There’s a very cute little meme on the Interwebs that is supposed to be a writer’s Mission Statement for the day. It goes like this:
1) Drink coffee.
2) Make stuff up.
Sounds good. Gives writers a chuckle. But it’s only partly true. Yes, we do make some stuff up. But I’m realizing as I work on my current novel project, that a great deal of what I do as a writer is handed to me whole by Life, the Universe, and Everything that serves as the foundation of this edifice that is a novel.
The truth about writing is that plot elements don’t come out of nowhere. Like a house being erected by a construction crew, they begin with a design that ultimately becomes the foundation. That foundation may be something the writer finds in the real world—a history, a scientific process, a relationship between individuals or groups, a dynamic. The writer may make up their own foundation, cobbled together from pieces of their life or the real world, or prior fiction, or dreams, or as part of a collaborative process. I’ve built books on all of those things.
As I craft each scene, I’m aware of the foundation that’s under my creative feet. As I erect the frame of the house—the characters, their relationships, their talents, fears, likes and dislikes, their agendas—I add substance to the house—framing, drywall, doors and windows, whole rooms. I add those elements to my subconscious understanding of the story and where it’s headed and, as I write, that substructure presents me with tools, frameworks, connections. In a sense, those foundational pieces keep me from having to make stuff up.
Let me ‘splain that. In the book I’m working on, the male protagonist is a survivor of childhood abuse. I know that, but the reader doesn’t. Because I know that, I write scenes in which he comes in contact with objects or people or situations that remind him of that abuse differently than I would if that childhood abuse wasn’t part of his foundational backstory. Every time I show him reacting to things and people and situations as a survivor, I add information to the framework of the story that is now available to my acquisitive subconscious when I write further scenes.
Some readers will pick up on that immediately, others will tumble to it later, and when I reveal all toward the end of the book, those readers will get an “aha!” moment. They will get payoff because the elements that I put into the later scenes weren’t made up on the spot; they were present in some form in the substrate of the story. I just had to pick up what was lying there and use it.
A lot of writing is subconscious interplay between what I know of the world and what I know of the characters. As I write each scene, my mind is working in the background at connecting what’s there in my memory with the goal I have for the scene and where I know the book as a whole needs to go. The plot elements I’ve already introduced—whether from reality or imagination—in turn, provide new plot elements. Voila! I don’t have to make something up out of thin air—the characters and story did it for me.
I try very hard to set each story up in such a way that readers will have aha!, I-knew-it!, and whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming! moments throughout. In part, this is a facet of anticipating what questions a reader might ask at a given point in the story (“Why did he react like that to seeing a black BMW?”) and writing key scenes that will answer them in some way.
This awareness of the foundation of your story-house is extremely important in fantasy, where a lot of real world assumptions may be false. You may be building your reader a tower stairway to the stars, but that tower has to have its base rooted in a context the reader can understand. Here, more than in any genre I’ve written, knowing and observing the rules of the universe you’ve established as part of your foundation and framework is critical to immersing your readers in the plot and the characters’ lives.
Fantasy readers are sophisticated readers—within every magical being and process and event, they expect to find internal logic they can follow, and emotional resonance they can relate to. As a writer, my job is to keep their head in the stars and their feet on the ground—even if that ground is ultimately many times removed from reality.