Featured Writer Keith Parker continues his how-to series with this article by posing this question: “How, exactly, does story happen?”
In a recent Facebook post a good friend suggested that I should write about how we create story. How, exactly, does story happen? One day you have nothing; next day, a story. How do you do that? What are the prerequisites? Can a story exist in vacuum? Can you weave a tale without relying on characters? My answer to all of the above is that story does not even exist without characters. In fact, I go a step further and assert that story emerges from character, even in the setting- and gadget-rich playgrounds of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Let’s say you’re writing a short story, and you’ve gone to all this trouble to create and flesh out incredibly complex three-dimensional characters; it seems silly (to me) to have them sitting around talking about the high price of milk these days. I could’ve done that in my own (shameless plug: award-winning) short story “Mason Jars”, but instead I envisioned a 12-year-old boy, estranged from his father, who discovers that an elderly woman has been canning emotions and keeping them in mason jars in her cellar. I could be wrong, but I think that’s more compelling than the cost of groceries.
Similarly, in the upcoming science fiction novel Madness Rising (shameless plug, part II: written by Keith Parker and Jack Parker) the protagonist is a twenty-year-old woman with a chronic health condition, which is complicated by a writhing, horrible monster that’s threatening to wipe out all of humanity. Lots of science fiction and horror fans are going to be intrigued by this monster (I hope), and, like the quintessential beast from Bugs Bunny, is a very interesting monster. But when you step back and look at it, the real story in this — or any — novel is the way the protagonist interacts with herself and the other humans. In our novel the protagonist (we’ll call her Nina since that’s her name) must combat her chronic illness internally while also battling the avuncular hero who’s betrayed her. In this writer’s humble opinion this is how true drama gets created. Internal demons, combined with treachery, combined with physical danger, allow the reader to relate on a universal level, even though the setting is an alien planet.
Setting leads me to the next point. Does Madness Rising exist outside its setting? Well, yes and no. The conflicts between Nina and the other characters could have happened elsewhere, such as Paris during the occupation. To be sure, it’s a more familiar setting, but the basic elements are the same: Nina is afflicted with illness and duplicity, which are aggravated by an external evil. In 1942 Paris the monsters would be the Nazis. However, this does not mean the characters, setting and plot are interchangeable. They are not plug-and-play. Our novel is not set in 1942 but, instead, in a vaguely familiar future, and the characters’ traits reflect their reality. But just like its World War II counterpart, the plot of the novel we wrote emerges from character as much as a similar story in the City of Lights. Nina wants something, is highly motivated to get it, is frustrated at every turn, and must deal with conflict in every last scene. Poor Nina is at wits’ end even as the story begins, and this is exactly what you want. It’s often said that you should put your character up a tree and throw rocks at her. This is exactly right. In fact, you need to start your story with the character up that tree, perhaps already bruised from quite a few rocks. Then, and only then will you have “story.” Without character these are nothing more than campfire tales without the hotdogs and s’mores, and where’s the fun in that?