The Story Within The Story

I come from a very large family, with lots of siblings and even more cousins. Even though my sisters and brother and I shared the same parents (and my cousins the same grandparents), our view of our collective upbringing varies wildly. I notice this more now that I have children of my own. There’s only two of them, but according to them, their childhoods couldn’t be more different. When I get together with my sibs and relive old times, it’s like conversing with five strangers.

I’ve noticed the same with those in my high school class. Some are new friends, connected late in life by Facebook and reunion dinners. Others I’ve been friends with since the very beginning. No matter what the history, our recollections can be unique, if we can remember them at all.

We’re all different, and our stories are different, even though the principals and the plot are the same. Even though we live through the same crisis, at the same time, our brains will never see the same facts in the same way.

A good novel weaves the stories of all of its characters seamlessly, not just the antics of the protag and the antagonist. I’d never noticed the careful crafting of a good book before; I was too busy enjoying myself to take it apart, but there are typically stories within the story, interwoven like a hand-loomed sweater. You need all those loops, not just the main show.

I used to rather stupidly write from the top of my head, with little forethought to plot or character development or story lines or arcs. Hell’s bells, I was on a tear. Who had time to think? I was writing as fast as I could. Those “minor” components could be added later, tweaked and polished once the words “The End” came into view. (Boy, was I a rube!)

I now realize (after a lot of revision and editing and plot changes on the first two stories) that it’s a whole lot easier to begin plotting and character development before you sit down at the computer and begin pounding out dialogue.

Last summer, Mr. Ed gave me a series of assignments to complete before he began editing. One was to describe each character and their story. He knew each was unique, but they all came out sounding like…ME. (All of them are me, but they’re also not.)

My first thought was “Oh, come on. You can’t see them? One’s overweight, one’s a beauty queen, one’s gay, one’s down-home and honest. One’s a gadabout, one’s a middle-aged mom. You can’t see that?”

NO, he couldn’t see them that way, mostly because I hadn’t written them that way. I knew who they were and what they were doing, but no one else could see them. In deconstructing the characters, I realized I hadn’t really seen them in the way I wanted them to appear. That’s because I took the lazy-man’s way out of it and told more than I showed.


In the last week, I’ve taken my other WIPs and done the same thing: List the cast of characters and write a sentence or two about their story. Because, you know, their view of the proceedings has necessarily got to be different than my protag. They’re not just pawns on the chessboard; they all have stories of their own. I wrote each in long-hand in my notebook (ecosystem – I’m cured from Moleskine), and when I forget about a personality quirk or trait and it all melds together, I can open it up and find my true characters.

It was a good exercise. Now back to writing.


3 Responses

  1. It would be odd if one of your characters decided they wanted to be an antag instead of a protag and didn’t like the way you described them and started jacking with your dreams….

  2. Good, down-to-earth advice, Joanne. This is what I look for from you. Now if I could ever get myself to the starting gate…

  3. Someday we’ll all get past the starting gate. Heh… if I could do it, anyone can!

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