Over the next several weeks (at least), I’m going to be doing a series on how to write a story from idea to finished product. Along the way, we will also have some guest blogs that tie in to this as well.
We’ve talked before about various aspects of fiction (point of view, openings, conflict, action scenes–to name a few), and we’ve mentioned the five narrative forms (description, exposition, dialog, thoughts, action) and talked about some of these.
At the very least, a story needs four basic things to get it started: story idea, character(s), setting, and conflict.
I realize that some stories (literary ones in particular) may not have characters as such. Sometimes the setting is the character. Some stories may have internal conflict rather than external conflict, and resonance may replace resolution at the end. But for purposes of this series, I will take an unpublished story of my own and take it from an idea to a finished and edited piece.
My story idea came from one disappointing bit of jury duty at my local town court. The defendant finally decided on a bench trial, where the judge–not a jury–decides the outcome. I don’t recall what the defendant was accused of (if we ever knew), but it doesn’t matter anyway. I titled this “Jury Duty.”
By way of background, I had only been summoned once before for jury duty (also town court), and the case (a drunk and disorderly brawl as I recall) was settled while the prospective jurors waited. For this second summons, I was hoping for something more substantial. At the time I was working in a call center and used that bit of information in the story, as you’ll see.
Some other factors played into this. My wife, who had been on jury duty advised me to take along reading material since you sometimes have to wait a long time before you’re either selected or dismissed. The day of the trial, I showed up and took a seat in the room to await what would happen. Since the whole morning ended up a waste of time (because it went to a bench trial), I decided to salvage my lost time by turning the experience into a short story. The problem, of course, was that I had no story to write about, not of the trial anyway. This was where I let my imagination run wild. I wanted something light and humorous.
For a story idea of this monumental trial, I decided to create a blown-up fictional version of me with an attitude and a pre-determined mission (the character’s goal) of seeing justice done–his way. But I also wanted to tether this as close to reality as possible. I had the setting and I’d taken a few notes.
When writing humor, it’s important to push things over the top, but in a semi-believable way. Otherwise, you can end up with a dud of story or something so ridiculous and so totally unbelievable that it’s not even funny. I have a sometimes quirky sense of humor, so I chose to tap into that and have fun.
Before we get to writing the story from this concept, we need to make some initial decisions. First, who will the character be. As I said, that’s a larger-than-life extension of me here. What does the character do for a living? I worked in a call center, but after some thought I decided the character would be a news reporter whose boss always tells him things like “a good reporter is never on vacation.”
How much detail and background you construct for your character depends on the story. If the story is about the character, you need more background. Being around 2000 words, “Jury Duty” is more a moment in time piece and as such requires little character depth. In fact, it doesn’t even require us to know what he looks like. Does he need a name? I recommend giving him one even if you don’t use it.
The second decision is the choice of viewpoint to use: first person or third person. Unless you’re writing a literary piece, you probably want to avoid second person, but it’s an option.
The third decision is the whether to use past tense (conventional) or in present tense (less conventional but more popular in literary circles). Of course, you can always change any of these later.
Note that it’s not necessary to decide on your ending. I knew how the day ended for me, but the story would need a different–and better one.
To begin this story, I’m going to use standard third person, past tense. Here’s the preliminary the opening scene to set the tone of the piece. I’ll be modifying this later as we work through the process.
David Blayne stared at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice. “Not even a regular envelope,” he grumbled. “A college grad joins your fine community, does his civic duty by registering to vote, and this is how you thank him.” He read the notice with disgust: Jury duty. Thursday, February 29, 1996, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall.
A dozen imaginative imprecations flung themselves from his lips. Jury duty for the Town? The only thing that stopped his youthful impetuosity from ripping up the notice was a longstanding desire to sit on a jury and proclaim a scumbag defendant microwave-able.
Fat chance he had this time. A Town didn’t try major societal trash. Murderers, rapists, and child molesters would be shipped off to the County or City courts. Probably get nothing lower than a shoplifter in Town court. Speaking of which, whatever happened to the good old days when fingers and hands got severed for pickpocketing and petty thievery. With his luck he’d get put on a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny suing some discount store because the flashing red light of the red-light special temporarily blinded her and caused her to bumped into the too-sharp corner of a display counter.
Minute hope lingered with that thought. They could find in favor of the granny, award her a huge sum in damages, and blissfully watch the store fold. Going-out-of business sales are great dollar stretchers for the newly employed living in an unfurnished apartment.
At this point, speculation was useless. He figured his chances of winning the state lottery were better than sitting on the jury for a major offender. Maybe this was an omen that he should buy a lottery ticket today.
He marked his calendar. He didn’t want the police coming after him for dereliction of duty. Jail was not where he wanted to be loved by his fellow man.
If you have a current story idea, why don’t you do the same? Work up the same basics as I did and write the opening scene. Or use this one and think of some ways you might change it. Would first person work better? Would present tense work better? Experiment on your own and decide for yourself.
Please note that this is copyrighted material. You’re free to play with it, but you cannot use it as your own, not even in modified form. However, if you wish to create a different story about some man or woman summoned for jury duty, you’re free to do so.
In subsequent blogs, I’ll be showing you how to develop this piece. I’ll also show you how it gets edited. We’ll return to this story and continue to develop it in two weeks. Next week’s guest blog will talk about some places to find story ideas.