The Wanderer’s Guild to Story Evolution
Kelly asked about “Cold Hearts,” so here’s an update that shows how I work from idea to story. Sort of. Not really there yet. (I know I talked about this already in the Questionable: Turning an Idea Into a Plot, so think of this as an example of that. Kinda.)
A long time ago, I wrote a story called “Hot Toy,” about a woman named Trudy who, on Christmas Eve, was searching for a toy that had been promised to her nephew Leroy by his no-good-rat-daddy who had run off with nanny. Trudy had a sister named Courtney who wasn’t handling her husband’s desertion well: she was drunk and ripping the arms off gingerbread men and dipping them into her gin. I hate gin, so I’m not sure why I picked that particular poison, but there was something about a woman who would do that that intrigued me. She was bitter, but she loved her son and she was trying to cope, but it was Christmas Eve, and she was going to have to explain to her little boy where Daddy was the next morning along with why there was no Major MacGuffin doll under the tree, so for one night she got drunk and made gingerbread. She was always there in the back of my head, and then one day she showed up talking in this jewelry store so I wrote it down.
What I got wasn’t a scene, of course, it was just chat. For me, it always starts with chat. But it was a first draft so that was okay. So there’s Courtney, some years after her divorce (anywhere from two to six), working in a jewelry store and being patronized by her boss, Jordan. She was still angry and frustrated, but not so much at her husband any more because she’d written him off, more at life in general. And there was Henry, the security guard, a grandpa kind of guy, and Laura Nyro singing Wedding Bell Blues on the store stereo. So Courtney’s talking to Henry, and he’s trying to support her and then a thief showed up, and I liked him, but he wasn’t a love interest and I wanted this to be a romance. Probably. So I sent in another guy. I thought he might be a cop, but that was boring and predictable, so I kept writing and he turned out to be another thief, and he worked as the love interest so that was more interesting. The conflict was still all over the place with way too much info dump, but hey, first draft. Then I wrote a scene with Courtney trapped in the vault with the thief/love interest (I kept giving him different names) and a scene with Courtney talking to her sister Trudy the next morning and then a bunch of text messages between Courtney and the love interest (still looking for a name). The problem is, none of that taken together as a plot was story. It was Stuff. Story is a protagonist and an antagonist in a life-or-death struggle, not some woman who doesn’t like her boss. Hell.
So I wandered off to work on one of the ten million other things I had to do.
Because here’s the thing: sometimes stories need to time to rise, like bread. So the story rises, and you work on it and punch it down, and then it rises again. There’s no point in forcing things, especially if you have other stuff to work on.
I kept thinking about Courtney. It was clear that there had to be an exterior plot with an exterior antagonist for her, either as a main plot or as a subplot to the romance plot, and there was Jordan, already a problem, so he could be an antagonist as long as he was actively out to get her. So, okay, he wasn’t just annoying her, he was persecuting her. But why? What did he want? And beyond that, what did Courtney want? To keep her job, but that’s a negative goal, she needed a positive goal. So I was a little bit farther along, I had a protagonist and an antagonist, but no conflict, so there was still no story there.
I wandered off again.
Then one day, I started to think about the vault. What’s in there? I was going with a pink diamond, but that was boring (although the half hour of research I did was fun). Then I read about Egg MacGuffins and thought, “I want to write one of those” and decided it was a Faberge egg with pink diamonds. And something else, a secret compartment that everybody wants into. Although if it’s in Jordan’s vault, he can look in the compartment any time he wants. He can’t steal it, but he can look in it. No, that wasn’t right.
I wandered off again.
The next time I wandered back, I looked at the story world. There’s Courtney, with Trudy and Nolan and Leroy in her family and Henry at work. And there’s Jordan and whoever owns the jewelry story, let’s call him Winthrop Wallace. Is Winthrop Wallace on Jordan’s side or just clueless? Who else is on Jordan’s side? He has to be powerful, more powerful than Courtney, so let’s give him Colin, the first thief; that means Jordan’s robbing his own store. Also, Jordan’s a dope, so that’s not going to work, a good story has a strong antagonist. That means Jordan’s a dupe or a minion, and the real antagonist is lurking behind the scenes. Powerful, rich, we don’t like him. I’d been reading about the Koch Brothers so I thought somebody like them, entitled, using their wealth to maintain their wealth, convinced they were the backbone of the country while they destroyed it. But two rich old white guys are no fun. How about two rich sisters with an agenda? The Cork Sisters. They’ve created a private foundation and they sit like spiders in the middle of it and play games with people’s lives while advancing their own ends. And the name of the foundation is the The Cork Board. I loved that. Didn’t know what to do with it.
Wandered off again.
Then as you know, I’ve been watching Leverage for the Sunday community analysis posts, which, not surprisingly, has made me want to do a community con story, that little guys against the powerful rich . . . oh, wait a minute. So the Cork Sisters are using Courtney–uh oh, that name similarity is not good, but I can’t change either so just hell–to achieve their nefarious ends. They want the Egg MacGuffin for a reason to be named later. It’s in Winthrop Wallace’s vault and he won’t sell it to them for a reason to be named later. So they have to steal it, but they have to cover their tracks, so they corrupt Jordan through an intermediary and send him Colin (where the hell did I get all these C names? that’s going to have to change) to rob the store, only to be foiled because Tenn shows up, for a reason to be named later. (Oh, yeah, I decided to name the love interest Tennyson because it appealed to me. Last name: Dempsey, because why not.)
