Third in the Brainstorming Series
TL;DR: I am brainstorming with an acquaintance, at her request, about a novel that she is trying to write, inspired by several dream sequences. This writer is having a tough time formulating a story line.
OK—time for some tough talk. From my point of view, you are going to have an exceptionally difficult time crafting this work to completion, because you may not have formulated an essential story line. I get that [redacted], and gets captured by the rebels, but that’s all I know. What are the rebels trying to do? Be left alone? Take over the government? I have already given you a whole lot of plot-related questions that should be considered. [see The Beginning post]
Much of the [shiny objects] are not central to the essential plot—the human story of X and Y. Sometimes, the best way to work forward is to minimize, initially, all the [shiny object] stuff. You have a whole lot of moving parts. Yes, they may be integral parts of the story, but they are secondary to X&Y
Act I: [here, I write a generic plot line that I cannot reproduce for a public blog]
First, outline your story in completely banal, general terms like what I did above. It will vastly clarify the story. Up to now, we have been discussing the gargoyles and finials on the cathedral façade….and I am trying to get you to concentrate on the foundations and columns that will hold the whole thing up. It is only against this backdrop of essential story that you can judge such details as the [redacted].
OK, here’s a concrete example from one of my stories. I needed a ball of neutronium, one meter in diameter, traveling half the speed of light, to hit the Moon. I spent a lot of time and effort writing a prologue of a long-ago war between two alien species, exactly how the aliens consumed asteroidal rubble, compressed it, and made their neutronium balls for ammunition. There was a great scene about how the battle raged, and a bunch of salvos cut loose without the stasis cut-off timer being set, meaning the neutronium was going to travel forever until it hit something, like the Moon. The alien war was never referred to again.
I’m tired just writing that synopsis. Instead, I trashed the entire segment, employed Authorial Fiat, and just had the ball hit the Moon. I realized that, from the point of view of the human race, they would never know or care just WTF happened to the Moon, just that there was some kind of massive explosion on it..
So, why tell you this? I get the feeling that the several aspects of your world, like [redacted], are a lot like my ball of neutronium: essential to the story, but whose origin is besides the point. You, as the author, must absolutely have the backstory worked out so the continuity works, but you must never burden your readers with it. If Y is never going to open the [secret item], does it really matter HOW it works?
One of the hardest aspects of SF is the sheer desire to ‘make research pay’ through writing pages of exposition on the thermomagnetohydrodynamic origins of artificially compressed neutronium ammunition, the stasis field that keeps it stable, how the mass driver flings the ball free of the alien battleship, and the safety systems that allow for the ammo’s eventual self-destruct capability. Does it really matter where it came from? No. The only thing that mattered in my story is that it blew a big chunk of Lunar crust into Earth-Lunar space.
The [backstory]. Does it really matter? Sure, it [made something happen in the past]. But I get the idea that the humans have been there for a generation or two. X and Y don’t seem to have any memories of Earth or the desperate flight to the new world. They merely take the world as it is. They’re born on this new planet, that’s all they know. The reader should be afforded the same—and discover their world through the X&Y story, not through a history lesson. Yes, I know the urge to do a little datadump will be inescapable, but if it must happen, make it as a side conversation during something else that’s going on.
If you were my student, I would give you the following homework assignment:
Three paragraphs, no more. I’ve already written a chunk of the first one above (it starts with “Act I”). Round it out, then write Acts II and III. When you find yourself getting specific about something, step back like it’s kryptonite. Resist mightily the urge to go down side streets. Just lay out the bare, essential tale. That is your building framework. We’ll get to the finials and gargoyles soon enough.
This is a good assignment because in the end, those three paragraphs will form the core of your eventual pitch, query, and cover letter. That is why I always ask for them whenever someone wants to brainstorm with me. Know your story. It always comes back to the story.
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