Over at Silver Pen Writers (www.silverpenwriters.org), Edwin Riddell, one of the Silver Pen Directors, writes an occasional columns, one of called “The Horse’s Mouth.” You can read this at Silver Pen by joining the site (it’s free and well worthwhile to hang out there if you’re a writer. Since you are reading this blog, I must assume you are a writer because I doubt that it’s our sparkling personality that attracted you here.
Anyway, Edwin’s second “Horse’s Mouth” offering, about how to rescue and develop stories you’re stuck on, caught my attention. He begins his article with advice from Stephen King, from King’s book On Writing:
“Look in your files for a story that seems stuck, a story that has a story block. Next, write at the top of a separate sheet of paper the two words WHAT IF. Now write five ways of continuing the story, not ending the story, but continuing the story to the next event, scene, etc.”
That’s excellent advice that I’ve heard echoed time and again.
Edwin then goes on with some advice from Patricia Highsmith and one of her techniques: Invent a second story idea to get the first one going. That advice recalled a story problem I had many years ago, a story I have yet to complete as a novel. Here’s the background of the problem I had.
A friend once offered a variation on the cloning theme in Jurassic Park: What if (there’s that old “what if” again) someone tried to clone Jesus from the blood (alleged) on the Turin Shroud?
It was a great story idea, but it was not without its problems, not the least of which was that the Turin Shroud had supposedly been scientifically dated to a time centuries after Christ’s death and the “blood” on it was therefore not real and certainly not that of Jesus.
Further, several stories have been done on this subject. Around the time I was considering the story (late 1990s—yes, I’ve had the story idea that long), I saw an episode of the TV show The Outer Limits that was based on this idea: a woman’s implanted fetus had been cloned from DNA from the Turin Shroud.
Therefore, if I were going to write such a story, it should be one that hadn’t been done before. Without going into details, I did write the story, and it was just an okay piece, not a story strong enough that I considered it publishable. The story contain one novel idea, though. The scientists who were trying to clone Jesus were expecting to make a profit from doing so. That’s pretty much as far as the story went. The main character bowed out of the cloning project and it ended with his wife (Mary) being pregnant. Yeah, I know—corny. As I said, it wasn’t that great a story, but I did not abandon the story, and I did find a way around the “Turin Shroud is a fake” problem in it. I put the story aside.
Let’s Shift ahead in time a couple of years or so. One evening while I was in the shower and letting my mind drift, an unrelated “what if” story idea popped into my head. What if a young, upcoming, science fiction writer whose works almost always got published had recently submitted a story to a magazine editor who knew him well. To the writer’s surprise, he receives a letter (not an email) advising him that although the story is a superb one the magazine cannot not publish it. Further, for the writer’s (and the editor’s) safety, he should destroy all copies of that story (as the editor already had) and erase it from his computer as well.
Okay, that’s a cool story premise. But what kind of story could this writer have written that would have elicited such a dramatic and drastic response? And why had it done so?
My mind drifted back to the Jesus clone piece. What if that was the story he had written? But why was it a problem story? What if after the writer gets the email, the FBI then shows up at his house to confiscate his computer—all without explanation? I worked out a couple more details, made the character interesting, wrote the beginning if the story then realized it had much better potential as a novel than as a short story.
That novel is among my projects to complete. The story is also roughly outlined. Though it was born from an idea a friend proposed many years ago, it has gone far beyond that original suggestion. All by using the “WHAT IF” technique.
Writers should learn two lessons from this: Don’t abandon a story just because it’s not working out as you originally intended, and don’t dismiss an idea just because it’s been done before (in this case, the Jurassic Park concept or because some fact it relies on (the Shroud of Turin not being “real”) seems to get in the way. Great stories can come from initially weak or weak-seeming concepts.
My point here is that NO STORY IDEA should ever be dismissed, and as Edwin Riddell, in quoting King and Highsmith, points out, there are always ways to turn a stalled story around by being inventive and thinking outside the box.
What struck me about Patricia Highsmith’s advice is that, long before I ever heard of her or read her advice, I had actually discovered the same thing on my own. I created that second story (the sci-fi writer’s rejected story) to jumpstart the first (the cloning Jesus idea), and I found a way to weave the two together.
Nearly every writer I know has at some point run against a stalled story. Sometimes it happens early on; sometimes it happens farther on or even at the end when the writer doesn’t know how to finish the story. The key for us is to persevere, to not give up, to discover a solution that will bring our stories to the next level. Challenge yourself to make it work no matter what, even if it means completely rewriting it.
I do apologize if I’ve left you wanting to know the full story of that novel, whose title I will not reveal at this point. I will try my best to complete it and have it out well before too many years pass and hopefully while everyone reading this blog is still drawing breath.
In any case, I hope this bit of advice helps some of you out there who have experienced problems with a stalled story. Go read Edwin Riddell’s full article at Silver Pen Writers. There’s plenty more good advice in it.