The Hunt for Story Ideas

The_Hunt_for_Red_October_movie_posterLast week my novel manuscript was rejected by my agent, so I’m spending this week coming up with new novel ideas. Coming up with novels from scratch is somewhat new, somewhat not new since I had to go through the process of actually creating good stories with my first three books. The difference was that I “pantsed” them and so by the time I went to outlining I already had characters, a setting (which in fantasy means a whole world or at least part of one), a main problem for those characters, and a premise (in the sense of Lajos Egri) on which to build a story (I didn’t have good stories, let that be a lesson to you). I also had what I call an “archetypal clarity” or “cosmic principle.” This is the additional element of fantasy that the universe is organized around. The One Power, for instance is the cosmic principle behind The Wheel of Time.

Coming up with new novel-length stories has also helped me look critically at other stories and make guesses about how they came about. The other night I watched The Hunt For Red October for the first time in at least twenty years. The movie was on HBO when I was a kid and I watched it over and over, which led me to read the book, and I became a Tom Clancy fan for about nine months. I read his cold war epic Red Storm Rising, which must have been the first book over 400 pages that I read all the way through.

Even at that age I noticed that Clancy had a few stylistic quirks that really turned me off, and now as a writer I have a guess as to what the problem was. I could be totally wrong as to origins, but Clancy’s biggest (at least most annoying) quirk was excess characterization, and my guess is he made promises to friends or said “I’m going to put that guy in a book.” The funny thing is the movie captured everything perfectly: both Tom Clancy’s good points and his bad points were reflected in the film.

The first most interesting thing I noticed was how clever of a story Red October is in its simplicity, its invention, its background and foreshadowing, and its use of multiple viewpoints (I actually thought these were excessive in the book, but in the movie they are right on). Submarines, although cool, don’t usually do very much you can write a story about. Sure, you could have them going through the Star Trek style dialogue (“Say again?” “I said ALL BACK FULL!”) on the bridge, see the sonor man doing his thing, and all the other military techno-speak, but there are no high stakes there.

The solution is to pick one unique thing about that world that can be twisted into something very dangerous. Submarines function largely based on listening to their environments: sound is very important. So what do you write a story about? A silent submarine. The choice of whether the Russians or the Americans get the silent sub was an interesting one: particularly for an American audience, the danger of an enemy submarine capable of a nuclear first strike is more challenging. How are the Americans going to handle that? Then there’s the funny part where the captain of that submarine actually isn’t going to use it for that: he has his own motives and he is capable of carrying them out.  (I’m not saying this is how Clancy went about it; it’s very likely that the silent sub came in at the last moment and it was the thing that made the story really compelling.  This happens all the time to authors.)

Tom Clancy’s good characterization is here: Captain Ramius has noble intentions, and he is very capable of carrying them out, and behind all that he has guilt over his life at sea. His wife died while he was at sea, which led to a moral awakening. When he received the plans for Red October, he knew he had to finally do the right thing in his life, instead of following the Soviet leadership. The second part of this scene in the film is Sam Neill’s famous “I would like to live in Montana” speech, which is both clever backstory (giving motivation) and clever foreshadowing.

Clancy’s bad characterization, however, is also captured by the film: Clancy’s books, at least the early ones that I read, were full of character quirks, backstory, and action that had nothing to do with the plot, and distracted from the story. By story I mean the surface, and by plot I mean what’s underneath (what’s really going on despite any character’s particular level of knowledge of the situation). Particularly there are character tags that Clancy expanded into backstory. For example, the ship architect/former sub-driver Skip Tyler lost his leg in a drunk driving accident. You could just have a guy with a prosthetic leg, but instead we know how he got a prosthetic leg, even though this doesn’t help the officers of Red October to defect, nor does it get Jack Ryan to the coast of Iceland. I remember being confused as hell when reading Patriot Games: there’s a character who is taking medication for indigestion. He doesn’t take the whole course of medication because his discomfort is gone, and then he collapses in the office puking up blood. This had absolutely nothing to do with terrorists.

Enjoying this movie and remembering this flaw in Tom Clancy’s writing is really helping me to construct stories. I try starting from a principle and asking who it will challenge, but quite often I have characters in mind and I have to ping-pong back and forth between what the principle will do to the characters and what the characters tell me about a potential principle. One of the stories I’ve dreamed up starts with a mage (a woman at this point) and a warrior (a man) who are both outcasts from their professions. I started from those characters because they were actually part of another book that I’m not going to write, but I liked the idea of two former enemies meeting and finding common ground. But then I had to ask what the story is really about so I could build a novel around it. The premise became that you cannot escape your origins, and what a society would look like if it actually branded that into someone’s flesh, so that they couldn’t escape it. This idea already existed in Firesage, but for different reasons. I will spend the rest of this week fleshing out these ideas and see which ones my agent will go for.

Thanks for reading.


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