were angry that they were damaging the environment and so were trying to kill them all off. The others just laughed at her, but the deaths kept on coming until the scientist was the only one left - at which point the twist came that she had been hallucinating the 'aliens' because she'd gone mad, and so it had been her killing off the others all along. I didn't really do anything with it, because it needed a lot more work (as was probably obvious) - but maybe we could use some elements of that to add into this story. (This is why it's a good idea to keep everything you write - even the stuff you ultimately decide you can't do anything with.)

So.... perhaps the people on our spaceship start getting sick. The air recycling system goes faulty, causing people to start getting respiratory illnesses, and the food preservation technology fails, so that people come down with food poisoning. The elder generation are going to be more vulnerable, so they'll succumb the quickest, leaving them dead or too weak to be of much use, meaning the young adults will have to figure out how to solve the problems. But they've all been implanted with chips that block prejudicial attitudes - how might that affect their ability to find the causes of the malfunctions? Especially if... it starts to look like sabotage?

The implanted generation wouldn't be able to think 'suspiciously,' so their chances of finding the culprit would be reduced. And at the other end of the scale, the un-implanted older generation are all sick, which might make them more paranoid than normal, so they'd be pointing fingers at everyone... Someone needs to be a kind of 'voice of reason' in all of this. Someone who doesn't think like everyone else...

Bingo - Aeryn, our girl with Aspergers! What if the elders uncover evidence that one of the implantees has a broken chip in their head that no longer works as it should - but they don't know which one? (Perhaps the ship has technology that simply picks up signals from each chip, enabling it to 'count' how many implantees are on board at any time, and that number has suddenly dropped by one, even though there are still the same number of implantees aboard.) And this person with the broken chip is presumed to be the 'saboteur?'

Obviously certain people will accuse Aeryn of being that person (Tamira, for example) while others, like her father, will feel that not only is she the least likely suspect, but also that she is the ideal person to work out who it really is. And as time goes on, and more and more things start going wrong, it becomes a race against time to work out a) who the 'saboteur' is (if indeed there is one) and b) how to fix the problems before the ship deteriorates to the point where they all die.

You may have noticed I'm putting saboteur in quotes. This is because having one of the implantees fill that role could be good, but so could having it be one of the elders instead. Or maybe even that there is no saboteur at all. Perhaps the elders have just started becoming so paranoid about there being one that they're all doing things that are actually putting everyone at risk, in their attempts to outwit their 'secret enemy,' without realising it? The un-implanted have simply been driven mad by either their sickness or the stress of their mission, while the implanted have been rendered naive and stripped of the ability to think in a 'Darwinian' way (i.e. survival of the fittest.)

Having done a little preliminary research into female Aspergers symptoms, it seems that, while there would be areas where Aeryn would find uncovering the 'saboteur' more of a challenge than her peers, there would be others where she would be at an advantage. She'd struggle with working out when people were lying to her, for example - but she would also have no problems with asking 'inappropriate' questions or behaving in a way other might consider 'socially unacceptable.' Ooh - and here's an added twist we could put in! What if, in her efforts to discover who the person is with the broken chip, she discovers it's her? Then we have the added conflict level of 'does she tell anyone else, or does she keep it to herself?' This also has the added bonus of realistically making her the only one who can save everyone; the elders are all too sick and paranoid to be of any use, and she's the only one of the younger generation not bound by the mind-censoring technology of the chip.

This is starting to take shape as a potential story now; we've certainly got a good deal of stuff we can develop further. Not bad, from a starting-point of a half-baked idea that looked like it couldn't go anywhere. But there's one more rinse I think it could go through, to make it shine just that little bit more. And we'll look at that in the next post.

In the meantime, if you have any further ideas to chuck into the pot, or comments about the process so far, feel free to add them in the comments box below.

<<How To Turn A Story Idea Into A Story: Part Two
<<How To Turn A Story Idea Into A Story: Part One

Saturday, 11 April 2015

How To Turn A Story Idea Into A Story: Part Two

So Tell Me, Why Do You Want This Job?

In my previous post I looked at how to put the 'So What?' into a potential plot; brainstorming reasons for the situation that arises from a Story Idea. Now we've chucked those into our story-pot, we need some more ingredients - and for this post, I think we need to look at characters. Most specifically, main characters.

We already did this a little bit in our previous brainstorming session, but only at a very superficial level, i.e. we decided what kind of people - from the sections of  the society particular to our story - would likely be involved in the scenarios we had. Now we need to drill deeper and get ourselves some actual spokespeople - vehicles we can use to take us down this story road and show us the scenery on the way until we get to our final destination. And since it's likely to be long old trip, with plenty of bumps in the road, unexpected detours and dodgy roadside eateries, our vehicles need to be up to the job. We'll need to be happy to travel with them, trusting that they're not going to screw us over and dump us on the roadside without warning and that they'll eventually get us to the end in one piece. 

