Last time (scroll down to see it) I introduced you to my process by outlining it in general terms. Now, with an idea in mind, I want to explore it in a more specific way.
The Idea is always the starting place, even if the final product does not quite resemble it. In this case, it’s a simple, even silly, supposition about both milieu (post apocalyptic bunker survival) and cliched plot line (It’s people!”). But I often find it helpful to spell it out, mostly because little details will emerge, unbidden, when I write the dust jacket version. For example, even though the Idea came to me during a run (often the case) the details of the names (“Sleeper Stations” and “Sandmen”) only appeared as I wrote the short-form plot.
For those that missed it, here is that passage from the previous post:
In response to the impending Apocalypse, so-called Sleeper Stations are established, where millions are placed into hibernation until it is time to emerge and retake the world. In addition to the Sleeping, a population of Sandmen is assigned to watch over the Sleepers. Four generations later, a weary administrative class is trying to maintain a sparse yet utopian society while watching outside for signs of civilization. Throughout it all, the Sandmen class is forced o suffer hard labor and disgusting working conditions. Despite all the difficulty, the population is well fed. It is the protagonist that asks the question, where does the meat come from?
In many cases, that would be enough for me to start writing. However, I think I want to unpack this idea a little bit and see if I can find the story inside the idea. See, I believe that ideas, great ideas even, are cheap, a dime a dozen. Anyone can have not just one million dollar idea, but a million dollar idea every day. But turning that great idea into something — here, a story — is where the work comes in. Too often, I settle on the flash fiction or slightly longer short-short because it allows me to get to the meat of an idea and the basic structure of the story without the wait or the drudgery. The fundamental problem with this goes back to the ubiquity of ideas: since they are so easy, chances are someone else has already had it, so the difficulty lies in presentation. This is doubly true if you are intentionally choosing or settling on something common and/or cliched.
With all that in mind, where is the story in the idea? For me, the first component past plot I need is character. Specifically, I need to identify in my mind my viewpoint character in order to successfully navigate a nascent story structure. Because this idea is in a new, unfamiliar world for the reader and involves a degree of (morbid) discovery, I want someone new and young and easily presented with the kind of information the reader needs to know. Given what I established above about the setting, it is obvious that the character should be a new Sandman, just assigned to his station watching over the Sleepers and/or watching the outside world for signs of civilization. Since I am terrible at choosing names, I am going to call him John for the time being.
Even as I wrote the above, a question formed in my mind: should John be a Sleeper who was woken for the purpose of becoming a Sandman? In the answer to that question can be found a number of deeper choices about the setting. Is this how Sandmen are chosen? If so, why? Are they sterile? Subject to high rates of birth defects? Maybe only men (or women) are allowed to be Sandmen. It also twists the “Soylent Green” ending to a new level: if John was a Sleeper, then that means he has been eating people *just like him* by the time the truth comes out. If John was not a Sleeper and was instead born and raised among the Sandmen, then this is the only life he knows. What’s more, he would likely not see the Sleepers as fully human. At best, they might be an abstract hope; at worst, they would be a burden, especially if life among the Sandmen is difficult. How, then, would he react when the truth comes out?
In addition to John, a secondary “viewpoint” character, or at least one that could transmit some information to the reader, came to mind: a wanderer invited into the Sleeper Station. If the supposition is that the Sleeper Station must watch for the appropriate time to wake its population, then either the Sandmen must go out and explore (perhaps remotely, though that idea does distance the Sandmen from the potential action and immediacy of such an element) or they must allow wanderers to enter (but, perhaps, never leave). I have a “pre-existing” wanderer in mind, should I decide to go this route, because I have a sort of Conan/Jon Carter homage character called Cyrus from some time back when I decided I wanted to write a Howardian episodic body of work in a Post-Apocalyptic setting. Such a character could not only help drive the action, since otherwise John will need a powerful motivation to dig too deep into the origins of his protein sustenance, but serve as a gatekeeper to a potential wider world of this post apocalyptic setting.
Of course, an antagonist is also necessary, and the obvious choice is an administrator or head chef or some other character who holds the knowledge that the Sandmen are butchering and eating the Sleepers. Because it is obvious, however, part of me thinks to go a completely different direction. This, too, is a key component of my process. Given decades of comic books, cartoons, television and mass-market sci-fi, I recognize that many of my first blush ideas are cliches, so I often try to identify those tendencies and actively work against them. or, at least, I try to subvert the cliche in such a way that it provides ballast to an otherwise too-heavy story.
Aside from the various characters a story needs, a strong setting is a must. Even for a one off short story, the setting needs to make some sort of internal sense as well as feed the plot in a naturalistic fashion. With this idea, that means building a setting in which it makes sense that the Sandmen would be feeding on the Sleepers. In my mind, two possibilities appear. In the first, the Sleeper Station is unsustainable. Perhaps the worst aspects of the Apocalypse lingered too long and the protein vats, hydroponic farms and waste-to-food recyclotrons are giving out and the Sandmen are stretching the life of the Station by reluctantly delving into the last “store” of protein they have: the Sleepers. They keep it a secret because they know it would cause a revolt and the Station would collapse and that would be the end of them all. The other option is that the Sandmen in charge have seen the world of the Post Apocalypse and for whatever reason — perhaps they have become fundamentalists or perhaps they refuse to cede the power they hold over the rest of the Sandmen — and refuse to join it. They are happy to continue to hide beneath the surface, but have tired of the hardships of living on gruel and recycled feces and have somehow convinced themselves it is their right to eat the Sleepers. In the former example, there is a moral ambiguity that might be interesting to explore. In the latter example, there is a stark villainy that can be equally compelling (especially if you have a sword and sorcery/ray-gun style hero on the loose looking to lop off a few heads).
Finally, I need a resolution in mind. I know, I skipped an outline and a rough draft and all those bits that they teach you in your creative writing classes. Those I either embrace, or don’t. In fact, I find that the more hard preparation I do, like outlines and treatments and very rough drafts, the less likely that I will actually get to the process of writing the story for real. I have a sneaking suspicion that the act of completing a story gives me a kind of endorphin rush analogous to the “runners high or “post coital bliss” and so if I “finish” the story in the pre-writing phase, my need to actually write it diminishes. In this case, though, I want to actively avoid that but at least have a basic idea of how this story ends. Of course, the specifics of the ending must rely on the answers to the many questions I have just posed, but ultimately there are only two choices for an end to this story: either John accepts, however grudgingly, the cannibalistic practice of the Sandmen, or he rejects it. That choice will inform many of the very small but ever-so-important details of the text itself.
All the above shows the kind of questions I present to myself as I tackle a story idea. This is the most conscious part of the process for me. As soon as I finally sit down to write, all that questioning has magically coalesced into a story and I am less writing it as I am uncovering it, like a sculptor chipping away at the marble to find the statue that has always been hidden within.
For next time, I will begin writing and present it with some “color commentary,” as it were — which choices I made and why, for example.
Thanks for your eyeballs!