Archive for February 12, 2021


Turning a Story Around

I mentioned that I was revisiting an old story idea that I came up with a long time ago and even wrote and submitted, with no success. I started writing it again last week and then felt like I’d hit a wall. I had scenes outlined, so I knew what happened next. And yet I couldn’t make myself write.

At first, I blamed it on what I was reading. I reread Stardust, and then I was reading a book by Michael Chabon. Both Chabon and Gaiman are strong stylists with poetic language. I figured that reading writers with such strong voices while I was finding a book’s voice was tripping me up, so I dug up an old fantasy book I read in college that’s the sort of thing with a fun story but without a particularly remarkable style. It was one of the books I had in mind when thinking of that romantic journey type book, so I was doing more analysis of the structure.

I knew that I was still pretty vague on some of the elements of this plot, and I suspected that had something to do with why I felt blocked, so I sat down to do some brainstorming and get the specifics worked out. The main thing I was missing was a concrete external goal. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve seen is to give characters a goal so concrete that you know what it looks like when they get it (or don’t). That’s what I was missing. The good guys wanted to stop the bad guy, but there wasn’t anything more specific, so I made a list of things for both of the main characters, and I realized that the only really concrete thing I could come up with was for the other main character, not the protagonist.

I let myself consider flipping the two characters, making the protagonist the sidekick and making the sidekick the protagonist, and I felt the entire book spin around on its axis. I got physically dizzy for a moment. I’d been looking at this story in one way for so long, so I was suddenly seeing it in a different way, like one of those optical illusion pictures, where you see one thing, and then you blink and suddenly see an entirely different thing. And then the whole story clicked into place.

I resisted for a little, saying I was just exploring a possibility, because from the start I’ve seen this as the woman’s story. She was the spark of the idea in the first place. She’s the one who has her life totally changed and who goes through a huge character arc. But the thing is, the guy is the one who has a goal, and in part it’s his goal that upends her life. She’s just trying to get through this without having anything beyond that she wants. I can’t think of a way to give her a more concrete goal within this story structure. Switching these roles doesn’t change events all that much or who gets the bigger role. It just changes where the drive’s coming from. I feel a bit better now that scenes have started playing out in my head because making her the ally/sidekick has made her voice sharper, like she’s been freed of a burden and gets to cut loose.

After going back through my plotting outline with this change in mind, I think I’m going to take it this way because it all fell together so well instead of me being vague and hoping I’d figure it out later when I got there. I think the woman will take over and be the protagonist in book 2 because she’s got a concrete goal by the end of this book.

I mean, if I decide it warrants a book 2. I haven’t really started writing book 1 yet, so planning the sequel is a bit premature. I’m spending the rest of the week doing more outlining and planning, and I hope to dig into writing on Monday — unless it’s a snow day (which it might be). I know I don’t have to commute, but I also know I won’t get much done if it’s snowing because it happens so rarely here that I turn into a four-year-old when it snows. I think they said it’s been something like five years since we’ve had more than two inches of snow. We had about 15 minutes of flurries last year, and that was it.