This is one of the posts I promised y’all. We’re actually going according to plan for once! Three cheers for Yours Unduly!
How this will work is that I will find a prompt online and then write stream of consciousness about my ideas for a story around it. Then I will go back and not edit (note to self: DO NOT EDIT, FOR THE LOVE OF CHOCOLATE DO NOT EDIT), but rather insert commentary about what I did.
I promise you that I will use no other resources but the prompt and my brain. In other words, no databases, no Wikipedia, no name generators, nadda. Me, fingers, brain. That could be taken the wrong way. I promise I don’t mean it that way!
WriteWorld’s prompts (called Blocks) are my favorite to use. They don’t do stupid stuff like “Imagine you’re on a spaceship” or “If your favorite actor was on a desert island…” where it boxes you in and makes you write something you’re going to ultimately find stupid (because how can you not write something childish and insipid when you’re given a prompt that’s so childish and insipid?). They give you Image, Sentence, or Music Blocks.
I’m going to use this sentence block for today: This is how you get yourself dead, my friend.
Right. Here we go.
[Here is where I analyze the prompt itself to figure out how it works within a potential scene. It’ll lead to broader ideas, but I need to lay my foundations first.]
So this is dialogue. I imagine this is something a secondary character says to the protagonist. That secondary character – we’ll call him Bill for now because typing out secondary character every flippin’ time is getting real old real fast – is calling the protagonist – we’ll call him Michael because I’m in a Godfather mood right now but I can substitute this later – ‘my friend’. [When brainstorming, the little details like names are not super important. Using placemarkers helps move you along to important stuff.] What could he mean by this? He could be genuine, but the tone also seems more formal and poetic – ‘dead, my friend’ rolls right off the tongue – than casual. This is more classic-old-movie elegance than, say, Tarantino-style. [This actually means something to me. If it doesn’t to you, that’s cool man.] Maybe that’s Bill’s character. Bill could be an older man – maybe not much older – who is cautious and experienced and reticent.
Or. If I want to get real freaky-deaky, Bill is an antagonist. Maybe not the antagonist, but one of them, set up to block Michael from Main Goal (to be determined later) [another placemarker]. Michael wants to do something reckless and potentially dangerous, and Bill is warning him off. This serves as foreshadowing for future obstacles that Michael will face if he wants to pursue Path A to Main Goal.
Now, in order to figure out why Bill is warning off Michael (as friend or foe) I need a story. That means setting, character, plot. In that order, for now. We’ll see what comes. If I go with the first thing off the top of my head, this is another gangster or mob-boss or insert-organized-crime-bunch movie set in a city in the 20th century where there’s corruption and crookedness and naked boobs and stuff all over the place. I could do that, but I want to be original. [I’m conscious of being cliched even at the brainstorming level because I want to avoid that from the very beginning. I don’t shape an entire plot arc around Anti-Tropes but awareness is always good.] Maybe the way I set out the plot and the character will make it original. Say that Michael isn’t some high-minded idealist who wants to expose all the craptastic behavior in his city and ends up getting mucked down in it himself. That’s how every movie and story seems to go. What if instead he were just a normal dude with limited aspirations? What if Michael has a love interest that for some reason he cannot see unless he crosses Bad Dude Club. But wait: we get into the trope of Princess Peach, that as a reward for accomplishing Plot, the protagonist gets the girl. I’m not saying my story will be bad if I follow this trope, but it could be so much better if I avoid it. [Again, awareness. If you’re rolling your eyes, wait until you see what I come up with in the end for Violet]. But how do I avoid it? Maybe she works as another secondary character who’s on his side and helping from the beginning. But what’s her story? She needs to develop too. Thinking, thinking, thinking.
Can’t think of one at the moment. Will come back to her – we’ll name her Violet – later. [If brainstorming one aspect leads to naught, pick up another. Sometimes that dead end is just cookies in the oven, and you know what Grandma said about watched cookies.]
