I teach a high school creative writing class in which teens often draft their very first stories. We spend a crazy amount of time looking at plots of movies, books and short stories, picking out when the tension rises, when the action builds, when the characters learn things about themselves, others, and the roles they must play within the work.
Then they turn in their first story. I do not let it be longer than six pages for many reasons, but the number one reason is because the problem three-fourths of my students will have with their story is starting in the wrong place. For example, the story is about finding love after heartbreak, but my students starts it with the first time a girl saw the boy who eighteen months later breaks her heart. Six months after that, she meets the person who will encourage her to love again.
“But to see how she heals, we have to see how she was broken,” they will argue.
True. However, loading so much of the here and now with what used to be tends to make the reader think the past is more important. Making even half of the story about before makes it nearly impossible for the reader to connect with the character now.
As writers, we often need to write those backstories in order to get a feel for who the character is. When we meet people in the real world, they all have their own characteristics, pasts, and experiences that make them hesitate at strange times, react strongly to others, and other quirks that range from hilarious to off-putting. But noticing these things doesn’t mean we want the breakdown of the two to ten year period that created their uniqueness. We write the back story to have our “Ah-ha!”, to recognize who our characters are, what they want, what they are willing to sacrifice to get it, if what they want and what they need align, or even need to.
Funny how advice we give others about craft, work and life can apply so perfectly to our own.
There are many times when, as creators, we sit down and expect to just know. Plotter or pantser, each of us have faced the frustration of looking at a story and wondering what needs to happen next, how the character needs to experience it. Maybe you’re a reverse plotter, knowing what will happen in the end. Even that presents times of staring at paper, screen, index cards, all while struggling to think through the events that need to lead up to the awesome end.
Chances are decent that the people you interact with most weren’t friends after an instant. Chances are decent that where you live and where you work didn’t just knock on the door of opportunity one day and decide to stick around. Chances are decent that each aspect of your life came after a series fo small things, mini preparations that put you in such a place that allowed the ever illusive “Ah-ha!” to strike and stick.
People who have been creating for a while know this about the creative process. Creators have to work, have to experience trial and error to discover what their work really is. Just as we discuss the try/fail cycle for our characters, we need to let our work, and ourselves as creators, go through this cycle, struggling, reaching, and growing so we have the strength to receive inspiration when it finally falls into our lives.
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.