… Through the Theme of Love.
I tend to make the mistake of waiting for an original story to come to me, believing any idea I can come up with from scratch won’t be worth my time and effort. But if I had a gun to my head and had to write (well) to save my life, I know one three-step approach that would keep me alive: choose a theme/angle, write a scene around my theme and then build out from that scene. In this blog series’ first post I broke down the 3 step process for coming up with an original story via the theme of violence. This time, as per the title, I’ll be using love.
But before you employ the three-step approach in your conceptualization process, it’s important that understand a few things:
- Your story will, in some way, be derivative. And that’s okay. Familiar genre tropes and/or narrative structures help your audience understand what’s going on and allow you to cut down on your exposition. You should aim to write a familiar story with an unfamiliar setting (Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings) as they tend to play to audiences better than unfamiliar stories with familiar settings (like Funny Games). An unfamiliar story with an unfamiliar setting? Well, you give me a successful example of that and I’ll come up with another 3 step approach called How to Come up with an Original Perspective on Reality Altogether. I won’t even give you 3 steps, just two sentences – Reincarnation. God’s giving original perspectives to every new-born.
- Your characters are the most important element of your story. A well-realized character can make an audience believe in anything. If something extraordinary takes place within a narrative, your audience (readers, listeners etc.) will need to see your character react to that extraordinary thing in a believable way to keep their disbelief suspended. You’ll also find that the more you develop your character, the more you develop your story because you’ll have to think in terms of events and scenes to develop a clear understanding of your character’s personality.
- Stories teach lessons. The ways you should look to be innovative with your story is with how it illustrates life lessons. It could even teach new ones. Your perspective on the world is shaped by your experiences and, as you may have noticed by now, everyone’s perspective is ever so slightly different. I believe our job as storytellers is to express the nuances of our unique perspectives within familiar frames.
And with that, we can begin with love as our example theme:
Choose an Angle
Love is ever so slightly different to work with than violence because, unlike violence, love has no hard conclusion. Violence must either be escaped from or endured through to its end. Love is a lifelong battle; it can either grow between people or dissolve. Popular fiction, when approaching this theme, often tells the story of love’s acquisition – how a protagonist must fight and grow to be worthy of it (he or she must embark on ‘The Hero’s Journey’). Love is often represented as an experience of levity that transcends all logic and reason, while many of us who have experienced love understand that it can, in fact, be quite arduous. Even painful. Understand that this polarity exists because we storytellers are entertainers, not truth seekers. It just so happens that there’s a lot of entertainment in truth because it’s stranger than fiction. Nevertheless, if you’re going for an unpopular approach to this theme i.e. telling a story about the arduous and painful nature of love – love’s survival – at least employ a comedic undertone. You can only entertain your audience by thrilling them or bringing them levity. If you let the sludge of misery coat your story, I promise you, it’ll just be boring.
So, for this article, we’ll go with the ‘love’s survival’ angle (for originality’s sake) and employ comedic undertones (for entertainment’s sake).
Build Your Scene
As funny as stories about romantic relationships can be, let’s help ourselves by going the less conventional route of making this a story about a mother and her child. And if this story’s going to take on a comedic undertone, we’re better off telling it from the mother’s perspective. We can draw humor from her general bewilderment, moments of incompetence, obsessive compulsiveness, and the many more dimensions of a struggling yet responsible adult. A child’s potential for hilarity can only be realized in one dimension – awkward behavior. There’s less to be said about children, thus, less for your audience to learn (and that’s another important component of storytelling, it’s ability to teach).
So we now have a story about parenthood with many avenues to go down. At this point, we can construct a scene to build out from. What happens in your scene is completely up to you. It could depict a terrible confrontation or a moment of profound connection. In fact, you should use this moment as an opportunity to write what you know. Drawing inspiration from your experiences will create a very strong foundation upon which a compelling story can be built. My scene depicts a boy telling his mother that he wants to move out. His mother doesn’t take the news lightly and bursts into tears, expressing guilt and shame over what she might have done to push him to that point. The boy, appalled at his mother’s behavior, storms into his room and starts packing his suitcase… but it isn’t long before he stops, switches on his PlayStation and plays video games.
Not a lot was fleshed out in those last three sentences but the construction of my scene will not only allow me to establish my desired tone, I’ll also have my work cut out for me, in terms of developing my characters. I can simply draw from their initial actions.
Build out from Your Scene
The character of the mother in my scene appears to be far too attached to her son. Why? What has she gone through, both as an individual and as a mother, to develop such an unhealthy attachment? What does she look like? What’s her temperament? These are all questions you’ll have an easier time answering now that you’ve depicted your character’s behavior. And once you’ve answered these questions, for each of your characters, you’ll find that you’ve already built the skeleton of your original story. You’ll have a beginning: the events that created your characters, a middle: the events that expose your characters’ true nature and an end: detailing what actions your characters take towards resolving their issues. You’ll also be presented with an opportunity to develop your setting – one that your characters snuggly fit into.
This is what it is to ‘discover’ a story. Though you may, on occasion, be paralyzed by freedom, you’ll find it very difficult to write yourself into a hole because every development you make in your story will derive from the initial scene you built.
That, in a nutshell, is the writing process.