So how do we determine who those vehicles, i.e. characters, should be? Well, the same way the boss of a big company decides which of his employees should get big fat promotions. Does he gather them all in one big room and then stand on a high balcony and point randomly at individuals? No, he calls them into his office for an interview. And one of the first - and certainly most important - questions he asks each candidate is "Why do you want this job?"

Obviously anyone who answers "It pays more money," "It means I don't have to work weekends anymore," or "I get a company car and a discount on triple-chocolate muffins in the staff coffee shop" will get shuffled to the bottom of the pile pretty quickly. Because when the Boss asks "why do you want this job?" he doesn't actually mean 'why do you want this job?' - he means "what are you gonna do to make it worth my while to give you this job?" He's not looking to make his minions happy, he's looking for people who are up for the challenge of taking on a way bigger dose of responsibility and stress in their working lives, in exchange for a little more money and perks. Even if it ultimately messes with their relationships, social lives and overall levels of happiness with life in general. (A cynical view perhaps, but no less true for it.)

And... that's even more true for the main characters of a story.

Since conflict is what drives all stories, it's a given that you're going to be putting your characters through fifty shades of hell in yours. So you need folks who can take that kind of punishment, not the ones who aren't thinking any further than the slightly bigger pay packet and extra-wheelie office chair. Those characters gotta be keen. Keen and hungry.

However, they can't just be keen and hungry in a generic, 'ooh yeah, I love me a challenge - bring it on!' kind of way. It needs to be specific. The ones who deserve the job are the ones who can say "I want this job because I can see it has these opportunities to achieve these things, and here are the skills I have that will help me do that." In other words, casting all employee-related metaphors aside for a moment, the main characters need goals that establish and feed that all-important conflict within the plot. Not just everyday Joe or Jane who only got the job of Main Character because no-one else showed up for the interview.

So let's put this into practice with our story-foetus now. To start with, it would make sense to have at least one main character from each side of the fence, as it were - one Implanter and one Implantee. We'll start with the Implantee. I'm going to make her a girl because - well, I'm a girl so that makes it a bit easier for me to get into her head. We'll make her age about late teens, so that she's still young enough to be potentially rebellious (for that yummy conflict) but old enough to assume a level of responsibility on the overall mission that enables her to make stuff happen. But she's not going to be the only one - there's going to be quite a few of them on this spaceship. So... who to pick? Who's the special one of the bunch? And what defines 'special' anyway?

Maybe she's the smartest/nicest/most popular of the bunch. Bleurgh, *raspberry noise* no thanks, let's not have the Disney Princess, okay? Perhaps she has some super-ability that marks her out from the others then - a massively high IQ or - ooh, I know, she can read people's minds! Hmmm yeah, maybe.. nah. Let's face it, the 'amazing chosen one' is a cliché that's been done to death already. I think we need to take a different angle to freshen this up. How about if this thing that makes her special is something that would generally be regarded as a handicap by society - something that would make living with a chip that controls your thoughts more difficult? What about.. if she was somewhere on the Asperger's scale? That would cause problems with social interaction, interpreting the body language of others and, in some cases, distinguishing between literal and metaphorical conversation - obviously we'd need to do some more research into it, but this is a promising starting-point, with plenty of opportunities for conflict.

But now we have a problem. The Implantees are supposed to represent the 'unflawed' of society to lead the New Earth colony - and while the other Implantees will have had the instinct to prejudice against others removed by the chips, the Implanters won't. Some of them are going to feel this girl shouldn't be a part of the project. Obviously no-one could've stopped her being there from the start if she was born on the ship, but if they don't want her there now what do they do with her? They can't just kill her off... can they? No, and they're not likely to try - but they could try to reduce her status somehow.

There would probably be two tiers of  hierarchy amongst the colonists. The scientists, doctors and professionally-trained people - and Implantees with high enough intelligence to train for those jobs in the future - would be the 'elite' Tier 1 class. Meanwhile, those who are less academically-inclined would do the everyday jobs like catering, maintenance, food production and the like, and form the 'standard' Tier 2 class. Our Asperger's girl could be assigned to Tier 1, partly due to her parents being Tier 1 but also because she's intelligent enough to meet the criteria for it, and those against her could feel she should be downgraded to Tier 2 because of her 'disability.' Oooh - now we have a potential Antagonist as well as a potential Ally within the ranks of the Implanters! The Ally would most logically be one of her parents... a doctor or psychiatrist perhaps, so that they'd be the one who fully understood the characteristics of Asperger's at the same time as having the protective instincts of a parent wanting the best for their child. The Antagonist? Well, there might well be more than one, but remember - we need the special one to make the story pop. Well, it would make sense if they were Tier 2 themselves I suppose, because then you could factor in jealousy... but that still only narrows the field a little bit - and a little bit is not good enough. We need more than that.