Let’s think of another normal-ish thing that Michael wants that requires him possibly getting dead. Which is now a thing. A food item or something trivial comes across as comedic, like Zombieland or Harold and Kumar. However, if it’s something like freeing a family member (i.e. springing a brother from prison, or a child from Social Services) it gets way into emotionally charged territory and we’re verging on something that’s far too dark for my intent.
Brainwave: an heirloom item that’s of sentimental value. Michael is personally devoted to retrieving it, but not everyone else in his life (friend and foe) is equally motivated. If it were a child at stake, you’d have to find some pretty cold hearted bastards to serve as obstacles. [Realism plays a factor always.] An heirloom works well. It needs to be transportable. What heirloom would it be? A pipe? Very fatherly, not sure. A pocketwatch? Oft used. This can be a Plan D if all other options are exhausted. [See? I don’t dismiss tropes right away. I put them aside unless I don’t have anything better.] Hey, what about a musical instrument? Like a piano?
A piano could work actually.
I’ll break my self-imposed rule (which lasted approximately 2 minutes) that the item needs to be conveniently transportable because a piano is transportable; all you need is a truck. [Being open during brainstorming helps a lot. Just let stuff sift in, you know. Like powdered sugar on a gingerbread house. Wow. That was a terrible simile.] Which Bad Dude Club, if it has the resources and connections of a Mafia, could do. The limited mobility of a piano also prevents the reasonable possibility that anyone could have just taken it and it could be anywhere. A piano, due to its size and monetary value, can have significant sentimental value that is worth going to great lengths to preserve. It is like a car in that way, in that most people don’t have to be complete and utter geeks about a piano to want to maintain it and keep it. Maybe it’s a Steinway that belonged to Michael’s grandmother and it was the only thing that made it out of her house in Poland when the Nazis came. Maybe it united Michael’s family during holidays even in the midsts of internal and external crises affecting the family. [Justifying the use of the piano in my head led to further ideas. Badabing badaboom.]
A piano is also like a car in that a valuable one is valuable to all. Bad Dude Club would know this. Maybe they run a black market of antiques and historical items. Perhaps that black market supplies major auctions that are run by wealthy patrons who stand to lose a lot if they’re found in cahoots with Bad Dude Club. Maybe Bad Dude Club has stolen other paintings too, or is in association with robbers of that nature. [Oh hey, bigger, badder Plot that’s bigger than the main dude himself is what will make this a novel and not just a short story.]
Maybe Michael gets unexpected help from a current or former art thief. Maybe Violet is that art thief. [See? Dead end cropped up again!] I’m verging into Sherlock plots. Whatever, this is just brainstorming. And besides, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Moving on. I’ll get back to Violet later. [Dead end dies for now. Let waves go where they go and don’t limit yourself just because something’s a trope. Treat it as a security blanket, not a beehive.]
Let’s work on Bill’s character a bit. Who would Bill be in this context? I feel like he wouldn’t be Michael’s best bud, but rather a family acquaintance who understand the value of the piano to Michael, but doesn’t personally feel obligated to help out Michael directly (i.e. do the legwork). Yeah, I like family friend. Approaching 65, but not ready to retire; the manager of a business (perhaps a restaurant or a law firm or barber shop or a dry cleaners or something normal). He has a rotund stomach [I write with a movie reel playing in my brain, so seeing the characters in my mind helps me think], likes his comforts but is a hard worker and a principled man. Or he is for the most part. Maybe he’s an immigrant and has had to learn self-preservation. Being an immigrant means he doesn’t like authority figures, does all obligatory duties begrudgingly, and is thus more inclined to have an ear in any organized crime network. [Physical, external traits should ideally have an impact on internal traits.] He looks out for number one, is more apt to distrust than not, but is still traditional and honorable and would most certainly trust Michael if Bill knew his father well. So that’s Bill; an Ally rather than a Friend, but not a Foe.
