July 14, 2019

Several Little-Known Truths about Writing a Story: Teaching by Example with “The Treasure Hunter” by Kristin N. Bradley

Your premise is not absolute.

I changed the premise of "The Treasure Hunter" THREE times before I knew I had found the right one for the story needing to be told.

My route in writing this short story was circuitous, which allowed me to experience several truths that I have not seen readily discussed in the writing community and will be sharing with you today!

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If you haven’t read "The Treasure Hunter" yet, I suggest you check it out first. Reading part 2 before part 1 will directly influence your first impression of the story as you will be aware of behind-the-scenes information. It’s much harder to shut off “author mode” when that happens!

The Evolution of "The Treasure Hunter's" Premise

To make sure you and I are on the same page, I’d like to first define “premise.”

The premise is the sum of the story into a single sentence. It contains an event that sparks the story’s main action, shows some aspect of the main character, and hints at the story’s outcome.

It is usually derived from some sort of “aha!” moment—you find yourself thinking “X” would make a great story.

So let's dig in!

The Very First Premise

As you know by now, I never utilized my original premise for "The Treasure Hunter." Reflecting back on the story’s development, I was surprised to find that I never once questioned why I was developing the story in an entirely different direction from what I had initially envisioned in that moment of inspiration. 

For whatever reason, even though my original premise never went anywhere, it sparked inspiration within me to keep pursuing the real story waiting to be written! 

In my mind’s eye, I saw Prince Charming (from "Cinderella") inside a Star Trek-sleek spaceship. He awakens a sleeping woman on some planet and discovers they are each other’s true love.

Now, I’ve split this premise into two sentences because I need to emphasize the fact that the streamlined design of Prince Charming’s clothing and the ship’s interior were highly dominant visuals in my mind.

And for this particular story, the minimalist polish of those images refused to spark my creative juices to turn the idea into something more.

Enter the Second Premise

Without even thinking about it, I crossed Premise A off the list. I played the “what if” game, exploring other avenues to flesh out the story’s concept (which is the premise with all of its personality removed). All I knew was that I wanted to keep the concept of "boy rescues girl" in outer space. 

I came up with Premise B, which I actually worked with for quite a while:

"A young man must choose between his father or a young woman and her clan when he incidentally awakens them from cryo-sleep after space mining a new resource under his father’s employment."

Think something along the lines of Firefly and Holes, but a tad more gritty. For those of you not familiar with those works, simply imagine a dusty space story filled with punchy dialogue, camaraderie, and heart-rending decisions. 

I started fleshing out Premise B but immediately found myself struggling to write. I had all the right pieces—research, characters, worldbuilding, and an outline—but no joy.

Writing this particular premise into a story felt like I was forcing pieces together when they weren’t intended to fit together in the real story waiting to be written. 

Think of it another way: There are two parallel universes. Premise B belongs to Alternate Timeline B, but is stuck in Alternate Timeline A. This is what it felt like to write Premise B.

The Third and Final Premise

By chance, I mentioned my challenges with Premise B to one of my beta readers, who was surprised to discover I wasn’t writing a fairytale. As in a fairytale proper

Beta Two’s comment surprised me. I hadn’t even considered writing a real fairytale despite the fact that I adore them!

There’s something just lovely about fairytales. They are filled with wonder, lightheartedness, and delight. After all of two seconds, I tossed my initial reservation to the wind. I would change my premise yet again. 

I went back to the drawing board. A spoken word the Lord had brought up several years back in a prayer group came to mind. Here is part of it:

". . . Treasurer Hunter was looking far and hard to find this [undiscovered] jewel. Once uncovered, it was the most rare gem.”

Suddenly, I had Premise C! I took the spoken word at face value and applied it to Premise A, discarding the Prince Charming character and Star Trek design for the Treasure Hunter and intentional vagueness of certain details.

As I reflected on how I wanted to execute the premise into a written form, I thought about how the original fairytales and legends were communicated. Many people couldn’t read or write so stories were told in the oral tradition.

It reminded me of this one particular evening when I had watched several small children. I was reading bedtime stories to them and had been adopting different voices for the characters. The youngest, a little boy of about four, kept imitating me, particularly when I used a deeper voice and growled for the “villain” of a specific story.

And I thought why not make my narrator’s persona that of an adult telling a story to someone else? It didn’t matter if the someone else was five, twelve, or twenty-two. Just that a dynamic narrator was weaving a tale into a magical journey for a captive audience.

As I wrote Premise C into a draft, I was surprised at how it felt intuitively "right." When I had written Premise B, I had felt the subtle strain of forcing elements not meant to be together. 

I finished developing and polishing the story. The first half was entirely narrative and the second half was modern in its structure (dialogue woven organically with action).

