I just got off the telephone with Amazon. My life work this week has been to track down a package I ordered. I had to find out why it arrived in town but was never delivered to me.
Unfortunately Amazon and all the carriers involved have kept an excruciatingly painful moment-by-moment account of the package’s journey. Now the package–one of my husband’s birthday presents–is on its way to Salt Lake City, while I’m sitting here on the east coast wondering why. Luckily Amazon responded gallantly and promised to send another by a different carrier, directly to my house tomorrow.
You’ve had frustrating moments like this, haven’t you? So have your readers. So now, as you write your novel or your short story, you ask yourself, “maybe I should include a situation like this one. After all, everyone will find it as riveting as I do. They’ll identify with my protagonist. They’ll cheer him on and hope his fight with the post office culminates in success.”
Or they’ll fall asleep before the end of the page.
How many times have you heard “truth is stranger than fiction?” Okay, sometimes it absolutely is. But most of the time? All those events that seem so pivotal in our everyday lives are anything but. They are ordinary, and in the long run, inconsequential. Readers are hoping for more, for bigger, better, resounding moments that convey universal truth. And the foibles of my local post office don’t qualify.
But what if instead of a pair of headphones, a letter has been mislaid? Not just a “how are you, I’m fine” letter, but one that has earthshaking consequences? A Dear John letter perhaps, that will change the lives of everyone connected to it. Not earthshaking in that instance, perhaps, but lifeshaking. Or how about a letter from a mother to a child she gave up at birth, a letter that lays bare his background and all the secrets he never knew? What if he’s been expecting this letter and it never arrives because someone has intercepted it, someone more interesting than a clerk in a mail room. Someone who has everything invested in making certain this person never learns who he or she really is?
What about a letter with the information for accessing a secret bank account worth millions? What about a letter that names the man responsible for trying to murder thousands of refugees from a hostile military government? What about . . .
Fiction is not the recounting of facts. Fiction is taking facts, gleaning the truly interesting nugget within them, then forging and crafting the nugget into something even more valuable and precious, a gold chain with links, connecting to more links, connecting to more links.
How do you find the nugget? Look for potential suspense. Look for a situation that will be larger than life. Look for some part of the event that could change every life it touches. In this case, the loss of something promised, in the most ordinary of ways, becomes the beginning of a story.
Dog barking uncontrollably next door? Why? Has the owner disappeared? Where has he gone? What will you find when you–the author–finally get inside to quiet the dog and realize that. . .
Losing a package isn’t fun. The fun begins when you, the author,imagines a whole new world of possibilities.
What will you realize? That’s the fun part.
Causes Emilie Richards Supports
Habitat for Humanity, Christian Children's Fund, Doctors Without Borders, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Holdeen Fund of the Unitarian Universalist...