For some writers, stories spring into being, fully-formed and populated with fascinating, well-rounded characters. The act of writing is little more than taking dictation from the Muse, with perhaps a bit of sprucing up here and there to ensure that the foreshadowing is properly balanced with the revelation and the metaphors sparkle.
We do not like these people.
Other writers (including yours truly) find the task of creating a story to be a daunting task. One reason is that there are so many moving parts. Do you start with the plot? Or do you invent a character and wait to see what he does? Or do you decide on a fabulous setting and then figure out who’s going to show up there and what they will do?
And this doesn’t even begin to address things like character arcs, imagery, Freytag’s pyramid, and a host of other terms that are enough to send the beginning writer fleeing back to the relative safety of other people’s already-written books—which are, unfortunately, the very thing that first led him to think he might be able to write.
For the beginning writer who is overwhelmed by the question of where to start—or the experienced writer who needs to prime the pump—I offer the approach which has worked for me:
The Lemon Meringue Pie Approach to Writing Fiction
Making a lemon meringue pie, step by step
Suppose you have never baked in your life, but you love lemon meringue pie. One day, you decide one day that you want to learn to make it yourself. You run a quick internet search and discover that there are dozens of recipes available. You read through a few (maybe focusing on the ones labeled “easy” and “foolproof”), and you discover that they all share certain essential elements: pie crust, lemon filling, and meringue.
At this point, you have a decision to make. You can try to master all of these pieces right now, an experience nearly guaranteed to take an inordinate amount of time and leave you in tears of frustrations amid a kitchen full of messy mixing bowls and spilled flour. Or you can proceed in a slower, more methodical fashion that allows you room to experiment and learn.
Being a wise person, you choose the second approach. You resist the siren call of pure originality. Instead, you buy the crust and the filling, and you concentrate on learning how to make a meringue. You figure out how to separate eggs properly. You experiment until you discover the best temperature for whipping the egg whites. You research articles about how to make a meringue that doesn’t weep.
When you feel comfortable with your meringue, it’s time to learn how to make the filling. You assess whether you can taste the difference between fresh lemon juice and bottled. You evaluate whether you like the version with sweetened condensed milk better than the one with butter. You play with the number of egg yolks you prefer.
Once you’ve learned how to make the meringue and the filling, you move on to the pie crust. Again, recipes abound and debates rage. Lard, butter, oil, shortening? Some combination of the four? Is a pastry blender necessary, or should you just use knives to cut whatever fat you’re using? What about freezing the butter or lard and then grating it into the flour? How much should you handle the crust? And on and on, until the kitchen is ankle-deep in flour and you want to kick the person who invented the phrase, “easy as pie.”
In the end, though, with all this experimentation and learning and failing and trying again, you will produce a succession of lemon meringue pies, each a little better than the one before. Because you took the time to master one step before moving on to the next, you can know that even if your crust isn’t terrific this time, your filling is rich and smooth, and your meringue is airy.
The same is true of writing stories. Work your craft one step at a time. Master one aspect before attempting the next.
“But wait!” you cry out. “I can’t create just part of a story! There’s no story equivalent of a store-bought pie crust!”
Actually, there is.
Writing a story, step by step
These days, one of the most disparaged genres is fan fiction. The mere mention of it is enough to send many people running (often with good reason). But hear me out: it’s an excellent tool for learning the craft of writing.
Remember the three essentials to creating a story: plot, character, and setting. Fan fiction allows you to borrow the character and setting—rather like buying the pie crust and lemon filling—while you learn how to handle a plot. The world already exists; someone has already dreamed up the characters and their home, their town, their relationships. That’s a lot of heavy lifting the beginning writer doesn’t have to do.
It helps to work with a source with several well-defined characters. In high school, I fell in love with Bonanza. The Cartwrights and their ways of acting and interacting fired my imagination. The setting—the Ponderosa and Virginia City—was already established, so I didn’t have to create it. Instead, I spent hours writing stories that were, in essence, new episodes that found their genesis in David Dortort’s world.
In my forties, after a quarter of a century away from fiction, I rediscovered Bonanza fan fiction. When I was in my teens, I had no idea other people wrote this kind of thing; now, there were a number of websites devoted to it. Tentatively, I waded into the library of a now-defunct website devoted to Bonanza. Some stories were frankly unimpressive, but others were as well-written as any book on my shelf. One excellent writer who called herself dbird had written a “what happened instead” series: she used the Bonanza characters and various facts from the series, but by adding one non-canon element, she had created an entirely new story.
This, I thought, has possibilities.