I like all of that that. Maybe I can find a way to change Courtney’s name. Worry about that later. Bigger worry: That huge coincidence that Tenn shows up just as Colin’s robbing the place. I’ve already figured out that Winthrop Wallace is blackmailing Tenn to steal the Egg, although since Wallace owns it, I haven’t the faintest idea why. But that gives me a dynamic, Wallace vs. the Cork sisters, using Tenn vs. Colin to struggle for the Egg.
Yeah, but my protagonist is Courtney and I want to write a team caper.
So Jordan is going to steal the Egg and frame Courtney and she finds out about it. I have some ideas about how that happens, but they need work. Later for that, I’m on big picture stuff. Courtney needs a positive goal and a team to help her get it. She’s already got Henry, and she can co-opt Tenn. She can’t involve Trudy because Trudy’s married to the law. If I’m using Leverage as a rough model, I need a mastermind, a hacker, a thief, a grifter, and a hitter. And I have Courtney, Henry, and Tenn, who at least is a thief. Hell, that doesn’t work.
I wandered off again.
Then one night I was rewatching some old Blacklist episodes and saw the scene where unidentified bad guys are watching Liz’s house on multiple screens from a set-up across the street, and I thought, “That’s how Tenn knew Colin was robbing the store.” Wallace set him up to surveil the place because he knew the Cork Sisters would be sending somebody after the Egg MacGuffin. Which means that Tenn knows about Jordan and Henry and definitely Courtney because he’s been watching them. Probably no sound, though. Huh.
I wandered off again. Hey, I have a lot of stuff to do and this isn’t even under contract. Besides, I needed to think.
Then listening to the commentary on the Leverage DVDs, I started to think about the Courtney team. Mostly, what the hell Courtney would bring to the table. She’s a single mother who works in a jewelry store, not a lot there to help with a caper. But she must have been something before that. She and Trudy grew up with a super conventional, super critical father, and she’s the youngest, so she would have rebelled. Dropped out of college, no, didn’t go to college, wanted to be an actress, no training, ended up as a magician’s assistant. Learned sleight of hand, how to pick pockets, create illusions, then she met Prescott, that rat bastard, when Trudy brought him home, married him, had Leroy, got divorced. Tried to get her old job back, but the guy she worked with already had an assistant. How’d she end up in the jewelry store? That has to dovetail with the rest of the story, maybe be part of the story, so later for that. The whole thing creaks, but I can oil it up later.
So Courtney can do all of that which would put her in the thief category except we already have a thief. So maybe Tenn’s a lot more, maybe he’s the mastermind, the big picture guy, and Courtney’s the detail girl. That means I need a hitter, a hacker and a grifter. So I’ll give Henry a police record for conning people. That was easy. Hacker: the jewelry store needs more employees so there’s a college grad student working there part time at night. Madison. Madison knows computers. I don’t know what she’s a grad student in, but she can hack enough to serve their needs. Those four would be enough to turn the tables on Jordan, but then he’d call for back-up and the Cork Sisters would get tough. Fortunately, Our Team knows a hitter: Colin. Colin’s been double-crossed so Courtney talks him into joining them, probably at the midway point. There’s a Leverage team. Then later, Courtney can co-opt Trudy if they need more help, although Trudy’s a librarian, so unless they need research . . .
But that’s too many people on Courtney’s side. The Cork Sisters have Jordan, who’s worthless, and Colin, who’s been double-crossed. They need some muscle, so I’ll give them The Brothers, four goons with brains. And the Sisters would be watching Courtney, too, so I’ll give them Dan, who up to now in the free writing I’ve been doing, was just a blind date for Courtney; that’s good, now he’s got a night job in the plot. And the Sisters will need a secretary, so I’ll give them Harriet, a fluffly little blonde with no morals who’s willing to kill for them. That’ll even things up.
So the story starts when the Cork Sisters send Colin in to steal the Egg MacGuffin (why? I have no idea) and Courtney and Tenn foil the theft. The first turning point has to be when Jordan tries to frame Courtney and she escapes, but suspicion has been planted, so she pulls together the team to fight back. The mid turning point is when things get desperate and the Cork Sisters send in the Brothers, and the team drafts Colin as they go on the offensive to prove that Jordan and the Cork Sisters are thieves. The crisis is when they lose (Courtney gets arrested?) and they shift their plans and make a final assault and win, of course, this is a Crusie.
Yeah, that’s weak. Plus, I have Courtney, who still has a negative goal vs. Jordan, who’s a pawn of the Cork Sisters, with the real conflict taking place off the page. Unless I can somehow invest Courtney in Wallace’s fight against the Cork Sisters. Hmmm. Unfortunately, I have things I have to get done, so I’ll be wandering off now. Back later. Maybe. Must cogitate.
If at some point in the future, “Cold Hearts” actually becomes a published story, it’ll be interesting to see if any of this makes it to the final version. Because for me, writing a story is a constantly evolving process based on wandering around a lot, stealing from everything I see, and then changing everything and moving it around until it feels right, and then changing it some more as I write. And then changing what I’ve written.
I’d write more, but I have to catch up on the rest of my work.
She said, wandering off again.