Monday Writing Motivation: Evolution of a story

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

One of the most interesting of all writerly processes is how a story slowly – or sometimes quickly – takes shape. Here’s an evolution of a story.

Trish and I booked into an Airbnb over Christmas in Fish Hoek. Fires had broken out on the hills and tendrils of smoke were visible against the vivid blue of the sky. A south easterly was blowing. It was hot, not surprising in mid-December.

That night we left the windows of our apartment open – and the wind snapped and growled, causing the venetian blinds to rattle and clatter. It was intensely annoying – but the thought of closing the windows and the airlessness that would result was worse.

I wondered, given a different couple, and a stronger wind, how long it would take before violence broke out between them. An image of a knife flashing in the moonlight sprang unbidden to my mind.

I was reminded of the opening paragraph of a novel by an old friend* which reads:

Jack Burn stood on the deck of the house high above Cape Town watching the sun drown itself in the ocean. The wind was coming up again, the southeaster that reminded Burn of the Santa Anas back home. A wind that made a furnace of the high, set nerves jangling, and got the cops and emergency teams caught up in people’s bad choices.

The next day the wind was gusting even more powerfully. We were a little out of sorts from a broken sleep. Our middle-aged landlady greeted us on her way out, she told us, to fight the fire on the mountain above us. “You?” I said, disbelievingly. “Really?”

“I’m a volunteer firefighter. I’m in the front line. I hold the hose. It’s hectic,” she said cheerfully before rushing off.

From our window we could see helicopters dipping giant buckets into the sea before rushing off to empty them onto the fire.

I realised I had a story on my hands. Quickly, I jotted down the bare bones of it – because stories can be as elusive as dreams, as evanescent as dew on a hot summer’s morning.

In fact, the key to the story was the flash of steel in the night. The rest was motivation. Here’s what I wrote in my notebook:

South Easter:

Day 1

They arrive at the Airbnb. They’re celebrating their tenth anniversary. The wind is blowing, the sea in the bay below them full of white horses. They go to the beach, but the sand stings their eyes, and they hasten home. Fire on the mountain. Helicopters scooping water from the sea, dumping it on the fynbos fire. They make love.

Day 2

The wind is howling now. Sand across the road stops them going to Kalk Bay. Their hostess bangs on their door, warns them not to venture far: there are fires all over the Peninsula. She is dressed in fire-fighting gear. She heads off to hold the hose. The air is thick with smoke. A helicopter crashes into the sea. They quarrel. They go to bed. The venetian blinds rattle fit to bust. They can hardly sleep.

Day 3

The racket outside is unbearable. Old tensions between them surface, old resentments that have bubbled away for years. They’re unable to replenish their food: traffic barriers have been set up by the authorities. They eat the rusks provided. They snarl at each other. That night the tension leads to a fight. He picks up a breadknife to make a point, she grabs it from him, they tussle, he slips and falls, burying the knife in his gut. He dies, saying, “At least I won’t have to listen to the fucking wind for a minute longer.”

Of course, at this stage I have no idea whether it’ll work. My male character’s last declaration immediately strikes me as being melodramatic to a fault. But there’s no doubt that the building blocks of a story are all present. My couple start the story celebrating their love – and end at each other’s throats. I know I’ll still have to work on the ending. I know I’ll have to expend a lot of energy motivating their falling out. But the world – borrowed from the real world of the Peninsula in this last season of fire and destruction – is a great backdrop.

The same ingredients might lead you to a very different story. I’d be interested to know how you might tackle them. Post your thoughts in the comments below – or email them to me.

Happy writing,


* Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

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