SPEC Revisited (Part 4)
From the first question through all the rest that help me develop the details of premise, character, and setting that make up a story idea, other questions lurk in the background. Where does the story start? How does it end? And how does it get from one point to the other in a way that’s true to the story and characters while making things more interesting along the way? Thankfully there is inherent structure in the very nature of a story (and many ways of breaking down that structure into specific patterns.) And as I develop the idea, something of that natural progression gradually reveals itself.
The first thing I need to understand is where to start, and that won’t be at the very beginning. It’s tempting to take the time to paint a picture of where everything stands and who the characters are before the events of a story are set in motion, but it’s a temptation I try to resist.
I might write a chapter for Certain Hypothetical that shows what life is like in the FURC compound on the day before everything changes, or I might write a scene for Millennium Crash with the time-travelers still in the future getting ready to begin their journey, before everything goes wrong. But that needs to be just for me.
The actual books have to begin with events already in motion. Rather than a standing start, I need to hit the ground running – the setting can be described, the premise explained, and the characters examined bit by bit as the narrative progresses, but the story must already be moving forward in the first paragraph.
I find the right place to begin by looking for where the central problem of the premise changes things for the characters, upsets their equilibrium, or knocks them off their comfortable course. That’s when things get interesting, and that’s where I want to start.
The next thing I need to know is how the story ends – not the specifics, but the general feel. If I’m writing a murder mystery and ‘whodunit?’ is the central question confronting the characters, then the end of the book needs to identify the killer. The way those problems are resolved in the end is fundamental to the structure of the story, so I want to start with an idea of what kind of note everything will end on.
Having an interesting place to begin and an idea of what things will look like in the end are both important, but a lot of how the story actually plays out will be determined by the details of the various difficulties that are already in place as part of the premise, the inherent conflict within and between the characters, and the setting that defines the possible choices they may make. So I really need a good grip on all those elements before I begin to write.
And while I don’t try to decide ahead of time the events that propel the book from the beginning to the end, much less the order in which these things occur, I do have a grasp of how a story needs to flow. And as I write, I find that from one single starting point, what should come next isn’t too difficult to discover. And once the characters take that next step and the consequences become apparent, so too does what will happen after, and so on.
Eventually I reach the climax and all the elements I’ve found along the journey come together in a way that makes sense, that was always going to make sense, because they were there all along, as part of the idea for the story – hidden and waiting to be revealed.