Saturday, July 3, 2010

Do I have a story?

I have a story. This is not the same thing as saying, "I have an idea." In my particular case, I've been searching for this story for a while because numerous people had asked me to write it. "Write a sequel to Cold Words," they said. Easier said than done.

My linguistics stories are like puzzles, with lots of complicated interlocking parts, so as a result I feel I have to know where they are going or I can't even start. "Cold Words" was like this. The idea of writing a sequel had several advantages over starting from scratch:

1. I wouldn't have to design a world with aliens.
2. I wouldn't need an entirely new main character.
3. I wouldn't need an entirely new alien language and an entirely new voice.

All of this is an incredible time-saver. But as many who have tried to write sequels probably know, there are also some serious disadvantages.

1. Any subject of a major revelation in story one has to be a starting premise for story two. You need to inform readers of the "secret" (or former secret) in case they haven't read the prequel, but it can't be the point, or the story will just be covering the same ground.
2. Having a world and a character, and even quite a clear sense of chronology and what would have happened after the first story ended, does not mean you have a story.

This number 2 can effectively stop me in my tracks, because until I have a story, I won't start writing (this is not the case for all writers!). I might also remark, of course, that the lack of a story hasn't stopped many sequel-makers, at least in the case of certain movies I have watched.

What is a story? I'll sum it up this way:

Character X discovers Y and must accomplish Z before A happens or else B.

This rather closely resembles the elevator pitch for a novel. It distills story essence down to its bare bones.

In my case, I've been gathering elements that I like - Rulii and his dependency on humans, his relationship with Parker - and questions that people have asked me - about gender relations among the Aurrel, etc - and trying to fit them together. At last I've gotten somewhere. I don't want to spoil any surprises, so I'll just say that Character X is still Rulii, Y involves Parker, Z involves Parker and an Aurrel Female, and B has to do with human presence on Aurru. It's always good to ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to my character now?" and try to have it stand in that B position. That makes for a much more exciting story.

In fact, it's good to ask whether you have a story even if it's not a sequel, though sequels are probably more prone to the lack-of-story problem. Giving your character goals and stakes makes everything more exciting.


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  2. Megs - Scattered BitsJuly 5, 2010 at 8:42 PM

    I've always had a similar problem. Before I can write a STORY, I have to have my arms around it first. But that means the elements have to be there that will result in a true, complete story: my premise, the rules of my world, and a character at some point in their history that I know something about. The premise is the kicker. If the premise doesn't have the story built-in, I'm pretty much sunk.

  3. What can I say, Megs? I relate. :-)

  4. Great point. A sequel is an easy option but there isn't always the mileage for more story. Although you've used the example of SF/fantasy, it holds just as true for other genres. I'm tweeting this.

  5. Thanks, dirtywhitecandy. I appreciate it!

  6. I love this topic!

    I'm probably the odd writer out here but why does story two have to have any relation to story one other than the world and characters? There doesn't need to be a 'plant' from book 1 to birth book 2, though a lot of writers do it that way.

    Why couldn't the characters find some new trouble to get into? lol Or why couldn't a completely new event be used to draw the characters back together and into action in a new story within the old world.

    World's and characters change and evolve. (look at our world just in the last five years!) And characters, minor or major, have secrets. Is it possible to build from there, adding on to your world?

    Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were always going to be detective stories in a world/time that didn't change much but each book had a new mystery to to investigate. Poor example but the simplest one I could think of. Look at Twilight (don't scream anyone!) and how it's really just ONE story broken into four parts, each filled with events that are complicated by the characters.

  7. As Wulfie points out, sequels don't have to relate to the first book beyond sharing the same world and characters. My second novel is set 20 years after the end of the first. The series is about the transitions in my hedro's career, and those come farther and farther apart.
    I have never known where a story was going when I started it. My last novel, a werewolf adventure, was finished for two weeks before I figured out what the ending was all about.
    I put my faith in my characters. When you've got good characters you've got a story, whether you know it or not.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Wulfie and Author Guy. I agree that sequels needn't be continuations of the story in part one of a series. Of course, it is important to have characters appear to have benefited from their own experience (or at least to have been changed by it). I think there are lots of different stories available for any set of characters - it's just important to make sure that the stories address those characters' core identities, goals and concerns.