Writing a short story: part 6

I had intended for the “traveling” section of the story to be a series of small vignettes, possibly showing the group tracking the necromancer through the wilderness, and focusing on the idea that nobody trusts Silas. Instead I found myself going a completely different direction in which Silas is trying to redeem himself and his brother, Jacob, is the one nobody trusts. It was unexpected, but much better.

Part of the change comes from my friend Eric, who remarked on my last post that I could solve some of my “too heroic too soon” problem by having Silas hulk out not because he wants to save people, but because he’s terrified of getting shot and wants to save himself. I thought it was an excellent suggestion, so I went back and edited a little bit–not much, maybe two paragraphs–to fit it in. In writing the sequence about how scared he is, I realized that Silas is not just scared of dying, he’s scared of divine judgment–he thinks his power is a mark of evil, after all, and is pretty sure that if he dies he’ll get sent straight to hell. So having him hulk out in the middle of the town social was not just a cowardly act, it was a big boost to the ongoing theme of redemption.

The more interesting development came from the brother, Jacob, who I had always intended to be part of the posse that hunts down the bad guy. But then I decided, while describing the final posse, that three members of Silas’s family (their father came too) was too much, so I had to decide who to drop, and I remembered that I’d given Jacob a light wound in the attack scene. What if I made that wound a bigger deal, and used it to keep Jacob out? Jacob did not like that one bit, and as soon as the posse left town he went and found his horse and followed them–these are the kinds of things that characters do when you give them good background and then just write to see where it takes you. The necromancer kidnapped Jacob’s sister and his girlfriend, and there was no way he was staying behind, busted arm or not. So I let him come along.

Then the posse came across a burned farm, not because they needed to but because I was brainstorming little events that could happen during the travel and that one stuck in my head. I started writing it out, exploring the options, and realized that I needed a reason for this to be bad: all of the people in the area were in town for the social, so there wouldn’t have been anybody at the farm, so where’s the tension? Well, what if someone stayed behind? I didn’t want to do a mother, since we’ve already had a mother in peril, and I didn’t want to do a daughter for the same reason, so I ended up with a little boy. What would be the most interesting way to use a little boy who got left behind? I could just kill him, and have the posse find him and swear vengeance, but we’ve already had that in this story, and I wanted something new. What if the necromancer brought the boy back to life? But no, that would instantly make the readers think about Silas’s mom coming back to life, and I really don’t want to deal with that–it’s a cool idea, but it’s not what this story is about. I eventually decided to make it more subtle: the boy isn’t physically harmed, just terrified to the point of incoherence, and that is in many ways much more frightening than just finding him there dead. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that the boy saw trouble and ran into the woods and spent the whole night seeing and imagining truly horrifying things. When the posse shows up in the morning, he’s so scared all he can do is shoot at them, without even knowing or caring who they are, just a pure, desperate bid for safety. Once the posse figured out what was going on, I found myself in a dilemma I hadn’t expected: what do we do with the boy?

Obviously we can’t leave him here, and obviously we can’t just send him back to town. Somebody has to take him, but who? I looked at my posse, and once again the answer was clear: it had to be Jacob. He was injured and he could barely ride, much less ride and shoot at the same time. It didn’t make sense to send anybody else…and Jacob, as you can imagine, was extremely upset about that. All of a sudden I found myself with a wonderful story I hadn’t ever expected. Jacob had already disobeyed orders once before, following the posse when he was told to stay home, so of course he was going to do it again. But next time he’d show up at exactly the wrong time, in exactly the wrong place, and his ineffectiveness would be a much bigger problem. This helped solve another problem I knew was coming, which was that the attack on the necromancer needed to have a really good reason for going horribly wrong; a lovesick cowboy, injured and unaccounted for and far too brave to cover his own stupidity, is exactly what I need to make sure the posse’s plan goes horribly awry. And the best part is, it will be something that goes wrong that isn’t Silas’s fault, setting him up for a better decision at the end when he decides that he’s a better person than he thinks he is and finally redeems himself.

I know I keep saying this, but the very best part of writing is when you think you know what’s going to happen next, and then you get surprised by something unexpected and awesome. I always plan my stories in advance, so I know what’s coming and how to get there, but then the writing process itself is full of little bits and pieces like this that help flesh it out and make it interesting and help make the story and the characters better than you could ever do on your own.

3 Responses to “Writing a short story: part 6”

  1. Tank Killer says:

    So when you’re done with the story are you going to put it on here so we can see the finished product?

  2. Alan says:

    Is there a tiny little smiley face at the bottom of this page? I never noticed that before.

  3. Scott says:

    @Alan: Wow, I never would’ve noticed that. Kinda cool.

    @Dan: I really appreciate these posts, showing us all the steps you go through. Very interesting.

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