For me, stories start with a premise. It might be a concept or an image or even a title. The premise might be compelling or intriguing or even stunning. But I know that the premise–no matter how intriguing–is a necessary but insufficient ingredient in telling a story.
I’ve been reading about “how to write stories” for most of my life. The first thing I ever read–sitting in the middle of the Montclair Public Library at age twelve–was this. Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end.
Okay, but what exactly does that mean? I had no clue at age twelve. I have a better idea today, although it’s still–always–a struggle.
For example. I have this great idea about a witch betrayed by a king. He promised her marriage. She’s pregnant with his son, so when he marries another, she stays pregnant. For nine years.
But where’s the story? Maybe the beginning is implied in the premise, but then what? There’s not much story (conflict, try-fail, transformation) in staying pregnant for nine years.
But what if the king sends an annual “give me my son” message? And what if every year, the witch kills the messenger? The witch hates and someone has to pay. There’s conflict in that. And the king is surely in a try-fail cycle.
But then, whose story is this? The witch? And yes, let’s give her a name. Writing “witch” and using pronouns is likely to lead to problems, including way too much narrative distance. She’s Josefa, the Duchess of Fontanár, and once she was beautiful enough to attract the King Felipe of Talavera. The names give me both characters and setting.
If this is Josefa’s story, maybe the question is when–and why–does she decide to give birth? What is the trigger to move the story forward?
King Felipe’s first wife has died and he’s marrying again. Josefa’s angry and awfully uncomfortable after nine pregnant years. The little bastard prince–call him Severiano–is born with teeth and hair and knowing how to talk, saying, “I am my mother’s black heart.” Actually, there might be a good title in that bit of dialog. Prince of the Black Heart.
Okay, but here’s that pesky question again. Whose story is this? Josefa’s or Felipe’s or Severiano’s? Where does it start? What happens in the middle? And most important, where will it end?
I’m still not sure I know. So really, all I have is a premise, some names, a tiny bit of plot, maybe a title. I’ll have to let the rest percolate in my unconsciousness until I know whose story this is. Once I know, the rest may follow.
I’ll think about it this week and will try to let you know–in true cliffhanger fashion– next Thursday. Comments and fresh ideas are always welcome!