Tagcharacters

Building a story

The bare bones of the story.

My daughter found an ill or injured goldfinch beneath the bird feeder. We contacted a bird rehabilitator. We did what we could. The bird died.

That’s all a story is, at it’s most basic. Event, reaction, action–some jumble of the three. Even those where it seems nothing is happening, somewhere. somehow, there’s a shift, a window opening or closing, a hand tightening to hold back a memory and failing, succeeding.

Events. Reactions. Actions. Found a bird. Tried to tend. Bird died. In the strict sense, that is my story.

Only it’s not. It’s lacking a few things. Yes, it details a few choices that suggest one set of characters over another. We have a bird feeder. We stopped for the bird. We called someone else about the bird. Those decisions suggest at character, but the world is full of people who would try to rescue a bird. What would make this my story?

Shall we start with some setting? Something like this?

The January cold had returned. During the walk up the hill, through snow frozen into layers so brittle that no one could be heard over their crackle, the air had been pleasant. Now, as the dark began to settle in, it turned bitter. Black shells littered the ground beneath the bird feeder they’d hung a month ago, evidence of the crowds of birds and squirrels that came during the day.

My characters, Jennifer and Daughter and Bird, now have a landscape of sorts. I could add more details, their home, for example–yurt, cabin, McMansion, castle. By omitting that detail, I’m making assumptions that the reader will fill in a house in the woods, instead of a fourth floor apartment, or the remnants of a crashed spaceship.

We also now know that Bird will be found in the cold. Bitter cold, to be precise. Bird will not be a fledgling stranded on the ground while trying to figure out her wings.

What more should I add? Setting gives something, but not enough.

The children kept their winter things on and left to walk Dog almost immediately. Once upon a time, Dog would have dragged them up and down the hill and through the woods. Now she moved slowly, arthritis and age weighing down her every step. Each day, Jennifer whispered a little prayer to Dog, asking her to stay with them longer, to not leave so soon on the heels of the cats, the horses, but she knew the end would come before long.

A little something about the emotional landscape of the characters, to match the physical. Shall we continue?

Daughter returned almost immediately. Jennifer’s first thought was about Dog, but the words that tumbled from Daughter’s mouth had nothing to do with her. “There’s a bird under the feeder. I think it’s sick. It’s hiding in the stone wall right now.”

For a moment, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to say no. “It will be fine,” she would say, knowing that the dark was coming, and with it the weasels and the owls and the foxes. She didn’t want to invite Death into the house again, not with Daughter there.

But she put on Son’s boots and followed Daughter out into the cold.

In theory, the physical and emotional landscapes should be working at this point to provide some tension. In a story without an obvious villain, unless Death counts, there still must be tension, right? Without that, we have found a hurt bird, tried to tend, it died. Tension is the system of tendons and ligaments and muscle that make the story move, thereby moving us.

At first glance it looked as though the bird could be fine. A little cold, a little stunned, perhaps. There had been a hawk in the yard today. Had this little one had a close call? Would a good night’s sleep make everything better?

Then she saw the labored breathing, the way it sat fluffed up, alone in the fading light, all the others gone to roost. “Oh, little bird,” she said.

Are those questions necessary? Perhaps not. Perhaps those are the sort of things I write in and later cut, once I understand everything the character was thinking.

Again, the longing to walk away, to tell Daughter that it would be fine and let the night take care of it. As she shifted, the bird flew, and she all but clapped her hands. A short flight, away, and then back again, behind her, the sound of its wings so close she didn’t dare move.

“It’s between your feet, Mom.”

This isn’t a big story. This isn’t one where the Bird Ambulance will pull up, sirens tweeting, and Bird Heroes will jump out and push Jennifer and Daughter aside, telling them that everything will be okay. This is just a mother and child in the dark with a dying bird. It holds your attention only as long as the characters do.

“Oh, little bird,” Jennifer said again. She crouched, slowly, the bird cocking its head and watching her. Perhaps this story will have a happy ending, she thought. Perhaps this will be one of the ones that ends with opening a box and watching a bird fly off into the morning light.

It flew again, this time to the front step of the house, where it sat, hunched, its breathing obvious even from fifteen feet away. No, this bird would not live, but Jennifer would do what she could. “See if we have a small box,” she said to Daughter.

This story could very quickly become overburdened with detail. It is not a how-to manual for caring for injured wildlife. The readers have already been warned, in so many ways, that Bird will not survive. The payoff is in the characters, not in explanations of phone calls or spaces cleared of cats.

If we changed the players, made the bird an owl hit by a car, or a rare hummingbird washed north in a storm, or an albatross, if we made Jennifer and Daughter innocent of death, or indifferent to birds…all of those would set the story on a different track. We started out in the switchyard of possibility, but at this point, as character and action become linked, the ending becomes certain.