What other characters do I need? Real antagonists. So we’ll have the people who actually take Michael’s piano. They’ll be the manpower, the grunts; they answer to higher-ups and aren’t the real enemy (though they do perhaps pose problems to Michael that maybe involve fists, guns, or unwillingness to talk). Then there’s the Bad Dude Club who runs the operations. They’re a nasty bunch, both cunning and willing to get their hands dirty if necessary. They’ll need a main leader. We’ll call him…what’s a good name for a villain like this? Wait, doesn’t matter right now. I’ll just use a letter to indicate him for now and then get back to him later. For now, he is S. [Placemarkers again.] If I want to turn a trope on its head [oh yes I do], the thievery of Michael’s piano is so small that S doesn’t even bother himself with the details, so S is not the Arch-Nemesis at all (and there could be a comedic scene/confrontation between Michael and S that uses bureaucratic lingo to describe the criminal operation.) [Because I like levity and avoiding tropes.]
(Also, I’m using lots of “he” and “him” here, but these characters could easily be women or men.) [Because I am conscious of female representation in media. Get at me. It’s important to me.]
And if we want to go into Conspiracy territory, we’ll have the Final Boss be someone who employs Bad Due Club. Probably a rich WASP, but that’s boring. [Trope awareness strikes again. But seriously, would you really want to read something about another big-baddie who’s rich, white, and balding?] Lots of other types of people can be rich and interested in collecting art. Someone in the movie industry or music industry could be behind it. But who gives a crap if they fall? [Good characters are characters that your audience gives a crap about, regardless of purpose in your story or moral content. Because audiences can appreciate a finely done villain.] What morals or principles do they let down? [by being behind this conspiracy] Is it really so morally shocking-
No. That’s not the point of this story. Michael’s no Jimmy Stewart character who’s disgusted by corruption. He just wants his piano back. The point of the story is that all these higher-ups give no craps about something that means the world to one ordinary man. They care about output and numbers. And while the public doesn’t like crime or corruption, they have a morbid interest in grandeur. As in, “he didn’t just kill one man; he killed 3 at once”. Or “he didn’t just steal any painting; it was a Lautrec worth millions”. We get more shocked about millions killed than a dozen killed, when all that matters is someone is dead for unnatural reasons. We measure disasters by the numbers, when in reality aren’t they all disasters? It’s about depersonalization, apathy, aloofness (I apologize, I had to use a thesaurus to think of the right word there). It’s about being emotionally removed when you’re making choices and the bigger the choices are, the more logical we demand ourselves to be. But for what good reason? Why is it so bad to factor in affection when making decisions? Why are love and emotions considered weaknesses?
[And Yours Unduly goes into Thematic La-La Land. Themes in literature are important. Themes in my writing? Eh. Nice but unnecessary for now. But nice to have. I let this train of thought continue however because I’m not yet writing. I’m brainstorming.]
It’s also about how humans give different meanings to objects. Language came about because a group of humans decided that if you draw X many lines in Y manner, it indicates a letter. And then the combination of those letters forms a word, which means something entirely different than the letters that constitute it. String words together, you have a sentence. And sentences have their own meanings as well. So on and so forth.
Here the object is a piano. Michael bestows upon it enormous sentimental and emotional value. It’s tied to family and love for him, which far succeeds its monetary value that is recognized by a large group of others (i.e. the market). Meanwhile, Final Boss and Bad Dude Club only see the piano for its monetary value. It’s kinda like Neo’s vision when he attains his One-ness in The Matrix; all he sees is code when he’s in the Matrix now. (Sorry for the spoilers.) Likewise, they only see dollar signs. The question is, whose view is the right one? Is monetary value not real, or not important? What if Final Boss offers Michael 50% of the profits of selling the piano? [This is why I don’t interrupt a thought flow no matter how stupid it may seem. So long as it’s focused on what I’m writing, it’ll get me somewhere. I trust myself.] If it’s a worthy challenge to Michael achieving Main Goal, then money must mean something to him.
