Monday Writing Motivation: We plan for the future – writers can plan for the past
Where do you begin a story? I don’t mean, where does a story begin – which is another question entirely – but where, when your goal is to tease out the fragile web of connections that make a story, do you begin?
The obvious answer is to begin at the beginning with the inciting incident – and then work your way forward in time, bearing your major characters in mind, and deciding what their reactions would be to events.
So, for instance, you could begin with a meteor strike – and ask yourself how your three perspective characters would respond to it. Joan might see in it the hand of God, and decide that she will bow to His will, and resign herself to the End Days. Akin, who grew up in the slums of Lagos, might decide to fight for his survival, viewing all his fellow refugees as rivals in a fierce competition for resources. Michael, a sophisticated captain of industry, living in a mansion in the Cotswolds, would find himself marooned and helpless when the infrastructure and institutions on which his success was based, fail.
You could then trace the arc of each of these characters and in due course tie them all up with a neat ribbon in the climax, whatever that happens to be.
Each step in your story, each new leap of the imagination, would refer back to your characters, and to the exigencies and challenges of a world facing mass extinctions, a collapse of the worldwide economy, and so on…
But look at the same story through the other end of your narrative telescope. Begin at the end of your tale.
Three characters – a Nigerian streetwise hustler, a London millionaire, a member of a West Coast religious cult – meet on a ship heading for safe haven in a world gone crazy.
Now ask yourself, how did this unlikely trio end up together? What series of events conspired (in the mysterious way that reality actually works) to cause their lives to intersect? Now you’ll be working backwards in time, generating one link at a time from the present into the events that preceded it. Your destination now is not the end, but the beginning of your story.
What this perhaps counter-intuitive take on story development gives you is the opportunity to plant the seeds of later incidents in the preceding scenes and chapters. You start with the payoff; your task now is to work out what set-ups you’d need to earn that payoff.
Your three characters have each been transformed by the journey that brought them to this final leg. Joan has lost her faith. Akin has suffered various physical assaults that have left him partly disabled. Michael has lost his sense of superiority and confidence. He’s aware of just how ill-equipped he is for the new world he finds himself in.
Now ask yourself how you’ll motivate these profound character changes. What incidents, what encounters, what traumas must each of your characters have experienced to explain what they’ve become? You’re looking for the hows and the whys that support and motivate the evolution of your characters in your fictional world.
We never get to do this in real life. We can only plan for the future. But as writers, we can plan for the past in order to make our fictional present absolutely believable.