Tell Me a Story-Part 2

Last week, I started thinking about Duchess Josefa of Fontanár, betrayed by King Felipe of Talavera. He promised her marriage. She slept with him and is pregnant with a son. He married another. Oops. That’s the beginning of the story.

The duchess is also a witch—bruja—and for revenge, she stays pregnant for nine years, withholding Felipe’s son. This is officially the start of the story’s middle. For things to move forward, someone has to act to change the status quo.

Felipe has been married to the wrong woman—in other words, someone not Josefa—for nine years. He has a nine-year-old daughter but no sons.  His queen dies and Josefa thinks, “Aha, now he will marry me, and I’ll give him his son.” She prepares to give birth.

But no. Felipe—let’s say for political reasons—has decided to marry the much younger princess of a foreign land. Do we need to know her name? Hmm. Depends on the length of the story and the princess’ role in it. For now, let’s call her the princess. As part of the wedding preparations, Felipe sends to Fontanár with a message. “My son must attend my wedding.”

Now, Josefa has a choice. She can continue the pregnancy or go through with the birth. This nine-year pregnancy, like all magic, has a cost. The baby is eating Josefa’s life force. She can’t live and stay pregnant. So she has the child, and what a hateful, awful, terrifying child he is.

Not surprisingly since it’s magic, Severiano goes from birth to nine-years old within a few weeks. Learning about his mother’s desire for revenge against his father, Severiano decides to go to the wedding and kill his father the King.

Rush to the end. Josefa realizes the evil she’s done. She has a change of heart. Hastening to follow Severiano to the palace, she arrives just in time.

The wedding is in progress. Severiano has already killed the princess, her bloody body is draped over the chancel rail. He has his arrow pointed at Felipe, ready to do the deed.

But here’s my quandary. Does Josefa destroy Severiano and save Felipe? Does Josefa arrive that single moment too late and Felipe is already dead? Does Josefa destroy Severiano and in killing her own son, destroy herself?

It seems inevitable to me that Josefa and Severiano die together. But then, whose story is this? Certainly not Felipe’s. First he’s unlikeable as the betrayer of an innocent woman. Second, he doesn’t appear in the story at all until his life is in danger.

No. The transformative moment belongs to Josefa. She is the main character.

Except. There’s that old adage: dead men tell no tales. Okay, in this case, dead women.

Maybe what I need is another character, someone sympathetic, someone who always tries to do what’s right, someone with enough skin in the game that it matters what happens to him. Or her.

Sigh. I have another week of thinking in front of me. Meanwhile, all comments welcome.

Tell Me a Story

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!