On Writing: Does everything have to be part of the story?
It’s interesting to realize you have developed a certain style of writing. I never really thought it would happen for me. I wondered, for years, if I would ever find my own voice or find my own way to write a story. Then, suddenly, years later, here we are and I think you can probably tell a Bryan Alaspa story from another story. I can mimic others, of course, it’s part of my day job, but mostly you can tell when it’s me.
One of the things I like to do is flesh out characters or ideas which surround, but are not necessarily key to, the plot. For some writers, this violates some kind of written-in-stone oath. Apparently an oath I never took, but the fact is, I don’t always think every single thing which is introduced to the story is necessary for advancing the story. The same goes for titles. Titles don’t necessarily have to tell you everything about what happens in the tale.
This has come up as a form of criticism for me a couple of times. I think the first one was After the Snowfall. The novel I wrote (and that nearly killed me - story for another time) during my one and only NaNoWriMo participation.
The story of After the Snowfall is simple. There’s a huge blizzard which buries a small town in Illinois. After the snow
stops, as the town starts to unbury itself, three men come walking into town, strolling down the middle of the road. When the three men come strolling into town, the first person who sees them is an old man out shoveling his driveway. He watches them, marks them, comments to himself something seems off about these men.
The rest of the story then takes place. I won’t give away everything, but it’s a harrowing, terrifying experience. However, at no point during the story, does the old man who starts off the novel appear again until the very end. Then, at the end, he appears again. He is still shoveling and finishing up clearing the snow from his house and now he sees those who have survived this entire adventure driving back into town. At the very end he goes inside to warm up.
To me, this old man was there to offer color. He was there to show what kind of townspeople were in this particular place. He was meant to bookend the story, nothing more. He was not going to participate in the story ever in any draft or version of the story. He was always to be the first to see the men, express dread about them, and then wrap things up, showing it all took place within a day and even add a slightly humorous coda to an intense story. That’s it.
Lately, the criticism has come down on my novel The Man From Taured. The title, these people scream, is The Man From Taured! Why is the titular man not the center of the story? Well, for me, there was no story to tell there. When you went back to look at the urban legend, the terror on the supposed man made it evident to me this was not a man who had masterminded his entry into this dimension. Thus, he was always going to be a guy caught up in the machinations of another. For me, it was more fascinating to imagine this happening in modern times and involve the investigation of this strange incident at a major airport. I mean, imagine what would happen if a man showed up, claimed to be from a non-existent country, then disappeared? In real life, the entire airport would have been shut down and massive Homeland and FBI investigation would have ensued.
At the same time, all of the events which occur in The Man From Taured happen because this man shows up in the airport. He’s a bit of a mistake on the part of the person doing the experiments, not meant to be as much of a big deal as he is. All of the people who respond sort of oddly about the man showing up is later explained, too.
Should I have entitled it The Investigation of The Man From Taured? Clunky and stupid. The Search for the Man From Taured? Again, this doesn’t sound right. The only title which worked was the title of the urban legend itself. Sorry if this upsets you, but this is what I feel and it’s my story.
To me, adding color and characters which take you down a short road off the beaten path of the main story is fine. It adds something and rounds out the story. It makes the people seem more real. How many times do you get distracted by something which ends up not helping you with your day at all? Isn’t that pretty much a summation of social media?
Again, I realize this is not something other writers believe. I have been told many times, every character, every plot point, every sentence has to be germane to the main story. It has to advance the story. Yes, most of it, I counter, but perhaps not all of it. There can be an old man shoveling snow, for example, of the Man in the title can be the thing which sparks the entire story, but not feature throughout.
Bryan’s latest novel is a techno-thriller called The Revisionists. It’s out in paperback and Kindle editions., Click the cover image below to get a copy!