How about... if the antagonist is the ex-partner of the Ally Implanter?  Maybe our Ally left our Tier 2 Antagonist for our Asperger girl's mother  - a Tier 1 class like him - before the space mission began? And now, the Antagonist has a child of her own with a new partner, and resents the fact that her child is 'only' a Tier 2 like her, while the 'flawed' child her ex-husband had with the woman he left her for is a Tier 1. Which adds in another layer of conflict if we factor in that her child, as an Implantee, would be free of the prejudice his mother feels. If he was also our Asperger girl's best friend that would annoy the heck out of his mother and complicate things even further... yep, this is coming together nicely now...

Okay, so let's recap on everything we've got so far:

We have a long space journey for the purposes of humans colonising a new, Earth-like planet, so distant the timespan will take two generations to complete. Since it is the offspring of the current crew who will eventually become the new colonists, all children born aboard the ship are implanted with microchips that can be tailored to censor all 'inappropriate' thoughts, ideologies and prejudices, with the intention of creating a more tolerant and peaceful race of humans for the new colony. But a Tier 1 doctor realises his daughter has Asperger's Syndrome, which becomes harder to conceal as she gets older in spite of his best efforts to teach her how to 'hide' her condition. Inevitably, some other crew members feel her 'disability' will compromise the 'perfection' of the rest of the group; one of the most vocal naysayers is his ex-wife, a Tier 2 class he split from just before they set off for this mission. Even though she's since married another Tier 2 man and has a son with him, she's still bitter that her Tier 1 ex left her for a Tier 1 woman and the daughter they had together is 'automatically' a Tier 1 even with her Asperger's diagnosis, while her own son is 'only' a Tier 2 like her and her new husband. She is leading a movement to have his daughter 'downgraded,' purely on the strength of having Asperger's Syndrome. However, it seems her own son is not helping her in this endeavour; as a fellow Implantee, he and our Asperger's girl are best friends, and he doesn't understand why his mother is so angry with him about this.

Yaaay! We've done it then! We've got a real, proper story now, right?

Errr... nope. Not yet we haven't. Still a long way to go. And in my next post we'll look at what else we're going to need.

(We also haven't got names for our four main characters yet. If you have any suggestions, please leave then in the Comments section and I'll be glad to use 'em. If not, I'll dream some up for Part Three.)

<<Part One: Putting The 'So What?' In Your Plot

Friday, 3 April 2015

How To Turn A Story Idea Into A Story: Part One

Putting The 'So What?' In Your Plot

In my previous post I talked about creating stories from ideas, and how not every Great Idea For A Story can actually be turned into a Great Story. At the end of it, I promised to explore the process of growing baby ideas into stories, to see if there were methods that could be applied to make it easier and more effective. And since I like to keep my promises, here's the first instalment.

For the purpose of making this a proper, in-the-trenches experiment, I've decided to take the example I gave in my previous post of a Great Idea For a Story that turned out... not to be. At that point I'd decided it just wasn't man enough for the job - but maybe I was too hasty.

Let's find out, shall we? Here's what we've got to work with:

What if a group of people invented a microchip that could be implanted into a person's brain that could somehow 'censor' real-life, everyday situations and interactions with other people, so they would never have to hear anyone saying 'bad' words or expressing viewpoints that made them uncomfortable?' Imagine it - a whole section of society who, to all intents and purposes, would be living an entirely different reality to everyone else around them! How would that affect them - and what impact would it have on the world at large? Would they use this power for good or evil?

And for this to have any chance of working, I would argue we need to have two other conditions met as well. Number one: the lab rats would need to be implanted with these chips at birth or very soon after (because you can't un-learn any 'corruptive influences' you've already been exposed to.) So they'd probably take a bunch of newborns as their test group. This brings us neatly to condition number two: you'd want to monitor their progress very closely, checking everything was going according to plan and adjusting the implants on the fly as more and more 'corruptive terminology' needed to be blocked (what with language and society evolving over time as it does.) So... the lab rats would need to be confined to one place all together, preferably in isolation from the rest of society, where the Guys In Charge would have quick, easy and constant access to them.

Well, so far we've got ourselves an interesting premise... but that's all it is. Now we need to dig a little deeper to see if we can unearth some story-bones - and that means asking some questions. And the first question is:

Why would anyone do this thing?

The Why is important - there has to be a why, or you'll never get any further than writing 'Chapter One.' And for our example, the most obvious answer is... to control the thinking of anyone implanted with the chip. Some authoritarian group somewhere has decided the world needs some people whose minds are untainted by 'bad' words and ideas - the assumption being that, if all exposure to such corruptive influences is 'blocked,' they will never get a chance to learn such behaviour and therefore remain 'pure' and 'good' people. Whatever their definition of 'pure' and 'good' turned out to be.

