Thought-provoking as ever, Emma Darwin’s latest post explores what happens when the story you’re writing turns out to be something else entirely.
There’s a great quote from Harper Lee which also explores something I often struggle with:
Sometimes you have to write quite a lot of something, to discover that that’s not where these characters’ real story is…
With the story I’m trying to write at the moment, about replacing people who die, I’ve started several times. Each time is more developed, and I have more understanding of the main character – but what if the main character isn’t? Part of the story his him trying to find someone to leae his eacy to, when his sons aren’t interested – and the girl who he ends up working with. What if it’s her story, after all?
There’s a danger in analysing literature that we look at characters as having livs of their own -it’s common for students to speculate on what happened before or after the novel, as if anything did – the power of the writing coming through, at least. but it obscures the fact that this snapshot into characters’ lives is all there is; a writer has decided when to begin and end. That in itself ends up being quite a process.
And no, you mustn’t beat yourself for not knowing the right angle from the start. Process writing is never wasted writing. Another version again is the cut-the-first-three-chapters problem, which all editors know. That’s not so much about whose story it is (though it might be) or even about where the real story is, it’s about where the story really starts.
My favourite of my short stories, Shadowed, is around 8000 words, and I think the first 5000 make the character someone stronger, more interesting – create the relationship and intrigue. But on the Arvon course last year, a fellow writer pointed out that I could start around the 5000 mark and still have the core of the story. That version has ended up being picked up, partly because it now fit that magic 3000 word limit that seems so popular. I do a LOT of process writing and sometimes struggle to find that not a waste of time – it can be heartbreaking to realise you’ve written 20,000 wordsand haven’t got a single word of what you think the story is now.
It’s strange, when you think about it, that we talk about “the real story” when actually there is no such thing at this stage. So strong is our human sense of story that we have a sense of something whole and already-existing, even when it’s a ghostly clouds of wisps, and doesn’t really exist at all.
That’s it, isn’t it? These characters aren’t real – I actually find the discussion of characters s being real as a little frustrating, something that ignores the immense hard work that goes into creating them but that’s another post for another time – and it takes a long time to create them into something that feels as real as the person sitting next to you, makes you feel like they have those lives either side of the covers. The human imagination is a phenomenally powerful thing. My fiancé reads a lot of non-fiction and often tells me about it; recently he read a book about the power of habit and the mind, including scientific experiments that used the placebo effect to cure all kinds of diseases including cancer – the brain was convinced that they were cured, and so they were. Similarly, and more horrifingly, there were also examples when the converse was true – a false diagnosis leading to death and the subsequent findings that there was, in fact, no illness – the brain thought the body was dying and acted accordingly. I think the brain craves story – how many times have you imagined something so strongly, or dreamed something, it later took you a moment to realise it wasn’t true? From the first ghostly wisps, these imaginings feel so strong and so true that it’s a wrench to cut those first three chapters or change point of view. And, come to that, who says that the real story is another characters’? Surely it is whoever’s the writer says it is? But then, perhaps it takes some process writing to realise that you become more interested in the other character, can work on them more, empathise wit them more, and build them into something you can write about.