The bird died in the box Daughter had filled with an old turtleneck that no longer fit. They examined it, the tiny claws, the closed wings. “We gave it what we could,” Jennifer told Daughter. “A quiet warm place to die.”

Not that she could comfort herself with that fact. For all she knew, the bird had died of shock because she had handled it. No, the bird was dying even when it had flown, even when it sat between her feet and struggled to breathe. The bird had come to them to die, and she couldn’t help but wonder if even birds fear the thought of waiting alone for Death in the dark.

Anthropomorphizing. But minds crave stories, crave connections. And grieving children long for answers.

As they snuggled together that night, Daughter crying quietly, Jennifer tried to find the right pieces, the ones that could take away the sadness. All the sadness, all the goodbyes.

“I know it seems like a lot,” she said. “It is. My life is much longer than yours right now, and in it there have been terribly sad things. I know how that feels. There have also been amazing things, like you being here with me. And a whole lot of days that are just days, bits of happy and sad and nothing much, all rolled together. All those things, they help us figure out who we are. They help us know how strong we are, and how much we can love, and how brave we can be. We get to feel it all.”

And the words seemed like so little, but they were all she knew to say.

How I write (part one)

As a follow-up to my pizza-induced insistence that everyone must find their own way to write, I thought I’d share my process. This is how writing a novel goes for me (I’ll talk about short stories in a different post).

I start with a character. Sometimes more than one, but at least one who’s been on my mind for a while. I generally have an end. Hopefully, a few ideas about things that happen on the way to the end.

I take what I have, I open a fresh document on the computer, and I begin to write. The first five to ten pages, those are just warmup material. I’ve yet to start any story, of any length, exactly where it needs to start.

Once I get past the warmup, then I begin to have a sense of where things are going. It’s a bit like slowly being drawn into a river’s current. I’m swirling in the eddies, my destination is impossibly far away, but I can feel the pull of the water starting to give me direction.

I write. I write and write, and when things go well, I think about what I’ll be working on the next day as I fall asleep at night, and I wake up excited to start. It helps if I write consistently. Too much time off and I drift back to the shore, and it’s hard to get moving again.

I write too much. Technically it’s too much. In truth, it all feels necessary at the time. I write scenes about hanging out by the river, about sitting inside on rainy days and reading books in bed. I write long sections about sitting by the ocean as the waves pound. These scenes do nothing for the plot, but they’re my way of connecting with the characters.

Those characters… sometimes they start out clear, but usually they start out like the stones you find on a dirt trail–rough, dull, nondescript. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, if all those extra scenes have helped, then they feel like river rocks to me, those stones washed so smooth that your hand just aches to hold them.

It’s not the most expedient way to write, and if I were trying to write something with a specific (and close) deadline, I’d be more likely to outline and keep everything neat and tidy. For where I am now as a writer, it works just fine. Eventually I reach the end, and I celebrate with something big, like taking a shower, or going for a walk.

Then…well, I’ll save that for the next post.

An introduction

You are sixteen.

You’re different from the others in your neighborhood. Your family keeps to itself. You spend nine months of the year at a boarding school by the ocean, one not listed in any school directory. You don’t go there because you choose to, you go there because it’s what you do, what your parents did, what everyone like you does.

Because you are Aware.

Being Aware isn’t something you’ve chosen. It’s just part of you, like the color of your hair, the color of your eyes, the shape of your nose. The way you can see anger, or fear, or desire, as color, as texture, can watch them spread from one person to the next. To you.

The only place that’s safe, the only place that’s quiet, is the Estate. It’s school, it’s home, it’s the safe haven for the Aware. The only thing it asks for in return is your future, your mind, your body, all given to help preserve your endangered people.

The rules of the Estate keep you safe. They keep all the Aware safe, protecting those elegant fragile minds from the emotional debris of an overcrowded world. From the inside, in this safe place, you’ve no reason to question the rules.

But you’re not quite on the inside. You’ve been keeping a secret. Every mind around you gives off a pulse, a smell, a trail of pleasure and pain that you can follow. You shouldn’t know these things. Only Trackers do. And everyone knows what happens to girls with Tracker traits. At the end of a path through the woods waits a building with a chain link fence around it. Within its walls live the women born with and destroyed by skills only men should have.

The Estate keeps them safe too.

Sometimes life can change within a day, an hour, a minute. The way it does when you learn that other Aware exist, far from the reaches of the Estate. That your talent won’t destroy you, but not being allowed to use it will.

You are sixteen. You have a choice. Stay with The Estate. Fulfill your obligations. Hide who you are. Or betray everything you know, and be free.

You are Wren.

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