One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
There have been several posts recently on Popcorn about where to find material for writing. Tara Conklin has offered up advice on writing what you know (or what you don’t know), Adrienne Spangler and Susie Meserve have explored how to mine your personal history for material, and Ruth Whippman has started us thinking about whether or not to write about our children.
One of my favorite places to find inspiration for stories is the news. Like this story about a former presidential aide who wandered off one day, was spotted wearing one shoe at a parking garage, then was found dead in a Delaware dumpster on New Year’s Eve. No one knows what really happened. Turn it into fiction, and this is the material of a blockbuster thriller. I should write it. (So should you.)
Earlier this week, a line of police cars was fanned throughout my neighborhood as I came home from work. My mind immediately set to work spinning the story: Character on the way to a job interview is detained in the search for a serial killer. Which didn’t happen to me. I made it home without incident and found out that a man had been shot while driving down the street. I imagined an arm spurting blood, angry words. Innocent man caught in the crossfire, turns to revenge. My fictional brain-story shifted again when I heard that there were children in the car with him. Think of the backstory! Grown siblings who, as children, witnessed their father turn to the dark side. Such rich material.
Later that evening, I learned how wrong my over-active imagination had gotten the story. It turns out that I knew the person in the car. And that he died. And the children that were in the back seat witnessing this horror are children that I know.
Suddenly, it seemed like a story that should never be written, much less be lived.
Now I want to write a different kind of story.
I want to write a story in which only cowards carry guns. The brave people, the heroes that everyone looks up to, are characters who don’t let conflict end in violence.
I want to write the story about the cowboy whose gun fires daisies, about the sexy Russian spy who steals secrets from both sides so she can clear up misunderstandings, about the gangsta who invites people to his crib so they can talk through their feelings.
I want to write the scene where people on opposite sides of the street start to argue then stop traffic as they meet in the middle to hug.
Would anybody read that?
Fiction is based on conflict, on poor decisions and ugly consequences. And, let’s face it, if there is a loaded gun in the first chapter, it probably should go off by the middle of the book.
What is so unsatisfying about the reality of this story is that the protagonist did not have a choice. A senseless death in fiction is inexcusable. It is a writer’s job to make sense out of the disparate actions in a story.
This man’s death is another story. I can’t make any sense of it.