Last week we began a story, or rather I began it with a snatch of conversation overheard at breakfast.
Have you been listening for interesting bits of conversation ever since? Have you begun noticing anything that’s odd in your everyday interactions? Has a little voice whispered in your ear, “that would make a good novel?”
Have you asked yourself the writer’s most reliable plotting question: “What if?”
Fiction writers don’t look for real life situations they can cut and paste into a novel. We look for ideas, for germs of ideas, that we can twist and turn and kick around the block. We ask “what if” and then the fun begins.
Our fun continues this week, and today I’m going to make you work. My two year old grandson has learned to hold out his hand, palm up as he curls and uncurls his fingers and says “come on.” So picture me doing likewise.
Come with me, folks. Today let’s plot together.
The germ of our idea is this: Tyler Ferguson, a successful surgeon, discovers that a child who he tried and failed to save in the operating room was actually his son from a long ago affair. Now he has to cope with grief over the death of a child he didn’t know existed, his wife’s reaction to the affair, and his children’s disillusionment with their perfect father.
What’s wrong with this picture?
I’ve been thinking about this idea since last week, letting it grow slowly. As I’ve said, I’ll never write this book, and explained my reasons, but still, if I changed my mind, what else would I change?
I’ve come to the conclusion that as proposed so far, the story would never work. Here are the most important reasons:
- Not only is a child’s death just too sad and grisly to contemplate (as I pointed out last week) but by removing the child before the book begins, we’ve removed the lion’s share of tension. The story now revolves almost entirely around the guilt and grief of one survivor, Tyler, and let’s face it, does that sound entertaining to you?
- The story, as explained so far, is all about Tyler. What about the other people who are involved? What’s their story and how do they relate?
- Why do we care how Tyler feels about his son’s death? At some point he had an affair but didn’t care enough to follow up and be sure all was well when he left the boy’s mother. By all accounts, in the years afterward his life has been glorious. Tyler hardly seems like someone we’ll empathize with.
And so we move forward.
Of course at no point so far have we elaborated on why Tyler Ferguson didn’t know he had a son. By assuming he didn’t, and that the affair took place a long time ago, we have to ask ourselves why the boy’s mother didn’t tell him. Was she incredibly noble? Was he such a lousy catch she didn’t want him in her life?
Let’s stop now and give our characters names to make this easier:
- Jan Wilmington, the woman Tyler had an affair with
- Rory Wilmington, Tyler’s son
- Marilyn Ferguson, Tyler’s wife
Did Tyler’s affair with Jan happen while he was married? Or was it an affair he had before he even met Marilyn? What happened between Tyler and Jan that ended the relationship? Was their break-up mutually satisfactory? Was their break-up due to circumstances they couldn’t control?
When plotting a story we ask ourselves a million questions. Here’s an image that might help. Imagine yourself lost in the woods with multiple paths diverging from the spot where you’re standing. As you choose and follow one path, more paths diverge, then more. Suddenly you come to a mountain that’s too high to climb or a patch of quicksand. If you’re smart and you’ve dropped bread crumbs along the way, you can backtrack and try a different path. Or you can keep going and see if you can heroically overcome the worst obstacles.
I just pointed out some possible paths through our story. To end today’s post, let’s vote on a few routes we might take with the most important questions/plot points, using multiple choice answers to make it easier. Each answer will take us in a different direction, and a million more possibilities will appear. But let’s start the process, which will be so much more fun for me if you do the hard work.
Let’s now assume that Rory is alive and recovering slowly after nearly dying post-surgery. The truth about his parentage came out when Jan thought she was going to lose him. Rory’s now an important character, and his relationship with Tyler will give us more hills and valleys to traverse. I believe his recovery seriously raises the stakes. Let me know if you disagree.
We’ll move forward next week using the most popular answers. If you have a different idea, in addition to the choices I’m about to give you, by all means, tell us. We might throw out all the votes and use it.
Tell us your thoughts by commenting, and I’ll keep track.
- Tyler and Jan’s affair:
- Tyler and Jan had a casual affair that meant little to either of them. Tyler then met Marilyn and his breakup with Jan was quick and painless for both of them.
- Tyler and Jan were both married to other people, but having marital problems. Their affair was over almost as soon as it began because both wanted their marriages to continue. They separated, Jan discovered she was pregnant, and while she knew the baby was Tyler’s, she didn’t tell anyone because her reconciliation with her husband would end forever.
- Tyler kept his marriage secret from Jan during the affair. Once she found out, she was so furious, she kept her pregnancy secret to get even with him. Jan knew Tyler, who was childless, badly wanted a son.
- Tyler and Jan had an affair in college, then he moved away to start medical school where he met Marilyn. Before Jan could tell him she was pregnant, he wrote her a Dear Jan letter (ouch) telling him he’d fallen in love with someone else. She was too proud to tell him the truth.
- Tyler’s home life:
- Tyler and Marilyn get along, but he’s gone so much they have little in common. Sometimes he wishes he was married to someone (like Jan?) who he really enjoyed spending time with.
- Tyler and Marilyn have a solid marriage, but their only son is autistic and a constant challenge. Tyler is a good dad, but he sometimes wishes he had a son he could really communicate with.
- Tyler has saved the life of countless people and is almost a folk hero in the community and at home. His affair (no matter how/why it happened) haunts him, and he’s grateful every day that nobody’s discovered it. He doesn’t know that Marilyn, who seems to adore him, is tired of being married to an icon and has nearly fallen into an affair herself.
- Tyler feels so guilty about his affair that he gives Marilyn and his children everything they want except the love they really need. No one in the family is happy or secure.
Are we having fun yet? I hope so. There’s so much more we need to know, but this is a start. Don’t forget these aren’t real people. We’re just telling a compelling story. You don’t have to be nice. You have to be interesting.
Weigh in and let me know the direction you’d like to take this story.
See you next week.