Okay then, we've got our Why... the next important question is Who?

And, to kick off this particular story, that Who comes in two flavours: who are the people implanting the chips and who are the lab rats being implanted? To figure that out, we need to look at our Why again - what kind of people would want to be in these roles for the reasons we've established? Let's start with the Guys In Charge - the ones implanting the chips. Who would desire to have that level of control over a group of people's minds? Most likely it would be people with some level of power already, wishing to control a group of people below them in some sort of hierarchy; rulers of a city or state wishing to control the citizens perhaps, or leaders of a religious cult wanting to keep their disciples in line. They could be doing it in the name of good, as a well-meaning attempt to create a Utopian society with (in theory) no prejudice, no hatred, no bullying. Or they could be doing it for evil, Machiavellian motives, bwah ha haaaa....

Great, we've got our Why and some options for a potential Who... but what now? Where do we go from here? Even with all of this extra information, we've still only got a premise for the story, not the seeds of the story itself. To add to that we need the next level of enquiry, which is:

 Why Now? and Why These People?

Well... 'cause they want control of a bunch of people's thoughts, 'cause - well, there are always people out there who do want stuff like that, aren't there? And they want it now because.... well that's the sort of thing people like that would want all the time so of course they want it now as well as - as any other time in the history of... uurrggh! 'Cause I want this story to work, dammit and so it just has to be this way, okay?

...It's not really working, is it? With our original idea as it stands, all this stuff is supposed to happen 'just because'  - which is the most rubbish reason for anything to happen in a story. What's missing is the motivation. Why are we setting all these plot wheels in motion right here, right now, with these people? What's the 'So What?' in our Plot?

Unfortunately, our original idea isn't going to give us that, no matter how hard we crush its little innards to try and wring the last few creativity-drops from its withered flesh. As I surmised in my previous post, it's just not man enough for the job on its own. Aint never gonna get a fully-fleshed story out of this baby.

Which means... we need another story idea. But not to replace what we've got - to add to it. Adam needs his Eve, Yin needs her Yang.

So let's have a think. What's going on in the world at the moment that might fit our needs? Well, here in the UK we've got a General Election coming up, and the politicians are in full campaigning swing. I'd bet they'd love a crack at some mind-control via brain-implanted chips! Hmmm yeah, maybe... Alternatively, The Voice UK has its Grand Final this week, and then after that Britain's Got Talent starts - how about a tv talent show's head honchos putting the implants in the heads of their contestants? Possible, I suppose... oh wait, what's this? The Mars Project has made its final selection of 100 people who will be sent on a one-way mission to colonise Mars in 2024...


This is perfect, because it gives us our Why Now? and our Why These People? as well as tying nicely into our Why? and Who? If you were looking to start a colony on another planet, you'd want a sample of the best of humanity to do it; it's a chance for mankind to start afresh, after all. So why not keep a bunch of people isolated from birth, chipped with these mind-censoring implants to stop them taking the corrupt ideologies out to the New World with them? Oooh, even better - it doesn't have to be Mars the people in our story are heading for. What if they were heading out to some really distant planet that will take a spaceship at least a generation of human lifetime to reach? That would solve both the newborn and the isolation problem; the implanted people could be the offspring of those chosen to begin the journey to that planet, born and raised on the spaceship, ready to become the responsible adults who will be the first colonists when they finally reach the New World! Yeah, that could work.

So let's see how far we've come then. We started out with some vague premise of a bunch of people having their minds censored of 'bad' words and ideologies via the use of a chip implanted in their brain. Turns out that wasn't enough on its own, but once we'd added another idea into the mix, we came up with:

 A group of space travellers are on their way to a distant planet to build a new colony of humans. Because of the vast distance they're travelling, by the time they reach their destination they will all be elderly, which means the responsibility of establishing the new colony will fall to the next generation, conceived and born on the spaceship. In a well-meaning attempt  to create a 'better,' more tolerant community of humans to eventually colonise the New World, they implant those children with the mind-censoring implants, monitoring and adjusting their functionality as and when required to ensure any 'undesirable' thoughts are quickly squashed and censored in all implantees before they can 'spread.'

We've got our What if..? and now we've quantified that with our Who?, Why?, Why These People? and Why Now? We've put the 'So What?' in our plot!

But this is only the start. We've still got a lot more work to do. If we want to make this into a proper tasty story-stew, we need more ingredients. Which is where Part Two comes in...

(If you have any ideas for what else we can throw into the mix, please let me know in the comments. I'm all about sharing the fun - and who knows what we might end up with?)

>>Part Two: "So Tell Me, Why Do You Want This Job?"