Grappling with the Story – Journey vs. Destination

Writing is a strange beast.  It doesn’t have any certain form, deriving its shape from the author and the nature of the specific story.  I’m not talking about grammar or scene and structure or the concept of acts or anything like that.  I’m talking about the soul of a story.  The stories we tell, or try to tell, are driven by who we are.  Our capacities are limited by our ability to perceive the world around us and our ability to perceive ourselves.  Why does the world function the way it does (be that our real world or a fantastical one)?  Why do people behave the way they do?  What is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?  What makes a person ‘good’ or ‘evil’?  How are we sculpted by the choices we make… and the choices that others make?

I imagine our success as authors, aside from marketing and all that ilk, is driven in large part by our ability to capture those truths in a way that they are perceived, or at least can be comprehended, by our audience.  If we believe that the world behaves in a contrary way to our readers, we will lose them unless we can find a way to bridge that gap.

Yet that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Everyone, whether they write or not and even whether they realize it or not, asks questions like these.  Thus it isn’t simply a matter of asking the questions, but the transfer of our interpretations into a story that becomes a challenge.  This, of course, isn’t even considering the need to make the story understandable, engaging, and interesting to the reader.  The deepest and most enlightening ideas written into a novel that is dull and boring will cause it to fail in an entirely different way.

Through all this, the story becomes a living thing in its own right.  It is something to be wrestled with.  It doesn’t simply pour out from mind to page (at least for me).  In this, lies the heart of my struggle with writing.  Looking back with the foggy eyes of contentment, it is easier for me to forget the wrestling that brought “Tears from Iron” to life, though I know that frustrations and dark moments of doubt were frequently there.  I’d written a quarter of the book before I scratched it all to start over again from a completely different perspective.  The setting remained the same, as did the core theme and a few of the characters, but the protagonist (though he bore the same name) was completely different.

Then, when I’d finished the book in its rawest form, it was comparable to one of Belarrin’s iron blooms.  It was full of imperfections that had to be beaten out under the arduous blows of a writer’s hammer.  I’m not sure how to even describe that transformation other than to say that what I’d initially created was but a crude comparison to what it eventually became, particularly concerning the climax and resolution.

The upcoming sequel, “A Whisper in the Sand” was a monster of a different sort.  Its setting encompassed a much larger area of the world with a whole new set of problems.  I won’t go into detail here because I don’t want to spoil anything.  Suffice it to say, many of the mechanisms I’d used in “Tears from Iron” simply didn’t work in “Whispers.”  Though I liked them, they wouldn’t transfer.  I had to let them go and allow the story to be what it was.

Now I’m in the midst of my struggles with my third book.  While “Tears from Iron” essentially stands alone, “A Whisper in the Sand” and its sequel are tied much more closely together.  The time lapse from “Tears” to “Whispers” is a bit over five centuries, but only about a week passes between the second and third books.  They each have their own integral arcs that fully resolve, but there is a broader single story that spans the two novels in a way that is completely absent in “Tears.”

This brings its own challenge, especially in character development.  By the end of “Whispers”, the protagonist has achieved his benchmark in character development.  So where do you go from there?  I wasn’t about to descend to cheap parlor tricks and have him face again all the same challenges as before.  That’s a betrayal of trust with the reader.  No, the protagonist must continue to grow.  I’m leaving things intentionally vague here to avoid giving anything away.  But in essence, I had the physical progression of the story planned out.  I knew what events would happen and approximately in what sequence, but I was missing the most important thing… how does the protagonist process it?  To use “Tears from Iron” as an example, whether Belarrin exists or not, the war between the Syraestari Empire and the Scions will continue with various moves and countermoves.  The political squabbles between the empress and her high lords will persist, as will the challenge of “empire” versus “refuge.”  Belarrin existed within that medium, making choices and growing as a character which had decisive impact on him. 

Perhaps it might help to use another story as an example.  Let’s consider Luke Skywalker and Star Wars.  What if Luke hated his aunt and uncle and, rather than being somewhat bumbling, was confident and self-assured.  The story would still have followed the same large patterns from Moss Eisley to the rescue on the Death Star to the Death Star’s ultimate destruction.  The broad plot points could remain largely unchanged.  What changes is how the world relates to him.  The droids, Leia, and Han would have all viewed him differently and their interactions might have had marked changes.  Where all those interactions come to the head is at the climax and resolution.  Perhaps it only manifests in themes, but it might also mean that he couldn’t “let go of his feelings” enough to successfully blow up the Death Star, or perhaps he alienated Han so the Millennium Falcon never came to the rescue.

The key, whether we’re talking Belarrin, Luke, or any other protagonist is who they grow to become at the conclusion.  It is that concept that I’ve been struggling with in my third book.

With this in mind, I began writing the sequel to “Whispers” in search of that character.  It wasn’t until about 60,000 words in that I finally found it.  It took months of exploration but I was finally finding what I was looking for.

This method isn’t efficient and I don’t know that I can recommend it, but that’s the way story can be sometimes.  After all, it did mean I had to start over and reexplore everything I’d already written.  Yet if I’d neglected that character arc, I may still have achieved an exciting adventure full of challenges and suspense, but it would be missing its soul.  With “Tears” and with “Whispers”, I had these ideas from the outset and so I wrestled through other challenges.  Not this time.  Looking back, I don’t know that there was any other way for me to have undertaken the project.  As they say, the journey is often as important as the destination.  Indeed, until I walked this challenging road, I couldn’t even perceive what that destination was.