What if he’s a poor bachelor or a starving artist of some sort? BRAINWAVE: what if he was planning on selling the piano in the first place because he’s mega-broke and/or in debt to the wrong people? (Cue gasp from the gallery.) This is good. This works not only as a basis for character development, but also creates extra tension because Michael has a deadline. [Story elements are something also to be conscious of when creating outlines.] Also, if the amount the Final Boss is offering him exceeds the amount that Michael thought he’d get by selling it by himself, and would also easily pay off the debt (and maybe some other important, but less pressing cost that Michael bears in mind, like a friend’s medical bill or bail from jail), then Michael has a really tough decision to make. And it also opens a whole realm of possibilities for how this all gets resolved (maybe he takes the amount, but then also gets the piano out as well, for example). [YEAH, PLOT AND SUSPENSE AND TENSION AND CONFLICT OH MY, MY, MY.]
Now time to start thinking about what I’ve missed, which is Violet’s role and how this whole thing starts.
(While originally I began brainstorming Violet, I got more brainwaves about how this starts. So I followed the brainwaves instead.) [Voila, follow the White Rabbit. It’ll take you where you need to go.]
So how does this all start? It starts with Michael by himself, being introduced to the reader. He has a debt he must pay. Maybe it’s a gambling debt with bad people. That gives him incentive to sell the piano quickly and then recover it quickly for self-preservation purposes. Or maybe it’s a medical debt; maybe his sister is in the hospital and her health insurance won’t play nice and she needs to pay the bill. Michael needs to choose between the piano and his sister; it’s an easy choice for him, particularly because he doesn’t feel attached to the piano anymore (perhaps a falling out with the family, perhaps his own lifestyle or current mentality) [Character point established to make Michael complex]. However, his sister doth protest, and perhaps so do their parents (if they’re still alive). Michael is irritated at his sister and beyond pissed with his parents. “It’s just a goddamn piano,” he screams. “A piano over your/her life!” [In outlines, I don’t always chart the entire plot out moment by moment. However I do usually have a list of scenes that I want to include. This would be one of them.]
So he goes and tries to sells it. Perhaps he posts it an ad on Craigslist or Ebay and that’s what brings the burglars to his house. (Then it becomes a running joke of ‘Goddammit Michael that’s why you don’t post that schtuff on Craigslist’.) [I can’t handle writing a 24-esque drama where there’s no levity. I need humor. I breathe wit (usually not my own, but I try).] They come to his house while he’s not there. Night or day? Night makes more sense for covering faces and doing dark deeds, but a truck coming to take out a piano in the middle of the night? Nope, even a old-lady landlord who can’t hear schtuff would be suspicious. [Realism matters, especially when there’s crime involved in your novel because that means your audience reads mystery and crime. They’re adept at picking that stuff up.] So, daytime robbery. Comes across as more blatant (indicating confidence of the Bad Dude Club) and more creep-inducing (you’re not even safe in the daytime). Also means that Michael has a daytime job so he’s not too down and dirty or rabble scrabble. Which is also now a thing. Roll with it.
So Michael comes home and finds himself piano-less. Swear words occur. Paying a debt gives him a deadline already, but what if he has someone he promised to sell said piano to? That gives him a more pressing deadline, but that also introduces extra characters, which unless they serve a dire purpose will only create unnecessary confusion for the Reader. Since there is no need to Tolkien this story up, said extra character could be connected to Bad Dude Club or the Final Boss. Maybe it is the Final Boss. But that gets confusing. To be worked out later. [Leaving sleeping dogs lie again.]
Meanwhile, Violet. Violet isn’t necessary according to the original prompt. However, I want a soundboard for Michael so the Reader doesn’t have to be stuck in his head. I also want someone who will challenge him and cause him to develop, because Character Development is more important than Plot Resolution to me. [I believe that every part of a story – especially one that takes place in modern day – should serve a purpose. No wasted words, no pointless characters, no unnecessary details.] Violet does not have to be a love interest or an art thief. Maybe she’s a student who is somehow involved or connected to Bad Dude Club and she tags along for the ride because Michael needs her and she’s bored, looking for some adventure. Or maybe she’s an insurance agent, which would make Michael a normal, everyday, responsible citizen, which could work, but do I necessarily want to do that? Also how does insurance work for a thing that you go an sell on Craigslist? Ding ding, Violet the student is the winner. [I’m all for research, but sometimes you get a conundrum or an issue that you need to dive deep into the inter-webs to find out. However, if this problem is something I just noticed, the reader will likely notice it too. So if the balance of importance to plot believability to easiness to research is too far off, abandon ship.]