Bring in the Beta Readers

The time had come to garner outside opinions. I specifically chose my two beta readers because of their relatively opposite backgrounds (including demographics). 

Just as any leader (in business or politics) surrounds himself with opposing viewpoints to challenge his perspective so he can see all sides of a matter, the same principle is also relevant to an author.

Beta One reads a lot of YA fiction and has studied writing craft but hasn’t written any fiction yet. Beta Two reads in multiple genres and has completed a work-in-progress that I will be editing in the future. 

I had them read the story first, then review my questions so their minds weren’t in analytic mode as they created their first impressions of the story.

One of the questions I asked them drastically influenced the shaping of my story:

“It’s narrative heavy in the first half, which fits with the oldish tale feel. Later, I switched to a more modern approach. How did that work for you?”

Not surprisingly, the feedback I received was of literal opposites. Beta One disliked the heavy narration and felt the story really took off using the modern structure.

Beta Two had the opposite reaction—anticipation and tension were built up in the narrative half and the modern half "lost the magical quality established in the first half.”

My Artistic Goal Becomes Concrete

As I reviewed my draft in light of their feedback, I considered writing the first half of the story to match the second half, because it had the more popular approach. But doing so didn't seem quite right. 

Beta Two's feedback kept echoing in my mind. While the second half was constructed properly, and interesting in its own right, I, too, felt less than enthusiastic when I reread it. Additionally, I just knew the first half of the story would be less magical if I changed it to align with contemporary standards. 

I decided to stick with my instincts. 

Even though "The Treasure Hunter" was set in space, I really wanted to pay homage to the tales of old in its design.

I would stick with the narrative-heavy approach. I was not going to let the pull of the popular format sway the importance of my artistic goal. Beta One’s feedback had helped clarify what I did not want for the story.  

Stephen King and the Joy Factor

As I was clarifying my artistic desires for "The Treasure Hunter," I was also paying close attention to my joy factor. I had struggled with enjoying the writing of Premise B and wanted to make sure I had fun writing Premise C.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a quote relating to Stephen King’s success as an author. I’m recalling from memory as I did not save the quote and haven’t been able to find it again. If I have a detail wrong, apologies!

I believe the quote was from a fellow horror author. He was at a bookstore signing with Stephen King and found himself reflecting on the difference in the lines between his table and King’s.

He realized King’s books were more popular than his because Stephen King enjoyed scaring his readers. King’s readers could sense his joy in creating a scary story and were drawn to that.

Writing without joy can also be compared to the technically precise ballerina. Her moves are fastidious in execution, and in their own right, beautiful to watch. But something is missing.

That ballerina won’t sway the audience as much as the ballerina who dances with passion. As the second ballerina travels across the stage, her dancing touches the very souls of the audience. 

As my joy was intertwined with my artistic goal, I realized that I had to keep removing dialogue and fleshing out the narrative of the second half of Premise C. I did not want to shortchange my readers. 

I slashed and slashed dialogue. I slashed some more.

I also paid attention to every portion of narrative. I tweaked and rewrote sentences here and there that felt merely adequate or left me slightly bored. If I felt less than enthusiastic reading any portion of my own work, my readers likely would too. 

Then, one day, after I finished a handful tweaks, I suddenly realized the story was done. It was just right.

"The Treasure Hunter" contained:

  • compelling narration from the beginning to the end,
  • an appropriate quantity of dialogue when compared to someone making up a story on the fly,
  • a simple plot with little character development, also fitting for someone making up a story on the go, and
  • an enchanting, magical quality to it.

Fun fact: Out of a total 3,847 words, only 123 are dialogue, which calculates to 3.1% of the entire story!

***

Sometimes you have to rework or let go part of or the entire premise to find the right—the real—story behind your first moment of inspiration. Sometimes, writing your story will be similar to Picasso’s painting process.

Picasso would paint a picture and then decide it wasn’t what was supposed to be painted. He would literally paint over that perfect picture and produce something else entirely. He would repeat this process until the right picture came out.

It was the same with "The Treasure Hunter." While my first two premises would have been interesting stories, they simply weren’t the right ones.

As I searched for the right story needing to be written, my artistic desires began to surface. In paying attention to what I wanted to achieve artistically, I discovered the right form in which the story was meant to be told. And, my joy factor kept me tweaking the manuscript until the artistry was complete. 

I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever had to rework a premise? 

Writing The Treasure Hunter revealed several little-known truths about creating a story. In the context of sharing my short story's creation process, I will explore these important truths. Truths like your premise can change multiple times. Or, your beta readers can unknowingly help you discover your artistic goals. Or, joy keeps your writing standard high.

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