Try Again: the dissection of a plot.
I have always been intrigued by the processes involved in the creation of a story. How do writers find their ideas? Do they really have a magical muse that send plot bunnies running into their bedrooms? Or is there a scientific method to come up with stories? What is, in fact, inspiration?
I'm afraid I'm not educated enough to start discussing this subject from scratch. What I can do, though, is analyse one of my own stories and track the steps I've taken to develop a plot bunny into a full-blown narrative. I'll then try to generalise the processes I've used.
Note: You might want to read the fanfic this article is based upon
first. It's "Try Again", and you can find it here.
Then you can discuss this with me on my LiveJournal.
Try again: a premonitory title.
To a reader, the plot of "Try Again" probably looks pretty straightforward. Aliens mess with Daniel's brain; after a bit of angsting, Daniel goes all peaceful explorer on them; they fix him. The truth is, this story was a bitch. I had to gulp down so many painkillers for it that my chemist has fallen in love with me.
It is the ideal victim for this article.
First step: a blurry plot-bunny.
I wanted to write a story in which Daniel was a child.
I had read some good fanfic on this subject. They impressed me. In these, Daniel, though behaving like a kid, was still recognisable as the person he would become. I also read crappy ones that infuriated me. The kid didn't look his age. He either sounded like a mentally-challenged toddler or like a shrunken grown-up. Now, you see, I know kids. I work with them everyday. As it is, most of them are eight years old, the age Daniel was when he lost his parents. Write about what you know, they say. I could do this.
Why did I want to work on that theme? Mostly, I wanted to explore Jack's fatherly relationship with Daniel. This aspect of their complicated bond was what attracted me to the show in the first place (and then I staid for the slash :-p ).
I was also curious about Sam's reaction. She's a character I have trouble to relate with, and I wanted to study her. Is she into kids? Would she love the new, young Daniel, when she had just lost someone akin to a brother? How much would it remind her of Cassandra and the choice she made about her?
I knew that I was sharing at least one common ground with Sam, in that she doesn't strike me as a "mother" person. So that was a good occasion to invite myself inside her mind.
Second step: aliens' motivations and creepy photographs.
The fact I wanted Daniel to interact with his team reduced my possibilities: I couldn't write about Daniel's childhood unless I used a mirror-induced AU and some time-travel trickery. I wanted to avoid this particular plot-device because I wasn't sure what would be the consequences of SG-1 travelling in the past. It was complicated. I wanted to keep this story simple, innocent being that I was.
So I decided that Daniel would be turned into a child while on a mission. How? Why? I was thinking of some kind of punishment. Daniel would do something some aliens wouldn't like, maybe something that would be dangerous to them. Probably because he could understand their language, whereas a younger Daniel didn't have the necessary knowledge yet.
That was nicely logical. Daniel Jackson excels at deciphering languages. He could very well be the only one able to access information the aliens didn't want to share.
But why wouldn't they kill him? It would be simpler. The logical answer to that was that the aliens wouldn't be bad guys. Paranoid maybe, but not killers.
So I created aliens who could play with people's physical and mental ages by using nanocytes. I could link that to canon, which would give me a good background and a pseudo-scientific explanation.
That was when I invited a foreign element into the plot. A couple of weeks before, I had seen photographs of dead foetuses. Don't ask about the details. I wasn't shocked as I felt I should have been because I found them very interesting. I noticed that they wouldn't take much storage room if you had to… uh… stash a population. That would be the aliens motivation: they wanted to protect their foetuses. They kept their race alive by keeping young ones undeveloped until they could allow them to grow up.
So they had had a big problem before. Something like a Goau'ld infestation that would have forced the survivors of their race into hiding.
As you can see, the process of creation was extremely logical at this stage. A bit of problem-solving and brainstorming, and I had a plot.
Third step: total failure.
I merrily started churning out paragraphs after paragraphs of text, confident that the details of the plot would develop later. I put a temple on my world. I decorated it with beheaded statues just because I liked it. I hid a backroom behind the wall, and covered said wall with hieroglyphs.
I also outlined two original characters. Even though he was only at an early stage of development, Grey sounded interesting.
I wrote 5000 words. It was easy until I had the team leave the temple. Then I stopped.
I had two issues. First, I was afraid I would turn this story into a sap- and/or wangst-feast. The last thing Daniel remembered was his parents' death. I didn't know how to deal with the immediate after-effects of that event for Daniel. I did some research and frankly, I didn't feel ready to tackle that issue.