Also the reason I don’t want to do a love interest is because while I like complicated stories with nuances and layers and stuff, that’s usually when there’s a blow-your-mind main character who you want to follow through everything they do. Michael is not blow-your-mind quality, so we just need to follow him in a good plot. And because a love interest is better suited for shaping characters than for acting as subplot (in my opinion at least), Michael doesn’t need a love interest for the purposes of this story.
And Violet can develop more easily and more realistically as a secondary character if she’s not lovestruck. [These are my personal opinions, but anyone can have any opinion they want so long as they can justify it. Hope I did so here.].
Anywho, here’s what we have so far [Taking a step back to review]:
Michael the protagonist
Michael’s sister, secondary
Michael’s family, off-screen
Bad Dude Club (minions and big baddies)
Setting: modern-day, city with suburbs
1) Michael is ordinary low-middle class dude who works in the day and likely drinks at night. He’s not particularly happy with his life or where he is, but he’s too complacent to do much. One of the items in his possession is a grand piano that goes way back through his family’s history. He doesn’t think much of it anymore, though, whether because he doesn’t feel particularly attached to his life in general or to his family specifically because of __ (that means I’ll feel in later, or I would if I were actually writing this story.) [Placeholders yet again.]
2) Michael’s sister has been sick for a while, but her insurance company decides to be a butt and doesn’t pay for everything she needs it to pay for. As a result, massive debt. Michael needs to help, but doesn’t have much himself. Solution? Sell piano. Here is where we’ll find out the background to the piano and maybe imply why Michael has issues with it, or at least no qualms about selling it.
3) Michael puts ad on Craigslist, goes to work. __ happens while he’s there to reveal something more about his character. Maybe he stumbles across Violet for the first time.
4) Michael comes home and finds said piano gone. Swear words occur.
Here’s where we start pantsing. [Pantsing means writing without an outline, or writing off the seat of your pants. A similar term is ‘winging it’.] I have a few scenes I know I want to include already, but how the order works out or where they lay out, I don’t know yet. Here are those scenes I want to include:
– meeting with Bill (where this whole thing began)
– running joke about poor decisions regarding Craigslist
– meeting with Violet where she pairs up with him and sassery occurs
– dealing with Bad Dude Club minions where they’re likely to overpower him (i.e. they’re physically stronger than him, which makes sense) but he somehow outwits them by using some skill he already has [Consciousness of realism again]
– realization (alone or with Violet) that the piano actually matters to Michael as more than just paying the bills
– meeting with leader of Bad Dude Club where the leader is hilariously non-threatening at first and more like John Goodman if he were an insurance firm manager
– meeting with Final Boss where Michael has to make the decision to have the piano or the money to pay off his sister’s debt (and maybe Violet’s bail because she gets arrested for doing something for Michael)
6) Michael gets the piano back (how? I dunno yet)
– Michael’s sister teasing him for getting the piano back
– farewell to Violet
And I think that’s enough for now.
[Even now, I’m getting brainwaves for how this story may play out. There are other people that Michael as a normal human being would interact with that could become important characters. These include a boss, a coworker, a mailman, a douche-y neighbor, an ex, etc. Also, Violet could be a badass and that’s why she works well with Michael. As in, she makes up for his weaknesses. I want them to fight like cats and dogs. Maybe she attacks someone for him and she ends up in jail that way. Who knows.
[Anywho, this story began with a single, nondescript, extremely vague sentence and boom, look where we ended up. Obviously there are some holes – like the entire build-up and resolution to the plot – and I may switch things around later on if the story starts going in a direction that makes old ideas now irrelevant or contradictory. Nonetheless, it’s a good start.
[Hope this helps for anyone who thinks they struggle with brainstorming. Otherwise, this is just a peek into the mind of Yours Unduly.
[No, coverage of therapy costs are not included in agreeing to follow this blog.]