Mar 28, 2013

Amethysts and Cockleburs: An Analogy

Amethysts and Cockleburs: An Analogy

You may have seen that title and clicked on it out of curiosity (at least I hope you did, because that was the point). That curiosity is essentially summed up like this: You saw the title, and you said to yourself, “Self, what do amethysts and cockleburs have to do with each other?” That, my friend, is a very good question. I will explain, but not right away. I like dragging things out.

Recently in the Go Teen Writers Facebook group, I saw someone asking how you turn something random into a novel. I’ve done the same thing myself several times, although only one of those resulting novels got written, but I’d never really thought about it. So I said to myself, “Self, how do you turn something random into a novel?”

I puzzled over this on and off for a couple of days. Today, however, I had completely forgotten about it until I was taking some pretty random but vaguely artsy-looking pictures with my nice new camera. And what with one thing and another, there appeared a blog post out of the middle of it. Funny how that happens.

What you do, is you start with a Thing.

It may be a small Thing. It may be a large Thing. In my pictures, it’s a tiny bottle filled with even tinier amethyst chips – my birthstone, you see. Which is great, since I love tiny things. In my book, it was an image. A cloudy sky, a huge plain. A girl riding a sweaty bay horse, her white-blond hair dancing around her face and the long grass whipping the horse’s legs. She had something important in her saddlebags, and that was all I knew. I didn’t know what it was, didn’t know where she was, didn’t even know her name. I just had a picture.

Some ideas come more fully developed than that one, some even less so – just a fleeting whisper of emotion, a memory half-buried in sand. I read once that once an idea first appears out of your subconscious into your conscious mind, you have three seconds to grab onto it before it’s gone. One of the ideas waiting for me to write goes like this:

first impressions; ideas; fireflies; 3 seconds; something new

That’s it. Talk about random. About as random as a bottle of amethyst chips. While we’re being random, a goldfish only has a memory span of three seconds. That means that just as they grab onto their wonderful idea, they’ve forgotten it. Poor goldfish.

Where you get your Thing is entirely irrelevant. If you want to write but you don’t have one, go generate one. Pick up a pencil and paper and draw whatever your hand wants to draw. Swirl your coffee and see what shapes it reminds you of. Generate something on Chaotic Shiny.

Okay, you say, staring at the idea in your brain. Now what?

This is where you add your cocklebur.

Uhm. What’s that doing there?

It’s your job to find out. In writer’s terms, this is called conflict. It’s a magical word. It might come in the form of an event, another character, divine intervention, whatever. In my case, it was the sudden intrusion of an armed warrior galloping up behind my unnamed character. Uh-oh.

At this point, I knew this person wasn’t friendly, and that he wanted whatever she had in her saddlebags. The original situation and the intruding conflict has changed many times over the course of my revisions, but the general idea remains the same. Make something happen.

In my image, I could see the conflict, latent in her tear-streaked face and the splotches of sweat on her horse’s hide. I didn’t realize that was what I saw. I just saw a story, waiting for me. She was obviously sad – hence, the tears – and had been running for a long time – thus, the sweaty horse. Put that together with the valuable thing in her saddlebags, and someone is chasing her. Oh no! Here he comes now!

Introduce a seemingly unrelated element, then connect the pieces. This can also be called the Inciting Incident, and there’s a lot more about it…well, everywhere. My most recent encounter with plot structure was in Jeff Gerke’s book, Plot vs. Character, which might possibly be the prize in my first-ever giveaway, whenever that happens. Stay tuned…

So now things are starting to happen, but where do you go from there?

You need another Thing.

A harmonica? Eh, well. I was running out of props.

Follow the original situation as far as it takes you, but if you get stuck, drop a body from the ceiling (Daniel Schwabauer-ese for: do something unexpected). In my case, the armed rider and his cronies captured my character and had her in their cave hideout with a sword to her throat, demanding to know where it was. (You’ll notice that I still have no clue what it is, I’m just playing along until I need to.) What could she possibly do? She was stuck. I was stuck.

Enter – new character!

A tall-dark-and-handsome elf started demanding to be involved. It pretty much went like this:

T-D-H-E: Hey.

Me: Huh? What?

T-D-H-E: Write me in.

Me: Why? And who are you, exactly?

T-D-H-E: Doesn’t matter. I’m gonna rescue her. Write me in.

Me: O…kay.

Again, it doesn’t matter where you get your new element, whether it’s another character or something else. Scan Pinterest for interesting faces. Watch people in the grocery store. Base a personality off your teenaged nephew or your grandpa or your dog.

T-D-H-E eventually grew into the enigmatic elf we all know and love: Aaron. He’s no less tall-dark-and-handsome, but he’s much more human now, a fact I’m inordinately proud of. But anyway.

Once he rescued her, they were running through the empty plain at night and nothing was happening again. The cocklebur, the main conflict, was gone; all I had left were the amethysts and the harmonica. That’s when you bring in the inter-character conflict, which looks a lot like this:

Crack open the first character and examine their insides. Not literally. There might be time for that later, depending on how ruthless a writer you are. What I mean is, dig up some anger, break out some insecurities, crash two cultures together – whatever works. Crank up the emotions. Let it all spill out and let some get on the other character(s) too. Make them argue. Make them fall in love. Make them relate like two ordinary human beings. In my example, Character 1 insulted T-D-H-E by suddenly noticing that he was an elf and making a big deal out of it, since she’d never seen one before. That set up tension for the rest of the night, although her astonishment and his standoffish-ness didn’t last long, due to…well, more cockleburs.

And between the cockleburs and the amethysts, I promise you’ll soon have something going that you can’t stop.

Note: All these pictures are under a Creative Commons license. Use them for whatever you wish. It would be nice if you credited me, but you don’t have to. Comment for full-size versions. Advice is my own.
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Elizabeth Kirkwood said...

This analogy is, um, brilliant. ^_^ :D And yayness for E-posts! :D


Anonymous said...

Nice. Can't wait to read your novel.

Sandra said...

Cool analogy! T-D-H-E. *chuckles* I did that to a new character I created and the poor guy is now known as Theg. Tall-Handsome-Elvish-Guy. Poor Theg.

aquillpen said...

That is by far the best analogy used to explain creating an inciting incident that I've ever read. Love what you had to say about it. ^_^