This could have been fixed by turning Daniel into a ten-year-old, after having done some research on the fostering system in the seventies. But it wouldn't fix my second issue. This one was a logical plot hole that I had "smelt" before but hadn't wanted to acknowledge. I couldn't avoid it now, even if I wanted to. It was a big one.
See by yourself: when Daniel would grow older, he would learn all his twenty-three-and-then-some languages again. Bad, wasn't it? It wouldn't even take that much time, ten years at most, as he already was in the right environment.
Blah. It sucked. I shrugged and closed the Word file and forgot it somewhere in the pits of my hard-drive.
Fourth step: an original character who doesn't want to die.
I did other things, thought of other plots, and managed to forget about "Try Again" for almost one whole day. Then something happened.
Grey wouldn't leave me alone. I kept thinking of him. I didn't know Brown well, so I didn't care about killing her. But I liked Grey. He had a potential I wanted to use.
I decided to turn the story the other way round. Instead of looking at it from Daniel's side, I sat next to Grey and looked at SG-1 from his side of the wall. What would he do to what appeared to him as a dangerous intruder to prevent him from reading his language?
He would make sure Daniel couldn't read it anymore. The few scenes I had written proved that turning him into a kid wouldn't work. I thought of blinding him for a second. Daniel would find workarounds, and the story would become too similar to "Stay in Touch" (a previous fanfic of mine that takes place in the dark). So this was a no-go.
Grey could do funky things, like stopping the development of foetus or scanning people's thoughts. Couldn't he mess with Daniel's brain? Make him amnesiac, perhaps? It sounded too much like Daniel's return from Glow Land, but I couldn't come up with anything better. I wasn't enthused by this.
It took me a while to accept that I had to dump my first idea. I had built up hopes about it, and they had been shattered. I also had written scenes that I liked. But words are only words. My objectives had changed, too. The story was not about Daniel anymore.
I slowly came to the realisation that if I wanted to save Grey, I had to kill the kid.
Fifth step: a random scene, and research.
After some brooding, I reluctantly created a new document. I re-used the beginning and the setting of the old story, copying and pasting as I went, and wrote the scene where Jack sees blood leaking from Daniel's temple (area chosen randomly) to see where it would lead me.
I wondered what would be the effect of a wound on this area of the skull. I was still working on this idea of amnesia. I started researching into brain areas. I found out about Wernicke's area, Broca's area, and the lovely arcuate fasciculus.
I dug a bit deeper. There hiding in a dark cavern was aphasia, a partial or total loss of the ability to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language, resulting from damage to the brain caused by injury or disease (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/aphasia). This was exactly what I was looking for. It was worse than amnesia for a linguist. It would also be extremely useful to Grey and Brown. Suddenly I was excited about this story again.
Sixth step: reusing old, unwritten scenes.
There were a couple of scenes I had been looking forward to write back when the story was about the child. In one of them, I had Jack showing Daniel how to vent out his anger at losing his parents by punching a bag.
I adapted it to a grown-up, silent Daniel. It looked good.
Adapting to the newer version by reusing old material made me feel I was on familiar territory. It was important, as I had been fairly upset by the number of changes this fanfic I'd gone through already. I needed stability to be able to go further.
Seventh step: when the narrative precedes the plot.
The setting was also familiar. I wasn't completely satisfied with it, though. Grey and Brown were supposed to hide behind a wall, peering through it via little holes or an alien x-ray device. It felt contrived.
What could I do about that? What did I want to keep?
I had the decapitated statues. Their colours had faded (a point I didn't think was important at this stage). They freaked me. I loved them.
Then there was Teal'c and the Kel'no'reem scene: " Stillness descended on the contemplative figures, and settled". Or Teal'c standing guard near the briefing room, rigid as a statue.
I wrote this before knowing what Grey and Brown would be. What I'm saying is probably fuzzy, but Teal'c was the kick my plot needed. A good advice: when you're stuck on your fanfiction, just ask Teal'c. He knows better.
I think this could be defined as a case of narrative preceding the plot. A word, a sentence, or a sentence can start a thought and change the direction a story is taking.
That's how Grey and Brown became Gorgons when they were just very old aliens toying with nanocyte technology before. I can't tell what they would be now if it hadn't been for the statues and Teal'c's ever helpful awareness of what my story should be.
