STEPHEN KING once explained that writing a novel is like unearthing the bones of a buried dinosaur. The writer’s job is to excavate the bones carefully, like a good archeologist with picks and shovels, trowels and hammers, and eventually (to get the really detailed stuff) toothbrushes.
That idea works with the way I develop stories with my writing partner, John Pesqueira. He’s in there doing the digging with me. John, in fact, is usually the one who spots the first evidence of the fossil, like tripping over a ridge in the ground that turns out to be the hard metal edge of a space ship.
It usually works something like this. I’ll ask, “John, where do we start our next novel?” and he’ll maybe say, “I’ve always had this image of a jukebox falling from the sky. It just drops down and lands there right in the middle of the desert.” John’s from Arizona, and so three-quarters of his ideas start in the desert.
The jukebox was a key idea in our work ESTEBAN’S QUEST, and it played a role in renewing a search for the seven cities of gold. In the case of our new novel SLIPPING INTO THE GREEN, John’s first clue to the story was the idea of a teacher whose morning lectures on social injustice were so powerful that one of the students in his classroom was transported back in time to relive a critical historical event.
Of course, John’s idea, that first clue that the skeleton of the story could be buried there, was not the story itself, or even the incident that started the story. But it is was something that told us to start digging.
To get to the spine of the story (the plot), you have to dig carefully and deeply. You have to find the backbone of that buried dinosaur. And so John and I usually knock heads for a long time until we come up with the first traces of the spine of the story… the backbone of the dinosaur. In the case of SLIPPING INTO THE GREEN, the idea was that something in a high school or the teacher’s classroom set off the time travel experiences that his students were having. But what was it?
In novels, screenplays, and other kinds of stories, there is usually an incident that starts things off, something happens from which all other events proceed. Often it knocks things out of kilter, ruins things for the hero. According to the famous script-doctor, Robert McKee, this event makes the hero want to go out and fix things so that they are the way they were before the event happened. He calls it the inciting incident. In our new novel, SLIPPING INTO THE GREEN, we had to find that event. In other words, what was head at the top of the dinosaur’s spine? We had to do more digging!
We eventually found that the event that started our story was a football injury to our hero, Jake Cane. Following the traditional progress of the story, Jack would want to find a way to undo the damage. Putting that together with John’s first clue to the story (time travel), we realized that he would want to find a way to go back to the day of the injury and undo it.
The spine of our story was beginning to evolve. Jake Cane was a high school football hero who suffered a debilitating football injury that ruined his life. Then he found a way to go back in time to try and undo the damage. In the process, he learned that he had to take some other students with him… students who later would be so “unstuck in time” that their morning classroom lecture on social injustice would cause them to go back and relive critical historical events.
We wrote the first draft of the story with Jake Cane’s injury and his quest to rewrite his past. We had some really great scenes of students going back to historical moments in time. We sent the draft around to our friends and colleagues, and guess what? No one liked it. They liked the idea, and they loved the time travel scenes. “So, what’s not to like?” we asked. Everyone said the same thing. Jake Cane.
Dr. Jay Douglas is a former screenplay instructor at Loyal Marymount University. He read the manuscript and said, “I’ve always had a hard time enjoying a story with a main character I didn’t like. And I don’t like Jake.” Our answer… KEEP DIGGING. We had yet to unearth the whole dinosaur.
In our original draft, by the second chapter, Jake had moved from a likable football hero to a bitter, angry invalid who trusted no one, disliked everyone, and was willing to sacrifice his friends to try and save himself. He was interesting, but certainly not someone who evoked sympathy in our readers. He was more like someone who turned them off. Could we fix that? The answer, of course, was… more digging.
Dr. Jay’s answer was motivation. Give Jake a reason to become so nasty when he’s injured, one that our readers will understand and relate to. Like maybe, his family is in need… he wants to become a big success so he can take care of them. (Actually, that turns out to be a real motivator in the lives of many highly successful professional football players.)
What if Jake’s father had failed dramatically in his business? Dad had gone into a deep depression, foreshadowing the depression Jake would go into after his injury. We developed that storyline, wrote another draft, and found that we were on the right track. But something or someone was still missing. What or who was it? We dug some more and found a strong female character to balance Jake’s negativity, a character so strong, that – in many ways – she became the hero of the story.
Hiding several levels down in the skeleton of our story was Elaine the Brain, as we called her at first, the smartest kid in the school. (Later we called her Ellen, a more popular name these days.) She knows all the answers, is way ahead of everyone. In terms of appearance, she is a stark contrast to all the cheerleaders who hang out with the football players. She’s shy and self-conscious. But she could be the one who discovers a way for Jake to go into the past, she could suggest that if he relives the play in which he was injured, he might change his own fate. She had a minor role in our earlier drafts. We had a scene where the captain of the cheerleaders, the nicest person in the whole story, wanted to become her friend (just to be nice). So we had that connection working for us.
Now, as we decided to bring Ellen out of her shell, we made her the first person to discover the vortex, a wrinkle in time that allows anyone who finds it to go back into their past. She explores it herself, for her own reasons, and then she makes friends with Jake, tells him about the vortex, and how to take advantage of it to change his fate.
She becomes the brains behind the whole story, and eventually, Jake falls in love with her and she with him. Then, when Jake has a total meltdown near the very end of the story, we have someone who is in a position to be able to face up to him and turn him around.
Steven King says he doesn’t like plotted novels. These are stories in which the author figures out the ending and then writes the book to lead into it. He prefers the exploratory method of story development, like the one we used with SLIPPING INTO THE GREEN. He says the last piece of excavation of the story is the discovery of the theme. Don’t insist on its being there, he tells us. But if you find it… strengthen it. Like finding that your dinosaur has fins. Suddenly you understand that you have an discovered an aquatic dinosaur. You’ve classified it… given it even more meaning, “Hey, this is more than a dinosaur.”
As soon as we looked at our fully formed excavation, we knew we had a theme… a story of redemption. Once Jake had fallen as far as he could have fallen, by exploiting and endangering his friends, by thinking only of himself, and finally, by trying to exact revenge on those who failed him, we give him a chance to redeem himself, or more realistically, Ellen gives him that chance.
Our excavation is over. The book is out there, ready to be liked, loved, hated, or just ignored. Do us a favor. After all our hard work and all our digging, please give it a read.