Two common questions asked of writers are, “Where do your stories come from?” and, “Do you know the ending before you start?” For me, the answer to both is, “I don’t know.”
With all due respect to the reader, that’s not a facetious answer. In fact, if I’m citing his meaning correctly, the great storyteller Stephen King gives this answer in his small, excellent book about his working methods, On Writing. We all repeat from books the things we most agree with, but I think I am quoting King correctly. His stories come to him unsolicited and unrequested, while he’s reading a media headline, listening to a joke, or watching people in a strip-mall parking lot.
That’s how they start for me, too, with an odd fact, the memory of a mistake, or the transposing of a name and number. I don’t know from whence they come, but I do try my best not to scare them away—most of the time.
In addition, when I begin, I don’t know whether or not I know the ending. I have to wait for the characters and events to take me there. Once they have, I may recognize it as something I saw coming, or I may not. I think King and I agree on this: You can’t know for sure how it will end when you’ve never even met the story before.
So, now this story has planted itself on your computer, or on your writing pad, or in some theorizing chamber of your mind. Since it’s growing into a thing and taking over your life, how do you make it into a book, or at least a coherent story? My answer is, “Go with the flow.” Let your characters interact the way human beings (and sometimes animals) do, and let the story emerge from those actions, with all their harmony, disharmony, friction, conflict, recriminations, delusions, naïveté, and so on, that are part of the natural, if sometimes perverse, universe of human behavior.
Hang on. I’m getting ahead of myself on at least two counts, i.e. the characters and “the flow.” Characters first: whatever the seed was for this story, it should have at least one, preferably two, more preferably three characters in the first, or first few, scenes. If not, you have to get them in there. Then they need to show, at least in small, early ways, who they are, where they came from, what they’re doing in the scene, and (most important) what their motivations are. Then let them think, emote, speak, act, and interact the way human beings do and, from that, they should push the story ahead, i.e. make it flow. For me, this is better than the writer “pulling” the story along to some predetermined crisis and/or conclusion. Still, many people disagree with me.
Next, in regard to flow, a good story, the “right” story, should flow out of the characters. The setting (e.g. time, place, context) is usually established in the first scene, but the characters need to arrive on stage early and begin putting content and direction into the story (and plot) as soon as possible. It might be a “big” story that is already thumping along by the time we (through the characters) join it, or the story might originate with the key characters and early scenes, with their streams joining up into bigger streams, thus creating the primary “flow.”
There are methods but no rules for how characters do this (solo action, dialogue, interacting, first-person narration, and so on), but a writer wants to create a bond between the reader and at least one character as soon as possible. This connects the reader to the story and, if the writer is honest with the characters and lets them create a human story, then he/she keeps faith with the reader, and an honest story should emerge.
For these reasons, the answer to the two opening questions is, “I don’t know,” at least until the story is nearing its final act/scenes. By then, however, I better know enough about the characters and story to see how it’s going to end, and do that sensibly (and, I hope, artfully).
Somebody out there is saying, “This is why you’re not a famous novelist,” and maybe they’re right. A lot of “famous” fiction writers don’t write this way. They use a writer’s equivalent of story-boards, outlines, graphic analyses, and similar methods to organize their narratives and characters, then move from A to B to C, working toward a sensible and satisfying conclusion. It would be my (tongue-in-cheek) assessment that these writers have a higher sanity quotient than writers like me. Maybe Stephen King even writes this way, and I misinterpreted what he said in On Writing (but I don’t think so). Nonetheless, this isn’t how I do it. I write out of the mentality, instability, half-cocked delusions, emotional fringes, and motivated passions of the characters whom my stories go find, dig up, and make me write about.
The plot idea for The Brass Ring kicked around in my head for years: a change in Colombian law (genuine) banning importation of California wine; probably will be a crime novel. Yet I didn’t have a story, and I was doing other things. Then an idea came to me about a young man rebuilding his life, coming back from a major hurt. On a short trip to Spain I wrote a scene that opens there: Alex Corlett returning home to California after several years abroad, a time of extreme grief. He had ties to the wine business through his young wife, now deceased. In California, a millionaire villain, David Gilbért, enters the plot, generating conflict around which a story begins to form.
A second villain shows up, Wojtek Kudelka, captain of the Czaszki (a Polish freighter on which I spent two weeks crossing the Atlantic), along with his first mate, a cipher named Modrzewski. Corlett, solid and reliable but not a business genius or a superhero, needed a sidekick who might be both (but not a love interest), and found Samantha Bergmann, computer boffin and mountaineer. (Corlett’s love interest appears as Anita, a woman he knew before his marriage.)
From there, the story and plot “flowed.” Factual elements from drug-smuggling, money-laundering, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the wine business, and cargo shipping acted as channel-markers for the flow, but the story emerged from the characters, their emotional states, their conflicts, and their motivations (all of them chasing “the brass ring”).
In similar fashion, The China Contract, Beachtown Blues, and the other novels grew out of an early mix of characters, scenes, and a general sense of the type of story, or perhaps archetype, I was looking for. I accept that this is not how most fiction writers work. Maybe some day I’ll grow up.