Writing fiction at length, at length

Some nights ago, at a party, I mentioned to a friend that I’d already written two long stories, one running 250 pages. He thought about it, and then asked how one could possibly write anything that long. I gave him an answer, well, several answers, but I wasn’t satisfied with them myself. And now that I’m writing The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge in weekly installments, I’ve been thinking about his question some more.

Ever have some grand idea or plan for what you were going to do, and then not have it work out the way you expected? Writing fiction is a lot like that. I’ve never started writing a long story without a good idea about what it was about and what its plot would be. Yet by the time I have finished the story, I’ve changed the theme and plot. What happened?

Life happened, life in detail. People lead complicated lives, with many conflicting demands made by many parties, and with unplanned events cropping up as well. So our grand plans go astray amidst the conflicts and details. My grand visions for my stories go astray for much the same reasons. Everything I write about a character helps define that character. I’m making the character into a real, if fictional, person. That person is very much more complicated than the character when I first imagined him or her. Often enough, that character doesn’t fit the old story line, or, better yet, suggests a more interesting story. To top it all off, sometimes inspiration strikes, seemingly at random, just like an unexpected event in one’s life.

Let me offer an example. I was writing a story earlier this year about a vile creature who was preying on people. To track the creature, I created a cop. And to help the cop, I gave him an informant. The informant was meant to be an incidental character, a mechanism to help the cop solve the case. In a moment of inspiration, I had the vile creature convince other people that the informant was the real criminal. It led to a scene in which the informant, all 4’10” of her, walks into a bar carrying a dagger in each hand, crying defiance. I loved the scene. It was melodramatic and even cinematic as I visualized it.

You won’t find that scene in the story any more.

Why not? I fell in love with the informant. Which is to say, I began wondering about what motivated her, how she came to be the type of person who might go walking into a bar with daggers drawn. The more I thought about her, the more useful she became in the story. To make her more useful, I had to tie her to other characters in the story. By the time I was finished, the story had changed. It was not about the vile creature, who had few meaningful interactions with any of the other characters. No, it was now about the main characters and the world they lived in. In a happy inspiration, I took an anomalous feature of the informant (not her height) and made it integral to the plot and even the nature of the world she lives in. It was a different story. And there was no scene of my informant walking into the bar carrying daggers. Indeed, she wasn’t even an informant any more. That role and that scene no longer fit who she had become.

I regret the loss of that scene. I still love it. But the story is the better for having evolved far beyond it.

What this demonstrates is that, for me at least, writing a long story is an iterative process. I start with some ideas, I write about them, and then I reflect on what I’ve written. That produces new ideas, which may necessitate changes in what I’ve written. The process doesn’t stop until I have produced a story that satisfies my sense of coherence: the world in which the story takes place makes sense, the characters make sense, and the story makes sense on its own and in how it connects to the world and its characters.

In writing The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge as a serial, I’m giving up the flexibility to revise the story along the way. So it is an experiment. I already know the rules of the world in which the story is set. And I’ve worked through a few false starts. So I think there’s a good chance the story will come off. We’ll see, starting Friday.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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4 Responses to Writing fiction at length, at length

  1. Andrew Lang says:

    Hi Brian. Thanks for directing me to this post. You might remember me from the Fan Fiction comments. From what I’ve noticed in this article, “Fan Fiction” and chapters 1 & 2 of the Dragon Lady, your stories deal mostly with characters and their overall development as the central theme. It would seem that this allows you to go in any direction you want to with them, since “you already know the rules of the world in which the story is set.” Assuming you know, how do readers respond to stories where character development isn’t a main emphasis in the plot line? You see, I’m more interested in setting and what happens there. Would readers see a story like this as hollow and devote of interest if the people, albeit fictional, are not there to develop it more? Basically, how dependent should I be on character development to make a compelling story? I’m curious to know your thoughts on this.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Hmmm, that’s a toughie.
      There is literature, particularly poetry, which relies much more on descriptive power than character development. And for that matter, there are genres of stories in which character development wasn’t or isn’t the main point.

      I’m looking at what’s in my nearest book cases, and the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett leap out at me. They’re detective stories. We don’t expect the characters to grow, we expect them to play a role in solving a puzzle. And these novels and stories are enjoyed by many today as retrospective accounts of life in Los Angeles in the 1920s-50s.

      In another genre, Iain M. Banks writes sci-fi space operas, and I swear he gets away sometimes with his prolific invention of exotic and alien life forms, societies, and ideas almost to the exclusion of character development in some stories.

      So, I’d say it’s possible. Depends on what else you bring to lure the reader in.

  2. Andrew Lang says:

    Oh, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I look forward to reading more about the Dragon Lady and her soul-stealing cane!

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