Friday, December 9, 2011

The Archaeology of Storytelling

by Scott Rhoades

I recently read a quote from Stephen King in which he compares writing to walking through a desert and finding a chimney sticking out of the sand. That stuck in my mind because I've been going through that experience myself lately.

I was reading a pretty good book last week, when something in the story sparked an idea for a story of my own. That happens fairly frequently. Sometimes it's something I'm reading, but it might also be a place I'm visiting, a person I see, or any of several other triggers. The entire world is that desert King mentions, and when my eyes are open, I often stumble upon chimneys.

But then what? I tend to get more sparks of ideas than I could possibly have time to write. What happens once I discover the chimney, or some other artifact? That's when a writer has something in common with an archaeologist.

First, we have to examine the artifact and determine whether it's worth exploring. That often means fighting an inner critic who automatically tries to discredit the new find as not being worthwhile. That's like our archaeologist trying to get funding for a dig. It's not fun, but it's necessary. It can also be hard. Why should we invest time and energy on this particular dig when there's so much out there? And what makes us think we're the write person for this exploration anyway?

Once we fight that battle, things get more interesting. First, we have to look closely at the artifact (a whole story idea, maybe, but more likely a brief glimpse at a character, a snippet of conversation, a bit of setting, or something even less material). How can this little bit of almost nothing turn into a story. We get out our picks and brooms and start working away at the layers.

Can we find the motivation for our new character? Other necessary characters? Can we work him into an interesting story? What does he want and who or what stands in his way? Layer by layer we try to find something significant in that little bit of brick we found sticking out of the sand. And all of this is before we've even started writing.

If there's enough there, we can start writing and see what we find as we unravel more and more of this hidden civilization.

I'm exploring an idea right now. I don't know yet whether I'll actually start writing something new. I know from past experience that most ideas don't pan out. And often, those that do end up having little or nothing to do with that original spark. The manuscript I'm shopping around now is nothing at all like it was when I had that first bit of an idea. Everything is different--the setting, the characters, the plot.

That chimney in the sand might turn out to be the remains of a lonely cabin, or a house, or a factory, or a city, or a movie set, or a discarded piece of masonry that somebody dumped in the desert, with no significance whatsoever. But you'll never know unless you study it and do a little work.


Julie Daines said...

But don't you think that would make an awesome story?! If someone WAS walking through the desert and they really did find a chimney buried in the sand!

Wait a minute... Is that your new story?...

Scott said...

That would be an awesome story spark, wouldn't it? Or maybe not a desert. Maybe you were walking on the moon or Mars. Or, what if you're in a deep sea submarine exploring a spot in the ocean far from land?