I came across a writing quote today that appealed to me. Perhaps you’re already familiar with it, but I hadn’t encountered it before:
Every piece of writing … starts from what I call a grit … a sight or sound, a sentence or a happening that does not pass away … but quite inexplicably lodges in the mind.
I’ve been posting about ideas lately because that’s what I’m working on at the moment–an idea that’s workable, original, commercial, and exciting.
I’m a fast writer, but a slow developer. For one thing, I have to detach myself from the previous novel and its story world. Given that I immerse myself fully in setting and characters, I’m loathe to leave what’s become familiar to me.
Once the detachment is achieved–not always easy, especially if the series is ongoing–then I start sifting my mind for ideas, nuggets of ideas, snips of dialogue, an image of a character or two, whatever might grab my interest.
In effect, I’m seeking the “grit” that Rumer Godden is referring to. If it’s good grit and if it lodges then, pearl-like, it will start to grow.
Perhaps I should have been sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, pounding out ideas and pummeling them on the conveyer belt of tests and more tests. Instead, I was out in the 105-degree heat, driving home from the nearby metro. I was tired, hot, and not much in the mood to deal with rush-hour traffic.
And a piece of grit lodged in my imagination. I liked it, and for the next 45 minutes of my drive, I played the mental “What if?” game with my imagination.
What if I combine this science fiction idea with an older plot that never quite gelled for me? Could the two be glued together? Or will the old idea bog the whole project down?
What if I leave the old idea in its trunk and just pick up the flavor of the setting, the gritty, noir, near-future aspect of, say, Blade Runner? That, I can keep. I might even utilize a couple of characters from my old story.
The rest–nope. It’s got to stay new.
I’m thinking about backstory. I’m thinking about the drastic change in circumstances that would kick off the whole novel. I’m thinking about what’s at stake. I’m holding out my hand in friendship to the protagonist–a shadowy form as yet unwilling to step into the light of scrutiny. The villain will be nasty and melodramatic–or should I go for more subtlety this time?
Nah. I’m anything but subtle.
These are the early questions, the friendly ones. The harder ones will come if this piece of grit stays lodged and wants to grow.
What does my protagonist want, right now, right here?
How will it affect the protagonist’s life if that objective is NOT achieved?
Who’s the antagonist?
Why does this character want to see the protagonist fail? Or die? Or fail while dying?
Why? Why? Why?
It always comes down to that simple, one-word question.
I can’t count how many students I’ve coached who can’t answer why. The problem stems, of course, from not thinking an idea through or asking the questions such as I’ve just listed.
Why appears to be simple. It’s anything but. That’s why the inexperienced writer will dodge it. Yet the answers to Why are pivotal to the plot and characters.
Avoid the Why and you’ll have puppet-like, one-dimensional characters and a plot full of holes and deadends.
Initially, for rough draft purposes, the antagonist’s motivation needn’t be psychologically complex. I hate the protagonist’s guts because she’s prettier and nicer, and I want to smash her pretty face in the mud.
That’s not deep or complicated. It will need improvement as a draft progresses, but it’s enough to get started with. It’s clear and understandable.
However, if you don’t know how to explain your villain’s motivations, then you don’t know your bad guy. If you don’t know your bad guy, then you can’t understand the rationale behind his or her actions. That’s when the actions or behavior stop making sense, and you start pushing a puppet around the page instead of bringing a character to life.
When you know what your two primary characters want, you can plot forward.
Roger wants a dog.
His girlfriend Melanie doesn’t want him to have a dog.
Their wants (their goals) are in opposition. Opposition creates conflictful encounters, and the plot advances.
Another development question to ask of your premise is What’s at stake?
Wanting a dog or not wanting the mess and bother of housebreaking a puppy seems pretty low in the stakes department. I don’t care a bean about Roger or Melanie. I don’t know them or like them. Can I raise the stakes for this mundane example?
What would make the desire for a dog interesting? What would make it original or unusual?
Consider the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, where in the first chapter the protagonist Travis stumbles across a golden retriever and takes it home. There’s a scary encounter with something in the woods, enough to distract readers from the ho-hum event of a man collecting a pretty stray. Quickly, Koontz demonstrates the dog doing some peculiar things, and Travis realizes this isn’t an ordinary Golden Retriever, but instead a dog with extraordinary, unnatural intelligence.
The stakes just went up. Should Travis give the dog back to its owners? If the dog came from a laboratory, what will happen to it if it’s returned?
Raise the stakes higher by creating an antagonist for the dog that’s a foil: another laboratory creation that’s highly intelligent, incredibly ugly and hideous, and a violent, vicious, killing machine. And it wants to kill the dog.
Why? Because the dog is as beautiful and loved by everyone as the monster is hideous and hated. A maelstrom of envy, jealousy, hurt feelings, and anger churns within the monster. We can understand its motivations. We can pity it even as we cringe each time it commits violence.
With such a set up of characters, conflict, and clashing motivations, a plot can’t help but unfold. The grit is there, working hard on the writer’s behalf.