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 - voilĂ ! 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

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