Writers’ best tools of the trade might be our uniqueness. We see everything through our own experiences created through living in our particular circumstances and personalities. At this fork in the writing road, we each choose our own travel mode.
Some choose the “seat of the pants” method and start writing with no idea where it will go. I tried that and wound up throwing out two completed manuscripts before the third rewrite was successful enough to find a publisher. My worst mistake in the previous two was to start the story too soon. They weren’t a waste, however. They provided me the backstory that drove my character. The readers didn’t need to know it up front but I did.
Other writers like to plot so thoroughly that they need only to add dialogue, settings, and transitions for a first draft. That doesn’t always work for me. I never start on a journey without a destination in mind and a roadmap in hand. Otherwise, I get sidetracked by every irrelevant side trip to see the tap-dancing chicken or two-headed Gela Monster.
My approach to telling a story falls somewhere between the two. I do need to know where I want to be at the climax, even if I don’t know how that climax will turn out before I get there. Knowing that helps me decide where to best begin and keeps the focus on a succinct, believable story. The most suspenseful stories start as near the end as possible and fill in details on a need to know basis. The end needs to be satisfying, even if it is a disaster for the main character. It is believable because it comes from the main character’s actions and not from me forcing a happy ever after. The character must enter the story with all the tools necessary to forge a happy ending. Because as we write the end, the person we rooted for is writing the beginning of the rest of his or her life.
Recall that I was intrigued by that article about a parrot that testified in a murder trial. Research brought up other parrot stories. Here is where I get to the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. The experience can’t happen without the best possible character. A character won’t be at his or her best without the perfect challenge. To meld perfectly, the character and situation might need to move to some distant future or back in time, from Earth to another planet. We aren’t bound by anything but the limits to our imaginations.
For a children’s story, I might use the parrot-smuggling idea and create a child who observes the mystery thin man who goes to Mexico in the morning and returns plump beneath an overcoat on a hot day. If I did that, I might choose a boy that is often scolded for not paying attention in class or who is often in trouble for making up stories to get attention. When he finally solves the crime he could be the hero. One success is life-changing and creates a new pattern of success. Or I might choose a middle-grade story and have a girl helping in her parents’ pet shop and overhears a talkative parrot midst the new arrivals. Her curiosity could put her in jeopardy where she must join forces with someone she intensely dislikes.
If stopping the parrot smuggling ring is the main experience, it will take place along the US-Mexican border at one of the legal crossings. As I am more familiar with the Texas crossings I might select El Paso to Juarez, or Brownsville to Matamoros. The flavor, the attitude, and the atmosphere would be different than if it was in New York, where cargo ships arrive daily. The main character would have different circumstances.
But I can’t stop thinking about the tattletale parrot. Who could resist a scene like that? The courtroom is hushed, except for the coughs and throat-clearing that takes place in pauses. The jury returns, shuffling into the box. They were removed while opposing lawyers presented arguments about admitting a special witness. The judge gavels the court in session. The door bursts open, and a bailiff enters with a covered birdcage. Murmurs and muffled snickers erupt as the bailiff sets the cage on the witness chair and removes the cover. The accused perpetrator pales and quickly whispers to his grim-faced attorney. The parrot squawks and screeches, and then begins his “testimony.” Nope, I can’t give that up. This calls for a different genre.
The main character in a story carries the burden of making the story believable and entertaining. The “supporting cast” includes allies and antagonists. Right now, they are all strangers. As I get to know them, they will fit into one of those categories.
Each of them has goals and agendas. They have different backstories. They have different definitions of success. The threads of the story will be unique and the parrot might be only a consequential focus. The possibilities are endless:
The prosecutor, charged with convincing a judge that the parrot is reliable.
The investigator, frustrated by the lack of physical evidence.
The veterinarian paid to put the parrot down and shut him up forever.
The reporter, assigned to cover the story.
The neighbor who makes it her business to know everyone’s business.
Someone I haven’t even thought of yet
Their genders and personalities determine where the story starts, how it will progress, even how the story ends. I need to create each one’s backstory, its depth depending on how big a part they play. I need to live with them a while to see who’s in charge.
There is no right or wrong way to create a story as long as it has an intriguing beginning, interesting twists in the middle, and an unanticipated but believable end. You may do all of the above subconsciously. Sometimes it takes me a full first draft to know what I’m doing since every change in the action means everything after that might be affected too.
I intend to live with my list of characters a bit to see which one is going to take over the leading role. Whatever your method, I hope that you have as much fun as I am. Let me know how it is going.
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