In a narrative about the title story in the collection of short stories, Everything's Eventual, 14 Dark Tales, Stephen King states his belief that stories are artifacts. They aren't made up things which writers create; rather, they are like relics in the dirt that writers dig up.
Like a studious little pupil, I used to spout off the same stuff. After all, it came from the Master Storyteller himself. It has to be true, right? Upon reflection, I wonder whether or not Mr. King literally believes the idea he espoused in his book. I no longer do. Stories are not artifacts we carefully exhume from the ground like bones from a grave. They are creations—events that start out as single-cell organisms and, over time, evolve into living, breathing, walking, talking and rationalizing beings. And I, for one, take full credit for everything I spawn into existence. Just like Dr. Frankenstein, though, I also acknowledge my responsibility for everything I create.
When it comes to writing stories, I am a creator (with a little “c”) who holds the lives of characters in the balance I choose. As I continue to shape and mold a story, the final product I eventually write may not be the exact story I started out with, but it is still my story.
Wait a minue, some may say. Isn't it the character's story? Aren't we just recording what happens to them? Only to a point. Fiction is not reality, and I am not a reporter. The characters started with me. The circumstances started with me. Ultimately, anything I write is a part of my imagination, and by extension part of me.
Here’s an example. Working on my novel (somewhere in the middle of Chapter 4 as I submit this posting), I came to a point where I decided to fill in some background. After launching into the chapter, my mind came up with more about my protagonist as I continued to poke and prod the storyline along. As a consequence, I found myself continually jumping back into previous chapters to plant the necessary seeds to produce fruit for my readers down the road.
There are plenty of tools available to convey a character’s background, I suppose: dialogue, narrative, maybe the discovery of someone’s entry in a diary. I chose in this case to use a flashback. Working with a flashback brings its own set of quirks. Since it’s written in the past tense, only the first sentence should invoke the past-perfect tense (i.e., “The day had begun as usual”); the rest should use the past tense. Also, the transitions into and out of the flashback must be smooth. A writer doesn’t want to jerk his reader around, confusing them about what is going on and when. But I digress. Working on Flashbacks might be the topic for another posting, but for now the issue is a writer developing more of the story as he works with it.
As I transitioned out of another flashback, I placed my character at the edge of a river. I thought I was going to move on; however, my mind, always leaping two and three steps ahead of me, screamed at me to stop. Take a breather and look around! The new scene generated ideas too good to casually brush aside like bread crumbs from the counter. As a result, I turned back to an earlier section of the story to set up some of the necessary details before I moved on with the plot.
And that, my friends, is the art of creating a story—shaping and molding it, evolving it into something more as each word, comma, and period is placed. The scene wasn’t there previously, waiting patiently to be discovered and carved out of the ground. I created it only because my mind wanted to pull back and churn out a little something else.
I am not an archeologist.
I am a writer (of fiction).