Monday, October 18, 2010

Give Yourself a "Themed Break" - Keep Your Story Going

Sometimes when I want to jumpstart my story, I take a theme that's an entire aside to what I'm working on, and write it with my characters in mind.

Years ago, around the time I first started my Willa story, one of my metaphysics teachers gave our class the homework of taking the Runic Journey and re-writing it from our own perspectives. The second "aett" (eight) of the runes consists of Hagal (hail; a disaster, destruction, testing) Nauthiz (need; obstacles, desperation, frustration, hardship and its overcoming) Isa (ice; a blockage, stagnation, reflection) Jera (year or harvest; change, things coming to fruition, time) Eihwaz (yew; initiation, confrontation of fears, a turning point, death-rebirth) Peorth (dice cup; rebirth, mystery, transformation) Algiz (elk; protection by or from the gods) Suwilo (sun; victory, positive energy, health, celebration).

The traditional teaching story goes as follows: The Prince is hunting with his men in the forest when a blizzard comes up. He is separated from his men and in desperate need finds a crack between rocks to shelter from the storm. As he rests there, the crack in the rocks ices over and he is entombed there. Time passes and the Prince confronts his fears of death. He undergoes a mystical transformation where he begins to understand his place in the Universe and how all his steps have led him to this point. The gods recognize his transformation and decide to protect him. They shine the sun onto the crack in where he is entombed, and it melts. Victorious and changed, he returns to his people as the wise King.

The story I wrote from this had my sixteen year old protagonist, Willa wandering in the forest with her younger brother and sister. She's been separated from her mom and the other adults in the story. The villains of the story are closing in on her and she needs to cross a river to get them back to safety. When her brother falls in, she undergoes a personal transformation and also manages to rescue him.

This rune-story ended up becoming an entire chapter in my book, and sat waiting in my files until I could get her into a position where I could use it. Until I was given that homework, I didn't know anything about this part of the story.

Now I had some goals for my writing:
Find a way to separate Willa and her brother and sister from the adults.
Obviously they need to end up in the woods.
The villains need to be aware of her general location - how do they accomplish this?
Her mom needs to be unaware of her location - why are Willa and the kids out of reach and why doesn't mom know where they are?

The rune story is just one example of a "themed break" that you might write about. I call it a themed break because I decide the backdrop or theme ahead of time, and because it gives me a break from trying to follow the plot that I've set so far.

The basic idea behind this exercise:

1) Find a theme that interests you. It doesn't have to have any relation to the story you're working on.
2) Put your protagonist in the setting or situation.
3) Don't worry about where in your story this will happen. Just go ahead and write.

You may never use this bit of writing. It might give you a revelation into your characters that is for you alone, but tells you something about them that you didn't know. Or you may find, as I did, that it grows into a future chapter and gives you a guideline to shape the plot of your story.

Some ideas for themed breaks:

A birthday party.
A camping trip.
Watching a candle burn down.
Dinner at a restaurant.
A phone call from another character.
A breakdown with a vehicle.
Grocery shopping.
A surprise (and perhaps strange or questionably appropriate) gift.
Digging a moat or ditch.

Another idea is to take a TV show or a chapter from a book you've read recently and boil it down to its very basic concepts. For example, here's the "boil down" from a recent episode of CSI:

Someone is attacked but survives. It is discovered the attacker has been watching the victim. Someone else is attacked by the same person and killed. Eventually it is discovered that the killer knew secrets about both victims and wants them to confess their sins.

Boiled down even more: Your protagonist knows someone's sins and wants them to confess OR someone else knows about your protagonist's sins and wants him/her to confess.

Here's another from a fairy tale, in this case "Stone Soup"

If you recall, in the story a group of travelers come into town. They're hungry but don't want to obviously beg. They tell the townsfolk that they have a magical stone which makes the best soup in the world. Each villager wants to try the soup and ends up "garnishing" it with a bit of turnip or a piece of meat until the whole town has put together soup, and they all share.

In essence, the scene in Tom Sawyer where he gets the neighborhood kids to help paint the fence is very similar.

The "boil down" would be that one character wants to accomplish something. They pretend it is important/exciting and trick or convince others to help.

So, pick a theme, throw your protagonist into the works and see what happens!

1 comment:

  1. That's a very interesting idea... thanks for that!