I think of a book as an engineered product. The premise comes to me via the magic that I don’t understand, and then it’s less about asking “what if?” then it is about “why/how would that happen?”
In Crimson Phoenix, the entire premise depended on the aftermath of a nuclear war. The reasons behind the war aren’t really important to the larger plot, but it needed to be addressed. I had to work backwards: Who fired first? Why? How do I justify my main characters surviving? All actions have consequences, so I had to select carefully to put together a plot that gave me what I needed without straining credulity.
In the case of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, I started with a theme I wanted to explore. I wanted to write a story about someone who had to make the binary choice between doing his job and doing the right thing. He couldn’t do both. Full disclosure: The premise of a kid escaping from a juvenile detention center arrived as a gift of circumstance that’s too complicated to go into here, but once it burrowed into my head, it was there to stay. I knew that the kid needed to be about 12 years old. And if the kid was an escapee, then he needed to be pursued, and it made sense that the pursuer needed to be a cop.
This is the point where creativity meets engineering:
How does a kid (I made him an orphan to make things easy on myself) escape a juvenile detention center? Answer: He steals keys from a guard.
How does he steal keys? Answer: In a fight.
How does a 12-year-old (Nathan) win a fight with an adult guard? Answer: The guard is drunk.
How does Nathan cross paths with a drunk guard? Answer: the guard is trying to kill him.
Why is the guard trying to kill him? DING DING DING: I had no idea, but I knew that I had the mystery that would drive the story and keep it from being one-note.
How does Nathan win the fight? Answer: He kills the guard. DING DING DING: Now a character we care about has crossed a line that can’t be re-crossed. The plot was cooking, even before I put a single word on the page.
At this point, in my head, Nathan’s journey is on its way. He’s got a sustainable story. I didn’t know the details yet, but enough parts were in motion to give the character a mission to survive. I could wing those sections during the Great Pretend that is writing.
Now I had other questions to address:
How would cops and the rest of society react to the news of an escaped cop-killer? Answer (in the fictional community of the book): Politicians would posture, the media would play for ratings, and the cops would double-down on the efforts to bring a cop-killer to justice. DING DING DING: Subplots defined.
When the evidence shows that Nathan is the bad guy, what will cause a grizzled police detective to soften his heart for the kid? The answer is too much of a spoiler.
Okay, now that I had defined both the the pursued and the pursuers, now what? How does a little kid hold his own against the rest of the world? First things first: Where does he find shelter? Answer: He breaks into the homes of people who have newspapers stacked in their driveway, an indication to him that they must be on vacation.
How do I keep a burgling killer sympathetic in the minds of the readers? Answer: He does the laundry.
At this point the plot was nothing but vignettes in my head. They were just disconnected scenes. This was the problem that torpedoed the three novels I wrote before Nathan’s Run. I needed a through line.
How could I make the plot bigger–something more than just a straight line chase? Answer: Media manipulation. I could have Nathan listen to a radio and hear the terrible things that people are saying about him. Callers want him to be thrown in jail forever. Others want him to be executed. [NOTE: When I wrote Nathan’s Run, OJ Simpson and the attendant media frenzy drove every news cycle, and Rush Limbaugh was just beginning to change the face of talk radio.]
I knew I had a great character opportunity here. The talk show host, Denise Carpenter (radio name: The Bitch) is stoking the fires against Nathan. We’ll learn as we go on, just how insecure and frightened she is of her own success.
How does Nathan change people’s minds? Answer: He calls the show himself, and gets to tell his side of the story.
From that point on, the story propelled itself.
I don’t want to imply that this is a simple process. Each answer to each question is a choice from a flood of discarded alternatives, and any given one of them may turn out to be a mistake for the story. In my experience, though, they rarely (never, actually) turn out to be a mistake because I make them work. You wouldn’t tear down a nearly-completed house because a couple of doors were out of plumb, right? That’s what furring strips and leveling compound are for.
How many times have we all heard that storytelling is driven by the Great Question: What if? To be sure, that’s a great starting point to define a premise, but from then on, Why and How take the lead.
So, TKZ family, do you consider yourselves to be story engineers?