In my post yesterday, I discussed how to make your short stories short. Soon after posting, I ran across this contest. I decided to put my new knowledge to the test and create a story based on the following prompts:
- The frozen north
- A people in need
- A man in white
- A rune embroidered cloak
As I wrote, it struck me how interesting the creative process is. I thought I’d capture as much of it as I could for a blog post.
The first thing that struck me from the prompts was the image of a man dressed all in white emerging from a winter storm. That didn’t work for my opening line, however, because I knew that this man was not going to be my protagonist.
That led me to someone observing the figure. A name popped into my mind: Clark.
My theory on names is simple: I hate naming characters, perhaps because I give too much importance to them. I hate made up names like Grok and completely abhor made up monikers that no one can pronounce like Fjosljthoa. Simple names that you’ve possibly heard of make up my sweet spot. On the other hand, I try to stray from sounding too modern in a fantasy piece.
I’ll often plug in a placeholder name until I get to know the character. I like for the name to reflect the personality, and, at the start of the piece, I know absolutely nothing about him. Moral of the story, I doubt homedude ends up staying named “Clark,” but I need to call him something for now.
Clark balanced atop the icy precipice.
My three inclinations regarding opening lines:
- Mention the character’s name immediately.
- Have something happen to the character.
- Put the first line by itself in a paragraph.
Check. Check. And Check.
Typically, a better verb than “balanced” could be found, but I love the icy precipice. It conjures up an image of him being in danger. This line also tells me things about the character. For one, he’s probably somewhat athletic if he’s balancing atop an icy precipice. Second, it’s probable he could have found a less dangerous perch, meaning he’s not risk averse. Athletic and foolhardy. Sounds like a teenage boy – my kind of character.
To continue with my story, I needed to know two things:
- Why is Clark balanced atop the icy precipice?
- How does Clark feel about being balanced atop the icy precipice?
The snow swirled around him as he stared over the lifeless tundra. What an incredible waste of time. I can’t see twenty feet in front of me in this blizzard, and nothing ever happens here anyway.
Part of him recoiled at the ungratefulness of the thought. Most young men considered the Watch a high honor, a sign of entering adulthood, a way to serve the village. His mind drifted to a hot fire and sharing a mulled wine with a warm body. Sue.
He closed his eyes. She hadn’t resisted his advances too strenuously last night. Maybe he could relieve her of some of her clothes next time despite the cold. If not, Mary had been eying him lately.
Now, I’m starting to get somewhere, to get a sense for who this guy is and what’s going on. He’s selfish and insolent. His only slight saving grace is that he has the wherewithal to be chagrined about being selfish and insolent.
Believe it or not, those three paragraphs set the entire story. We know the protagonist is coming of age and a part of a community. It’s the perfect start to a hero’s journey, and, since we’re starting at the first stage of that honored format, our short story should focus on his decision to take on a quest. We’ve also established the change we need to see in him – going from selfish to selfless.
Sighing, he turned his gaze to the horizon. At the base of his post, a figure in white emerged from the driving storm. Clark started, and his leg slipped.
He reached frantically for any firm hand or foot hold. His body leaned over a fifty-foot incline littered with jagged rocks. Grasping at the ground, he found only piles of snow. He shut his eyes.
This is not going to be fun.
The world lurched as he tumbled forward.
Number one rule of writing action: put your protagonist in danger. Check.
Now that I’ve given a brief taste of the Ordinary World, I need a Call to Adventure, so next up is to use the resolution of the sticky situation to provide a reason for him to leave his village. I’ve got some good ideas how to do that, but you’ll just have to wait to read the story to find out what those are.
What do you think so far? Are you digging it?
A quick note on the hero’s journey: a standard part is the Denial of the Call. This portion, usually, is my least favorite. In Power of the Mages, I skipped it entirely. Why can’t a hero desire the adventure and the quest? To me, having the protagonist always not want to go gets old. This story, however, is all about the protagonist changing from a person who would not take on the important mission out of selfishness into someone who would risk his life to do so.
I’ll post the finished product on this blog after the contest judging is over.