Iíve noticed in several books on writingóand in my own workóthat you donít need to know where the story will end up when you start out writing fiction. I donít mean that you donít need any sort of clue at all, of course, but you donít necessarily need the tight planning of an outline that non-fiction requires.
I tried it both ways. After all, Iím a huge advocate of outlining. So I had this plot idea about what happened to Abel after he died. I mean, he was the first human to die, according to Judeo-Christian mythology, right? So what if God hadnít planned the whole heaven/hell thing out and here Abel goes off into this altered state and thereís really nothing much happening?
First, I did a bunch of research about the Bible story. There wasnít really that much; after Cain kills Abel, thereís a little discussion about Cainís punishment, but no mention of how the rest of the humans came along to populate the earth. (My options were that Cain must have had other siblings, God created a woman for Cain, or my personal favorite, God created the Jones family to prevent incest.) Thereís no mention of what happened to Abelís body and soul, or really how Adam and Eve took all this. So I didnít have to tread cautiously about other peopleís ideas. Iíd only have to try not to be offensive.
My first thought was that Abel would have a conversation with God and together they would plan something interesting. The more I plotted and planned, the longer the story got in my outline. Iíd thought it would either be a very short story or a novelónothing in betweenóbut the novel outline was getting really cumbersome. I mean, itís only two characters (God and Abel) for the longest time, until someone else dies of old age, accident, or murder. The Bible doesnít really cover that, so I had free rein.
Then my problem was having only two characters with no place to be. All that could really happen was a series of exchanges about what life after death would be like and maybe some experimentation in that regard. Could I really keep that interesting past the third incarnation or so?
I really didnít think I could keep it interesting no matter how many innovative scenarios I came up with, and I didnít think a whole lot of narration could get me to the second half of the novel when the afterlife starts getting populated. So I started thinking about this as a short story. Iíd look at several of the options and see which struck my fancy.
I sat with the idea of being in paradise alone for a while, but I was still stuck with only two characters. So I gave Abel something to do. He could create critters, and if God liked them, theyíd end up on earth. I had a fairly entertaining justification for duck-billed platypus, but again, you can only do that for so long without tiring the readers. Next I sat with God creating other people expressly for the purpose of keeping Abel company, but they all got grumpy about never having had a chance to live, blamed it all on Abel, and walked out of the story.
Then I tried populating earth and killing off a few people. The Bible expressly says that Cain lived a really long time, but itís not clear how long Adam and Eve lived. First I tried bringing Adam and Eve to Abel and letting them all hang out together for a while, but Adam and Eve kept talking about Cain and their old neighbors, and Abel felt criticized and left out. I brought a few other people up, but they kept getting on each otherís nerves.
I spent months thinking about this and outlining and going down different roads to see where the story ended up. Nothing was any good. This was ridiculous. Why couldnít I get it going? I decided to switch gears.
I started by disassembling a few short stories that Iíd written and a few that other people had written. When I itemized their contents, I found that they all had characters, a sense of place, a crisis of some sort (good or bad), and some sense of what would happen after the story ended. I had two characters, a place that kept morphing, a crisis, and no sense of what would happen after the story ended.
Hmm. When I looked at my two characters, I decided that I could either tell the story from Abelís point of view or I could tell it from another personís point of view. That left God andÖno one. Aha! I hadnít really thought about narration from an uninvolved spectator before. (An omniscient narrator seemed too circular, so I didn't play with that for long.)
Now that I wasnít looking at making my readers interact with Abel, everything opened up. I could set the story in ancient times, centuries later, or modern times. My narrating character could talk to Abel, God, or any other personóthe narrator could even talk to animals and trees and rocks and so forth, and get responses, if I wanted. All I had to do was get a good point of view going and the plot would fall into place.
My first thought was to have Cain narrate, but the more I thought about how he would tell the tale, the more his attitude got me down. So I trolled around for other people who could tell his story; it could be Eve, God, the neighborís kid, a dogójust about anyone. You see, once I decided on the personality of the narrator, the rest would be a slam dunk.
Thatís where the point of view really becomes important. Have you ever had both parties tell you (separately) about some battle they had? Each describes an angle on the events and attitudes of their opponent based on making themselves look like the injured party. Thatís what I mean by point of view. Each narrator puts a certain spin on the story.
Letís say I choose to have Eve tell the story. Perhaps she never forgave Cain, or more probably, after enough years passed, she had a relationship with Cain that got past his fratricide. No matter how you look at it, Eve knew Cain much longer than she knew Abel. She might be stiff and uncomfortable around Abel, who, after all, wonít have changed in all the intervening years.
Or the story could be told by God; perhaps heís annoyed or amused by Abelís poking around in creating an afterlife. There were lots of fun ways to take the plot as told by God, but the risk of offending people was high, so I didnít try very hard with that angle.
Next I looked at the people Abel might have known or who would have known his family. These people seemed to want to chat about themselves too much to keep the plot focused, so one after the other, I discarded them. The tale as told by a rock was fun, but it became more interesting to tell the worldís history as seen by a rock than to tell about Abel, which was where Iíd started, after all.
Finally, I settled on a narrator who had no vested interest in the story. Suddenly, I could tell the tale with humor and a little surprise. Iím not going to tell you exactly how I resolved the problem because Iím hoping to sell the story to a literary magazine and I donít want to steal my own thunder. (Iíll let you know if it shows up in print somewhere, but itís still in draft form at the moment.)
object of all this exploration is to show you how a simple story changes with the narrator and that the narrator provides the point
of view or attitude toward the basic plot. Before settling on a narrator, many writers try telling their stories from different perspectives,
just to see if the plot changes or if they have all the right characters in place. In the case of my own short story, I couldnít begin
to write it down until I had the narrator chosen. Once Iíd settled on the narrator, the story poured out easily.