“For a writer those [the hidden reaches of the human heart, the mystery, those impalpable emotions] are what you start with. You wouldn’t have started a story without that awareness—that’s what made you begin. That’s what makes a character, projects the plot. Because you write from the inside. You can’t start with how people look and speak and behave and come to know how they feel. You must know exactly what’s in their hearts and minds before they ever set visible foot on the stage. You must know all, then not tell it all, or not tell too much at once: simply the right thing at the right moment. And the same character would be written about entirely differently in a novel as opposed to a short story. In a story you don’t go into a character in order to develop him. He was born full grown, and he’s present there to perform his part in the story. He’s subservient to his function, and he doesn’t exist outside it. But in a novel, he may. So you may have to allow for his growth and maybe hold him down and not tell everything you know, or else let him have his full sway—make room for a hero, even, in more spacious premises.”
The turns of mind, where the world is constantly becoming something—the poetic, the moral, the passionate, hence the shaping idea—are not mapped. Not yet. The writer sniffs after a scent until he comes upon the fugitive, a character with a distinct psyche that rises and falls in the cycles of life as everything from birth to death laps at his threshold. Among myriad choices, the character acts. Through myriad choices, the writer portrays the attributes and dimensions of his—our—world. In a single choice to crack open a book cover, the reader loses himself to story. Sometimes, too, a reader finds himself.
From his Notes on an Unfinished Novel, John Fowles’ journal-like entry should prove encouraging, as we know what magnificent outcome his ruminations led to:
The novel I am writing at the moment (provisionally entitled The French Lieutenant’s Woman) … started four or five months ago with a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still half asleep….
These mythopoeic “stills” (they seem always to be static) float into my mind very often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether they really are the door into a new world.
So I ignored the image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze and hypothesize it. It was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to us today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay—as I happen to live near one, so near I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long-shot, with her back fumed, she represented a reproach to the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her.
“… In fashioning a work of art we are by no means free, we do not choose how we shall make it but … it pre-exists us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature—that is to say, to discover it.”
“… [They are] inevitable choices, not arguable; impelled, not manipulated; that they came with an arrow inside them. Indeed they have been fiction’s choices: one-way and fateful; strict as art, obliged as feeling, powerful in their authenticity though for slightest illusion’s sake; and reasonable (in the out—of—fiction sense) only last, and by the grace of, again, coincidence—always to be welcomed and shown consideration, but never to be courted or flattered.”
““The story is a vision; while it’s being written, all choices must be its choices, and as these multiply upon one another, their field is growing too. The choices remain inevitable, through moving in a growing maze of possibilities that the writer, far from being dismayed at his presence on unknown ground (which might frighten him as a critic) has learned to be grateful for, and excited by. The fiction writer has learned that it is the very existence, the very multitude and clamor and threat and lure of possibility—all possibilities his work calls up for itself as it goes—that guide his story most delicately. …the word comes surest out of too much, not too little just as the most exacting and sometimes the simplest—appearing work is brought off on the sharp edge of experiment, not in dim, reneging safety. He is not at the end yet, but it was for this he left all he knew behind, at the jumping off place, when he started this new story.”
It is of course the writer’s style and voice that gives a story its distinction—something we learn for ourselves as we rises to meet each story’s inherent challenges with work that is at once fastidious, quizzical, unprecedented, uncharted, and our own.
“Okay. Right. Horror meets romance meets erotica meets fantasy meets hip hop. Throw in some leather and some Miami Ink sh*t, stir with a baseball bat and a tire iron, sprinkle on some baby powder, and serve over a hot bed of Holy-Mary-mother-of-God-this-has-to-work-or-I’m-going-to-be-a-lawyer-for-the-rest-of-my-natural-life.
No problem.” ― J.R. Ward, The Black Dagger Brotherhood: An Insider’s Guide
The wise writer looks at his idea as though through a keyhole. He limits his scope, chooses his story. From the history of this great big planet, he tears off a tiny corner no larger than a piece of confetti.
To do your idea justice, to plumb the depths of humanity (regardless of genre) and to illuminate that which you aspire to illuminate within the medium of story, envision a beam of light falling on your idea and write about only that which lies within the circle of light. “Eschew the monumental,” as Hemingway put it, “Shun the Epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.”
Ann Tyler made her mark on the literary world by demonstrating a certain kind of focus that typifies the concept. With melancholy portrayals of family relationships, affectionately drawn misfits, and redemptive storylines, Tyler’s subject has been the everyday affairs of middle-class America. In each work, she tears off a small corner and resurrects a rich world as seen under a microscope, a world for which John Updike had said she deftly “give[s] the mundane its beautiful due”.
Patrick Rothfuss echoed the wisdom when he said―
“If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, magic is cool. But a nervous mother singing to her child at night while something moves quietly through the dark outside her house? That’s a story. Handled properly, it’s more dramatic than any apocalypse or goblin army could ever be.”
Take that first step. Write one sentence on a piece of paper and make it two. Elaborate on your basic idea, imagine the people in the story, where they came from and what their motivations are. Think about how they will approach their problem, whether it be losing all their money or trying to catch a thief.