The more I read dbird’s stories, the more I remembered how much I’d enjoyed writing the same kind of stories. Finally, one rainy February day, I plunked myself on the sofa with my laptop, conjured up the world of the Cartwrights, and thought, “What if. . . ?”
Within the framework of that setting and those characters, I discovered the freedom to experiment with other aspects of writing. It was rather like writing a sonnet: you have to adhere to the rhyme scheme and meter, but within those limits, you can say anything you want. You can write about love, about horror, or about macaroni and cheese. Whatever topic appeals.
So I tried out different plot styles, different voices, different approaches. Supported by an enthusiastic and generous community of readers, I pushed against the edges of the standard Bonanza-style story. Spared the burden of creating an entire world, I relished the privilege of trying out frameworks and images. Dbird and I even wrote several stories together, which was an education of its own. In addition, since the script writers often showed little interest in accuracy in such matters as history or medicine, many fan fiction writers (myself included) have taken advantage of that same freedom, which affords more opportunities for drama without the constrictions of reality.
Having an established setting also allowed me to play with characters. Bonanza is infamous for the ill fates suffered by virtually any woman who falls in love with a Cartwright: if they don’t leave, they die. (The patriarch, Ben, was widowed three times.) Creating brand-new love interests for these perpetually single men allowed me not only to explore the relationships between the women and their chosen Cartwright (and his family), but also to experiment with the effects of some of these relationships. One of my favorite original characters was inspired by a friend’s efforts to rid himself of an ex-girlfriend who refused to believe their relationship was over. In my story, this woman not only exhibited sinister tendencies, but she afforded me an excellent opportunity to learn about writing an unreliable narrator.
Having major characters and their environs soundly in place also enabled me to undertake the challenge of creating a plausible villain. With the possible exception of Iago, people don’t generally do things simply to be evil. They have reasons, and those reasons make sense to them. Camilla, the unreliable narrator, acted as she did because she refused to accept that Joe had dumped her for Sarah Jane. Because I already knew how Joe and the rest of the family would think and act in particular circumstances—those characters were solidly in place—I was free to focus on Camilla and how her delusion affected her acts as well as those of people around her.
Once you’re comfortable with plot and character, you can move on to what some find the most challenging part: setting. To be clear, I’m using “setting” to mean much more than simply the geographical location of the story. To me, “setting” means building the entire world these characters inhabit. You might use a real place, such as the role of Manhattan, which has been called the “fifth lady” in the four-woman ensemble, “Sex and the City,” or you might create an entirely fictional world, such as Narnia. Jan Karon created not only a locale, but an entire community of quirky beloved characters in her Mitford series. And you can do this, too, because you’ve already learned how to create characters and tell their stories.
Some might argue that the setting comes first, because people are the product of their worlds and plots grow out of what those people do. Maybe, maybe not. My point is simply that once you know how to manage all three things, you can work with them in whatever order pleases you.
Some final thoughts
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Seriously? This stuff is fine for people who lack the creativity and discipline to create their own characters and settings and plots, but I want to be a serious writer.”
That’s a worthy goal, and I wish you well. But before you write off the notion of working from someone else’s starting place, allow me to mention a couple of authors who’ve done precisely that.
Maybe you’ve heard of a fellow named Gregory Maguire. He’s made a career out of taking fairy tales and fantasies and turning them on their heads. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is the retelling of the Cinderella story from the perspective of one of the stepsisters. Mirror, Mirror recounts the story of Snow White. (For what it’s worth, neither of these stories originated with Disney.) And then there’s that little tale Maguire spun when he shifted the focus of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to another character:
Or maybe you’re familiar with author Geraldine Brooks. Her novel, March, tells the story of the father from Little Women. (March also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in case you were wondering.) Her latest book, The Secret Chord, reimagines events from the life of King David.
The list goes on and on: Jon Clinch’s Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Hamlet); John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (Hamlet); the film and stage versions of West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet); Clueless (Emma); Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice).
Obviously, these are not fledgling authors incapable of creating their own characters or worlds or plots. To the contrary, even Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as having borrowed from other sources. These are talented, experienced writers and creators who looked at another work and saw something the rest of us never noticed, and they thought, “What if . . . ?” What if we followed the March girls’ father on his journey? What if the Wicked Witch of the West had a name and a life before Dorothy showed up? What if Jane Austen’s heroines were in modern-day Beverly Hills or London?
As long as you don’t violate copyright laws (an incredibly complex topic that is far beyond the scope of this post), there’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration in other works, which may include using them as tools as you learn to navigate the weird and wonderful world of writing fiction.
After all, everybody who creates anything has to begin somewhere.