An unrelated note: they are stony gorgons. This corruption of the myth was definitely born from the statues (long story). I found interesting the concept of stone-like creatures. It also allowed me to have Grey and Brown consider turning Daniel into one of them.
Eighth step: another sentence grows up.
After having decided on Grey and Brown's identity, and boy was I excited about playing with gorgons, can you believe that I was stuck again? The situation was difficult. Daniel was supposed to be able to read something on the wall. The hell with that! I had no idea about what the aliens had written that was so significant.
I started writing the scene where Jacob uses the memory device on Daniel. I hoped it would trigger ideas of what the message on the wall was.
The paragraphs with Daniel's parents and Paki were reminders of the story was supposed to be. Once again, this was a way for me to fall into a sense of familiarity and security. This was a good move, as it allowed me to move on.
Daniel's mum said something extremely significant: "This place was alive, once." I stopped after this sentence, wondering.
Then I went back, because this sentence resonated with something Sam had thought, something that I kept hearing every time I thought of this story. It was about the scribbles writhing under Daniel's scrutiny. This sentence, that I only wrote for setting a mood, suddenly made sense.
Grey and Brown were the wall. They were the scribbles, and they had nothing to say. But someone like Daniel would be able to see the persons behind the randomness of the words. He would notice they were moving. He would see the messengers behind the message (says Grey) because of his way of thinking. His knowledge of languages was mostly irrelevant. Daniel had developed lateral thinking and intuition into an art form; this, from the aliens' point of view, was dangerous.
I dropped the hieroglyphs in favour of curvaceous lines. The scribbles became the Gorgons' hair.
Ninth step: more research, and Brown takes a life of her own.
I revamped Grey and Brown into Gorgons. I read that Medusa was a symbol of the nasty mother (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/classes/finALp.html).
I wrote the dialog between Grey and Brown after Daniel comes back to the temple, and she kicked my ass. I think that at this moment, Brown really came to life. The scene even got out of hand and turned into a comedy. I had to tone it down later, because there was a huge split between the gloomy first part, and the light mood building up from the moment Daniel met the medusa and the first version I wrote of Jack waking Daniel up. This split is still there, but hopefully it is not as shocking and unbelievable as it was.
Anyway, I had my story. It just needed some fine-tuning (and a beta -- duh!).
Tenth step: lifting up the themes.
Sometimes, something weird happens when you write a long story like that. If you're lucky, you'll notice that some scenes echo each other. They may not be about the same characters. They may be separated by thirty pages. The connection may not be that obvious, but it's there, and it will jump at you when you're not looking. You can lift those themes up by changing a word here or there. Sometimes you don't need to do anything, as your subconscious did a good job the first time through.
The most visible connection, for me, linked Hathor to Brown. They both were the image of the nasty mothers. The sexual threat to Daniel outlined this in a blatant way. Paki, the boy linked to Daniel's first linguistic exploit, ran to drink the cow's (Hathor's) blood. The mythological Gorgons' blood have magical properties, but it's Daniel's blood Brown is after. It was also a way to complete the memory loop, and to tell Daniel to go back to the temple -- where the new Hathor was. Of course I wasn't aware of this at the time. It doesn't mean that my subconscious didn't know about it. I tried to get rid of Paki, because at first I thought it didn't make sense, but the scene lost of its impact. I'm glad I didn't kill the little guy.
A second connection was about the similarities between Brown and Grey's relationship, and Jack and Daniel's. I didn't notice it until the very end. The love/hate thing was so obvious! I saw it for Brown and Grey, but I completely missed it for Jack and Daniel. I can't understand why it took me so long. Those two were at each other's throat at the beginning of the fanfic, and ended up hugging. My first version of the hugging scene was so long and slashy it could have easily turned into a lemon (which is fine -- but I didn't want it for this story). To be honest, I had been aiming for a general, pairing-free story. It didn't quite turn out that way.
Robert Rothman sorted that out for me. When I wrote the epilogue, I already had written what I think is this fanfic's one true punch line: "Daniel, is that a suction pad looking at you?". It took place in an earlier scene. So Robert was in the epilogue with nothing left to say, and he was pissed off. Hey, it's understandable! The poor guy wanted his minute of glory. After all, he *is* going to die soon, he deserves better than staying in the shadows. So he told Daniel to punch Jack. Because he could. You know, the infamous light bulb? Well, it lit up red above my head. Duh. Love/hate. That's where all the slash came from. It was meant to be there. (On a side note, I'm not too happy with the epilogue, but I haven't been able to come up with anything better. I might change it one day.)
