The title is a Ghostbusters reference. If you don't get it, shame on you.
For the last ten days I've been writing a story for The Writers Arena. The idea for this site is that two writers, one representing the Arena (I think just the four site admins?) and one challenger (in this instance, ME) receive a prompt and have ten days to write a story for that prompt. The readers get to vote on their favorite. Then there are two judges who each pick a winner, and the readers vote makes the tie-breaker. This week I think I'm facing off against Joseph Devon, who wrote my favorite Writer's Arena piece so far, "Self-Reflection". I stumbled on to this back in October when I came down with a serious case of procrastination from working on my novel (which is up to 85,000 words, go me). There are new stories almost every week, and they are all very creative and fun to read. My story prompt was:
"Water is life. For thousands of years civilization has clustered along seashores, followed rivers, and huddled around lakes. Water dominates the surface of our planet. It provides us with food and transportation, and of course it quenches our thirst…
Go down to the water, find what dark things may lurk there, and tell us their tale."
So I have to write a story about some kind of body of water. Awesome. Spending the last 17 years in the land-locked Midwest is finally going to pay off! But seriously, this was really hard. I’ve seen the ocean maybe a dozen times in my life, the only river nearby is a joke, and there just aren’t any good lakes around. Water is not my forte.
So what did I do? I procrastinated and hoped an idea would come to me. I stuck Fellowship of the Ring in the blu-ray player, and closed my laptop. Fortunately for me, I picked the right movie. There is a scene near the end of the film where the fellowship (sans-Gandalf) is riding on boats down a river, and they come to a pair of absolutely massive statues as the river passes through a gorge.Bingo. That image was my inspiration.
So now all I needed was a story. One thing about my writing is that it is heavily influenced by whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. It makes my writing kind of eclectic, but also versatile. I recently finished reading John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series, which is a militaryscience fiction/zombie apocalypse mashup (and it’s fucking awesome). And so my mind immediately jumped to some kind of military story.
So I came up with a pretty good outline for a story and got to writing. I finished the story at about 3000 words, and it sucked. Hard.
I re-read it to try and figure out what sucked about it. Most of it was actually pretty good, it was just a terrible ending. Not bad writing, just a bad ending. Like, worse than The Sopranos ending. So I saved it as ‘draft 1’ in case I couldn’t come up with anything better by the deadline, and started thinking of a better ending. It wasn’t working well. For three days I couldn’t come up with an even slightly better alternative. Sunday night came and I only had two days to finish, and I had to work 12-hour shifts at my day-job, so I was pretty much out of time. I sat in front of my computer, and came up with nothing.
Tuesday came, the deadline was mere hours away, and all I had done was polished up a garbage ending so that it was a nice, shiny garbage ending. In desperation, I turned to the internet, hoping to find some inspiration to save my story. I turned on a podcast I had recently discovered, Mur Lafferty’s “I Should Be Writing,” and the very first thing she said was exactly what I needed.
She said she took a workshop that said if you are stuck on an ending, just write out ten endings. Five will come quickly, three will be harder, and by the last two, they are going to be very difficult to write. One of those last two should probably be your ending.
So I opened up my word processor and started just writing (summaries) of endings. I got the one I had down, and another slightly better one, and then I was stuck. There really wasn’t anywhere else the story could go. Except, I realized, that was exactly the problem. My main character didn’t have any choice in how the ending played out. She was pretty much an active spectator. Nothing she did for the last thousand words effected the ending at all.
And so I thought about my main character. Was she going to just sit and let events roll out, or was she going to take charge? Well, obviously she would take charge. She’s an army officer, after all. And would she choose to go with the flow and let things play out the way they were? Fuck no she wouldn’t. She would fight it. And that is exactly what she does. She fights the inevitable until the inevitable backs the fuck down, and in the process single-handedly saved my ending.
The point I’m trying to get across is that your character needs to have a choice. Without being able to effect the story, your character is really just a prop, and nobody wants to read a story about a prop.