Last month I talked about how characters drive a story. This month I want to ramble a bit on the subject of how, for me, a story grows roots that give it drawing power. I mean, the best stories pull at us from the first few words, draw us into their hearts. A couple weeks ago I was looking at a deep red lily blossom, and as I contemplated, a fat bumble bee waddled out of its hidden center and somehow managed to take off despite its heavy harvest. When I finish a really good story, I feel like I think that bee must have felt. Satisfied but sad that the feast is done, a little disoriented, and determined to keep what the author, the characters, and their story have given me.
But how does that happen?
As far as I know, most story ideas don’t come fully formed. What comes to a writer is usually no more than a germ—a seed—for a story. Say you see young white girl talking to an elderly African American woman in the mall, and the girl is crying. There’s a story there, take my word for it. But six different writers would write six totally different stories about it. The first thing a writer is likely to wonder about is what that girl is feeling. She’s sad, because her boyfriend dumped her, the writer brain says. And that is an anecdote in the making. It takes something more to make it a story. What, for instance, is the older woman feeling? Hidden there, in her emotion, is a complex history, and on the perimeter of that emotion a whole bevy of secondary, concomitant, and even conflicting emotions are hanging out, awaiting there turn.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Find the key emotion. This may be all you need to find your short story.”
So say a writer starts to write a story about this older woman’s life, the concept of which sprouted from that germinal scene in the mall. Some of the story may just roll out in the form of a series of events. That creates a story, so to speak, but one that just lays on the surface of things and really doesn’t do much in the way of growth. It just is. This happened, then that happened, and that and that and that, and now the old woman feels compassion for the young stranger because it happened to her when she was young too.
In order to make that story one that draws the reader down into it, something has to be beneath the surface. Buried emotions. Hidden lives. Secrets.
Stephen King: “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.”
Beneath the surface, growing things have roots. To give your story roots, silent, covert things are absolutely necessary. And it’s also necessary for the reader to know, right from the start, that those roots will be exposed—tenderly or with a mighty heave—and their meaning made clear. That meaning is entwined with the emotion, and humans encode emotion in the senses. The only tool a writer has to evoke those emotions in the reader is language. Words. That’s what make a story, but more importantly that’s what has the power to create a story that lives in the hearts and minds of readers.
Anonymous: “The right words can give flight to things that live in your imagination. Worlds will inspire you, cut you, bring you back to life.”
Here are some words from a very famous book that, when I read them now, unlock for me a channel of flowing emotion and memory that involve all that came before and after them in the books, which then empties—if I let it—into a deep pool of my own life’s memories, things that were my life in the various times I read these books.
“It was evening and the stars were glimmering in the eastern sky as they passed the ruined oak and turned and went on down the hill between the hazel-thickets. Sam was silent, deep in his memories. Presently he became aware that Frodo was singing softly to himself, singing the old walking-song, but the words were not quite the same.”
~~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
To wrap up, here are a few words of my own, from a story about characters Jackie Vasquez and Brian Harrison, who you may know of from the Vasquez and James series, or from their own first book, A Shot of J&B. I’m calling the new story Blackmail and Roses, for now.
Jackie took three steps out of the LAX terminal and then the heat blasted him from all directions. The pavement baked him from below, all the surrounding structures radiated like oven walls, and the sun threatened to broil his freckles black. But it was the wind, the devil-born Santa Ana that splashed red in his eyes and stole his breath.
Jackie remembered a time in LA when the Santa Anas had seemed like the touch of some blessed god, in that October when he and Josh had first wandered into the warm, dry City of Angels after a damp summer on the Seattle streets.
“Damn,” Josh had muttered. “I hope it doesn’t blow like that all the time.”
But Jackie had just shook his head, not said a word. True, he wasn’t in the habit of talking much back then. Hurt boys often don’t, he’d since learned in his psych classes. But that time his silence was one of incredulity. Jackie had loved the rough, subjugating caress of those hot winds, would have stood for days and died inside them if he could have.
But that was before he’d seen their cruel side. Before he’d seen them weave a spell of apathy and violence on even those people who sometimes cared. Before he’d seen them spin the heads of friends around until they faced each other with fists and knives. Before he’d seen them launch bullets in back alleys. Now he knew they sometimes stripped the last inhibitions from the minds of drunks, the clothes from shaking young bodies, the last vestiges of hope from desperate hearts.
He’d almost fallen under their path.
I hope you enjoyed my post. If you can think of stories where certain words evoked from you a feeling and understanding that has stayed with you for life, I’d love to hear about it in comments! Thanks for reading! See you in a month.