The Evolution of a Story

I’m not quite halfway through the writing of Goddess-Born, the sort-of sequel to The Green Stone Tower. When I say “sort-of sequel,” I mean that it’s really a separate story. A Tale of Two Worlds will, as I currently envision it, be published as four novels, but it’s not a tetralogy — not one story separated into four volumes. My feeling is that when you’re e-publishing, it doesn’t make that much sense to publish stories broken up into multiple volumes like that, although this is a late revelation and The Star Mages is in fact a trilogy. (The only sense it ever made was when a story was too long to make a convenient printed book size.) But Goddess-Born although it occurs after the events of The Green Stone Tower takes up an altogether new story. Two of the minor characters from Tower have become major characters in Goddess-Born, while the two major characters from Tower appear as minor characters, and there are very important characters in Goddess-Born who were newborn babies at the end of Tower. So there’s a connection, but it’s really a whole new story, and I plan to do the same with The People of the Sea and Light and Shadow. (That also means there’s no reason to wait to read The Green Stone Tower until I’m finished with the whole series. I’ve done that with multiple-volume stories in progress, too, and I’d prefer not to give my readers that sense of frustration.)

What I want to talk about today is the way a story evolves in the telling for me, using Goddess-Born as an example. It’s not unlike the process of biological evolution, as well as other kinds of change, in that its engine is a random process, but the end result is non-random. Randomness generates the content that falls into a pattern — non-randomness — through the power of skewing and selection.

To begin with, all I had of Goddess-Born was one character, Sonia, and only the barest outline of her. In the final scene of The Green Stone Tower, Sonia’s mother (a goddess) left her with the young wife of a wealthy merchant who had just lost a baby of her own. I knew that Sonia had black hair and blue eyes, that she would have a difficult life, and that she would be a great sorceress, because her mother said so when she fostered her. And that’s all! At the last minute in writing The Green Stone Tower I changed the gender of another character, Malcolm, also newly born, from female to male and moved his location from the southern island home of the faerie-folk to Grandlock, deciding he would be a part of Goddess-Born as well (the title can refer to either Malcolm or Sonia or both). I had previously established that Malcolm would be a great artist and would one day paint a famous portrait of Sonia. So now I know:

  • The location where the story takes place (Grandlock, also the location of the first part of Tower)
  • The names and a few framing bits about two main characters
  • One probably-not-defining plot element, or more likely side-plot element

This is the attractor of the rest of the rest of the story, which sets the direction for skewing. As I thought about what to write, my mind tossed up ideas randomly, but they were always skewed towards the attractor. All the ideas that presented themselves had some connection, however tenuous, with Grandlock, Sonia, or Malcolm.

The first thing I considered was when to start the story. I originally intended to begin it in Sonia’s childhood and present tales from her growing up, which her mother said would be difficult. But I rejected this idea in the end because I knew the main story would happen when she was a young adult, and I wanted to get right into it, working the events of her childhood in as backstory.

This shows the work of the other de-randomizer: selection. In biological evolution we call this “natural selection,” and I suppose that’s the case here, too, insofar as I’m natural, which has occasionally been the subject of doubt but of which I’m fairly convinced. A random idea, telling stories from Sonia’s childhood, was selected out. Other random ideas which popped up have been selected in.

One random idea that made the cut was incorporating two not-major characters from The Green Stone Tower, General Tranis and Anne Fircone, as major characters of Goddess-Born. Tranis is sent from the other world by Sonia’s goddess mother to do something mysterious but portentous and described only by hints. (Incidentally, cryptic hints from a goddess are a great way to disguise the fact that, in creating the story, at that point the author has no clue what is going to happen, which I didn’t and in some ways still don’t, although some things have crystallized.) Anne, it turns out, is Malcolm’s aunt by adoption. She was the faithless lover of one of the main characters in Tower, who did him a terrible wrong, and that story and all that went with it have bubbled into her more mature persona in Goddess-Born, twenty-one years later.

So I began the story not in Grandlock but in the other world, with Tranis being sent on his mission, his experiences in the city of Watercourse, and his encounter with an agent of a secret society called the People of the Shadow, which was another random idea that popped in and was not selected out. And in telling the separate and interacting stories of Tranis, Sonia, Malcolm, and Anne, all in third-person limited point of view, the major plot elements, involving a democratic revolution, a nasty sorceress, and the machinations of this secret society, have sketched themselves in outline.

And that’s more or less the way my stories evolve. I always have an idea or two, a character, a concept, an overall theme, but I have never sat down to write a story and had it all planned out in my mind before my fingers touch the keyboard. It grows organically on the way.

Now, I’m certainly not saying this is the only way to tell a story. Other writers use more up-front planning. There’s no One Right Way when it comes to art. But I thought I’d describe the process because it’s a nice illustration of the way that order and coherence can emerge from randomness, through the influence of skewing and selection.

Image credit: veneratio / 123RF Stock Photo


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