The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Origins Of A Story, or The Science Of Writing

Posted by BigWords on June 13, 2010

There have been a few writing related posts recently which have addressed various parts of the writing process, though the process of coming up with ideas is rarely – and justifiably – examined in great detail. It’s very difficult to describe the ways things (often completely unrelated) come together to make narrative. Being the type of person who likes to buck trends, I’ll lay out the way in which I came up with one of my current WIPs, for no other reason than I need to keep this blog active or else people will think I have died.

This is a kinda weird post, mainly because I’m attempting to marry two contradictory things together in one idea – the concept that writing (art) can have similar rules to physics (science) if you know what you are looking for. The belief that there is an elaborate set of hidden rules interspersed throughout stories only came about because I was looking for a way to describe how narrative is infused with a life of its’ own. It is, in a roundabout way, the partial answer to the stereotypical question “Where do ideas come from?” As a clear answer would be impossible, I rephrased the question in my head to “Are there analogies to science in writing?” The answer, surprisingly, was a resounding yes. It may sound too complex for words, and possibly contains too little of the former question for some, but it is an interesting thought process which led me here. Lets start with this:

The throwaway character at the beginning of “Dangerous” Calhoun (a superhero story) was meant as a homage to Indiana Jones, though through the Butterfly Effect became a much more important character. As a partial deconstruction of the main superhero tropes, I had set the world around the characters ten years after the outlawing of powered individuals from most of the US (with Nevada – for complicated reasons – the only safe haven left on US soil), so he had to be from elsewhere. Russia seemed a good place to have him come from, and yet, as I was writing, I realized there was an opportunity to tie him closer to the island where most of the action takes place. He was meant to die in the caves honeycombing Bali Ha’i, and through a combination of luck and inspiration I decided to have him eaten to death by tiny translucent spiders (which I had great trouble resisting having come from Mars as a tribute to David Bowie).

Only… It didn’t exactly work out as I had planned. If Calhoun, the hero, had to become involved, then I would need to tie the Russian into his back story. Having the missing Russian be an archeologist didn’t make sense once I tried tying it all in a nice bow. What connection could a superhero have with an archeologist? Much better that he goes in search of the means of his destruction – a xenobiologist. That, at least, gives him a karmic death. It also occurred to me that he needed a very low-level power, merely to remind people that I was playing with the stuff DC and Marvel present as great powers. Thus I decided that he could talk to animals – which makes his murder by the little white spiders all the more horrific, as people will hopefully come to the conclusion that he is listening to their thoughts all the while he is being devoured. By the time I had finished with him, the simple sketch of a Russian archeologist dying in the caves had transformed into a talking skeleton whose musculature and ‘skin’ had become the insects who had eaten him – a living skeleton to act as a guide for the hero to consult on his travels. This had an effect on my eventual choice for the villain as well, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

With the throwaway character now positioned where he can assist the story along better, I needed to explain the spiders. It made the caves too dangerous for my original idea of a standard supervillain’s lair, so by changing one tiny aspect of the story I had to substantially alter everything which came after. The spiders, though cool, were out of place. It made sense to have them somehow belong, so I needed to come up with an answer to the existence of the island. It was originally meant to have been created by a powered character as a “New Atlantis” – the floor of the sea risen by a combination of abilities to create a homeland for the people who were no longer welcome in America. If the spiders were meant to be there, they would need an existing ecosystem, which a newly created piece of land didn’t have. By substantially adding to one (very minor) character’s story, I had broken my story’s logic. The change from “new land from the sea” to “ancient uninhabitable island” came from that – the only characters tough enough to survive there being the very people whose powers made them too dangerous for US soil.

That brings up the other problem. If it’s a harsh environment, then my concept of a “mutant paradise” is screwed. There would be more chance of the dwellings being a shantytown, or ghetto, than anything approaching paradise, so the perception of the inhabitants as a major threat would be diminished enough to make the end – where nuclear missiles fall from the sky onto the island – completely implausible. It was only when I set about justifying the spiders that I realized they were, in every way possible, parasites. It wasn’t just that they had co-opted the body of the man, but their place in the cave had to have some sort of parasitic significance as well, otherwise they would merely be a plot point – and I dislike things cropping up simply for the sake of plot. If they are there, then they need to have a reason to be there. It wasn’t until I connected their actions to that of microbes on the human body that I got my answer – the island had to be “alive” in some way.

Ignoring how dumb a sentient island is for a moment – and I’m not going to even bother explaining Ego or Mogo to non-comic-readers – I needed something less stupid. Hence having the island be merely the shell of a Gamera-type cosmic horror. This would explain away the spiders in a more logical way, and move the end of the story away from man-made destruction to the birth of a greater threat. Having though that through, no longer was the idea of an intelligent, cultured villain whose super-powered apartheid goal relevant – I needed a more substantial menace to balance the increased danger of the island. A character whose life wouldn’t be threatened by the horrors lurking in the caves beneath the island meant that a more substantial power than strong suggestion was needed – and telepaths are overplayed in superhero fiction anyway. It soon became clear that there was a way to mock X-3‘s inclusion of Madrox at the same time as filling out the population of the island.

I had stated there were 1,696 powered individuals in existence (a nod to Soon I Will Be Invincible) after the Power Wars, so a substantial proportion of them would have ended up on the island, but that isn’t many people at all. A few small villages near me have more people that that, and they look so unimpressive as to be immediately forgettable. The changes I had made to the nature of the island – a “fix” for a minor character, remember – had meant that I needed to create another fix for the number of people on the island, a place too dangerous for normal people to live. Having dismissed most of the original text for reasons of credibility, I was now back to blank pages again. Thankfully I had the insight to watch the third X-Men film whilst in the middle of rewriting the scenes where Calhoun needed to face off against the villain, and a self-replicating enemy seemed too good to pass up.

Butchering an SF film script I wrote a few years ago, I took the enemy out of that story and dropped him onto Bali Ha’i as a more formidable foe – altering the basic Midwich Cuckoo variance to accommodate the new horror tone. Not only does the character replicate itself by touching others (overwriting people’s minds to act as an extended being), he now loses some functionality each time he does so. As the villain takes over more bodies, he loses a little more critical reasoning each time he does so – eventually becoming more animalistic as his consciousness is spread over thousands of individuals. It also acted as a neat analogy to the spiders earlier in the story. As an aside, it should be noted that for every minor alteration to the story, at least a dozen things had to be changed to fit the changes.

I’m not sure if this is an example of The Butterfly Effect, or if it comes under Newton’s third law. Whatever the science behind the rewriting process is, it is a pain in the ass when it is so complete as to turn one story into something else entirely.


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