The last one… Call me stupid. Really, do it. It's all the grasshopper's fault. You remember Jack calling Daniel "Grasshopper" in the Buddhist-like temple with Oma, when he was looking for Shifu? This nickname intrigued me. I didn't know what it referred to (it has something to do with Kung Fu, an old show, actually).
Do you know the myth of Aurora and Tithonus? I knew it. I had read about it years ago. Tithonus was granted immortality by Jupiter. Unfortunately, he wasn't granted eternal youth. After he'd grown very old and impotent, Aurora turned him into a grasshopper.
I bow to my beta-reader's skills, who luckily is more up-to-date with mythology and pop culture trivia than I am. My beta-reader spotted the mythological reference and explained the Kung-Fu thing when I could only read the side-effects of my obsession with Daniel and Jack.
And I knew about Tithonus. Once the pop-culture reference had been put out of the way, I clearly remembered it. I could see the themes of immortality and of old age. It applies to Grey and Brown, of course, as well as to Daniel. Rothman tackled the issue, albeit briefly, in the epilogue before I was aware of it. I will have to re-read "Try Again" under this new light. I suspect it might allow me to improve the epilogue.
I feel extremely lucky to have found a beta-reader who is not only skilled with grammar but also with good sense and a broad knowledge in a variety of domains.
This is the kind of information I looked for while writing this fic:
This took a good amount of time. For me, it is an essential part of the writing phase. I don't only research to illustrate my plot and get its most technical elements right, I research to get ideas for the plot. I wouldn't have written a story on aphasia hadn't I researched the brain before, for the simple reason that I hadn't heard enough about it to remember it.
Notice the amount of transcripts. They are a great source of information. If I owned the DVD I would also watch the episodes. Hmm, anyone cares to finance a poor fanfic writer? No? Oh well.
What I kept from the old story.
I think that's about it. Not that much, is it? The father & son relationship between Jack and Daniel was scraped in favour of a slashy friendship. The plot was turned all over its head. Basically, I killed my story but for a couple of details.
The plot of "Try Again", as straightforward as it may seem, has a complicated origin.
It started with an idea turned wrong. It was saved by an original character who refused to die. Some parts of the story originated from research or from general knowledge (some of which I had forgotten about). Others from sentences that just sounded right, and on which I lingered a bit longer to hear what they had to tell me. Others again from pretty images in my head, of men hugging, a punching bag and a creepy temple. An important part of the plot came from the careful consideration of what were my aliens' motivations. I knew their voices and their general personality already; all I had to do was a bit of logical thinking.
There's more in this story than what I planned to put into it. It's the constant interaction between the narrative, the reflection on what I wanted to say, and the stumbling upon huge difficulties that made this story what it is. I didn't get the idea of petrifaction until very late during the writing stage.
The core of this fanfic, senility, went unnoticed by me during the whole process. So much for the importance of author's intent. Sometimes the author is too stupid (OK, let's say, too involved) to understand what his story is really about!
I'm going to try and generalise a bit.
I think that a story is a living, evolving monster. The author needs to give it time and room to grow. He has to learn about its quirks, about what "makes its life worth living", to paraphrase Grey. It's a time for speculation, preliminary researches, pretty pictures in the author's head, and whatever help he can get.
Plotting is often a trial-and-error process. Writers make mistakes that are part of the creative act. They can disregard them -- thus creating plot holes, or try to correct them -- thus steaming new ideas.
The control the author has on his story is not always conscious. That's when you'll hear the author say things like: "Teal'c told me to do that," or "Grey didn't want to die." It would be more accurate to say: "I studied Teal'c's behaviour on the show and thought he would act that way," or "Grey was a character with potential, and I decided to explore it further." That's also when the author ends up looking into the details. Sentences, words and grasshoppers that his subconscious made him write often have a bigger purpose. If a sentence sticks to the mind to the point that it itches, it's time to let it grow.
In the end, it's always the author who comes up with the story. Not a muse. I don't believe in divine inspiration. It all comes down to hard work, reflection, and a fair amount of lateral thinking. That some or all of it takes place on a subconscious level doesn't make it magical.
It only makes the act of creation extremely mysterious, just like the minds that give it birth.
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