Coleridge Moments

I hate it when I have a Coleridge Moment. Oh, you want to know what I’m alluding to…

Well, Samuel Coleridge is famous for writing the poem Xanadu, but there are only 3 verses. Why? Coleridge was an opium smoker, and he awoke from an opium dream with 12 complete verses ready to go. He sat down to write them but was interrupted by a knock on the door by somebody who had come to hassle him about some money owed. When he finally got the guy to leave, Xanadu had left too. And that’s why we only have 3 verses.

Last night I had a dream. I dreamed an entire short story, very clever stuff too, all based around a single active verb… but for the life of me, I can’t remember the verb or the story. It’s driving me nuts.

When I was a nature photographer, I learned a hard lesson. I was sleeping in my Blazer at the entrance to the National Bison Range in Moese, Montana and was awakened in the night by the howl of coyotes. When I opened the tailgate to have a look around, the Northern Lights were undulating above me in curtains of emerald green. It was exquisite. I remember saying to myself, “Get up and photograph this.” I didn’t. I went back to sleep and have never seen the lights again in my lifetime.

The lesson? “Don’t ignore a one-time event. Capture it while it’s in front of you or lose it forever.”

It’s the same thing with these nighttime story ideas. Don’t just stay in bed enjoying the story; get up and write it down or lose it forever. I know this. You probably know this too. But being a human (!), I lost this great story idea. I can’t recall a bit of it, not even the verb it centered around.

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Three Critical Questions

I’ve solved all your writing problems for you… except that it is for plotting, characterization, scene and setting, clue dispersal, description and dialogue issues… There are other problems that occasionally crop up, but let’s ignore them for the nonce.

I’ve distilled it all down to three critical questions for you to ask and answer at the beginning of any fiction writing project. Please read on to achieve enlightenment.

  1. Whose story is it?

Answer: Who is the story about? There can be more than one person, though there is usually a central character.

There may be more than one story line. This may demand more than one central character, don’t you know. (Writing is such a chore sometimes.)

  1. Who’s telling the story?

Answer: Will one narrator tell the entire story or will various characters take up the tale at different points?

  1. What is at stake for whom?

Answer: This may be your motive.

Who stands to win something (wealth, status, power, etc.), and who stands to lose something.
How hard are they willing to fight to achieve their goals?

Ask and answer these three questions and you will have the skeleton of your story in your hand. Having done that, all you have to do is write the blasted thing.

Hitting a Plot Wall

I’ve been ignoring Ben Bones & The Twin Pistols far too long. It’s pure avoidance. I hit a plot wall a full month ago (meaning that I had no plot in mind when I hit it), and I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since. I’ve been wrestling with various ideas, but… well, if you’re a writer, you know how it goes.

I’m going to make an assumption here: that every writer comes to a place in a story where there ain’t no way to go and the characters aren’t telling me what to do with or to them. For me, it’s the middle of the story. It’s a point the characters are all on stage just standing around loitering and doing nothing to move the story forward. They can’t even think of what to do next, let alone actually do something.

It doesn’t matter that I had a great start, that I had a clear ending scene in mind, that I knew my characters and their motivations. Nope. None of that matters a bit. I simply have no idea of what happens next.

A while ago I hit on a scheme to shake some ideas loose. It’s called a “Major Events” sheet and it provides me with a snapshot overview of what’s going on. It has various points for me as the writer to keep in mind. The headings on the sheet, with explanations, are as follows:

  • Whose story is it?
    Answer: Who is the story about? There can be more than one person, though there is usually a central character.
  • Who’s telling the story?
    Answer: Will one narrator tell the entire story or will various characters take up the tale at different points?
  • What is at stake for whom?
    Answer: This may be your motive.
    Who stands to win something (wealth, status, power, etc.), and who stands to lose something.
    How hard are they willing to fight to achieve their goals?
  • Need conflict between…
    Answer: This may be your plot.
    There can be more than one conflict. In fact, there’d better be or you will have a lifeless one-dimensional story.
  • Problems for the writer.
    Answer: What obstacles can be placed in the characters’ paths?
  • Problems for the Characters.
    Who does what to whom? Why?
    Who blocks another character’s ambitions? Why? How?
  • Sequence of Events.
    Answer: This is how the plot plays out.
    What scenes are vital to the story? Why?
    Who is in those scenes?
    When does each scene have to appear (early, mid-stream, late)?

I hope this will be useful to someone out there in “radio land.” Write and tell me if these scribblings helped you out.