The Right Form for the Story
(image courtesy of Vicki Hamilton via pixabay.com)
We’ve got characters that excite us. We’ve listened to their stories. We have an outline. Now what?
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If you’re a blank-pager, off you go, and blessings to you. I mean that sincerely. I think it’s wonderful when people have such an innate sense of craft that they can hit the blank page without planning and the words fall into place structurally and in every other way.
That doesn’t work for me, and looking back at the work I did that way, I often cringe.
I try to figure out the best medium in which to tell the story. Often that becomes clear as I write the outline, at least as far as whether it’s a long project or a short project. Because I spent so many decades working in theatre, dialogue is often what comes to me immediately after character. The character appears and starts talking, ergo cadence and dialogue come early. I have several pieces that began in script format, and, as I worked on them, I realized they worked better as novels.
As I mentioned before, I also adapt between formats, so I know how to modify structure if I want to use a piece across different mediums.
An example: I’ve been fascinated by Kate Warne since I first heard about her. She was the first female Pinkerton in the US, and trained many other women as detectives. At the time, the Pinkerton Agency specialized in long-term sting operations. They were often theatrical, demanding acting and undercover skills. My research led me to believe that, had Kate not been a Pinkerton, she would have been an amazing con artist. I was lucky enough to discover that the Pinkerton papers are lodging with the Library of Congress. They suggested I get a copy on microfilm from Harvard University’s Library. Harvard balked, but I found another copy out of a library In Indiana. Using the Interlibrary Loan System, I borrowed it. Yes, I have my own microfilm AND microfiche machines (currently in storage). While Kate’s case notes were lost in the Chicago Fire (that of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow), there were other notes and references from other agents which helped my research.
When you need to find something, World Cat is a great resource, and, beyond your regional or state library network, there’s the Interlibrary Loan System (ILL). Sometimes there are small fees involved, but it’s worth it.
In 2015 (?) I was invited to be part of the 365 Women a Year Playwrighting Project when I pitched writing a script about Kate and her deep undercover work in the Adams Express Embezzlement Case. That was the beginning of 10 plays I’ve written for the Project, about women forgotten by history. You can read more about them at the bottom of my Theatre page on the Pages On Stages website. I’ve remained fascinated by Kate. Since writing “Confidence Confidant” I also wrote “A Woman for the Job” about how she got the job with the Pinkertons; and then, again for the Playwrighting Project, I wrote “A Rare Medium” about a case where Kate posed as a medium for months (and built quite the client list) in order for her team to take down a pair of lovers determined to poison their spouses.
In any case, I was happy with “Confidence Confidant” although it’s an odd length and hard to place in one-act nights. But I saw a call for submissions for a radio company called The Post-Meridian Players out of Somerville, MA. I love writing for radio. But most of my work is comic noir mystery, and they were looking for something a little different.
I adapted “Confidence Confidant” for radio.
Now, radio uses sound to drive plot and reveal character, instead of the differing visuals that either stage or film uses. Visuals had to be translated into sounds. Every sound had to drive plot and/or reveal character. It also has to be precisely timed, to the second. If a show runs 30 minutes, it has to come in exactly at 30 minutes, not 30 minutes and 10 seconds. You’ve got to hope that your actors don’t take pauses one could drive a truck through. Or, if they do, that the director makes them tighten those pauses up. Otherwise, you have to cut so it fits. I talk about this in detail, in a piece I wrote for Script Magazine, called From Eye to Ear.
Anyway, I adapted “Confidence Confidant” for radio, submitted it, and it was chosen for production. I had a sublime cast, and an amazing director and assistant director. They performed it live in front of an audience, like a play, with their Foley artists providing sound effects. I was lucky enough to travel up from Cape Cod, where I lived at the time, to see it.
During the process, of course, there were revisions and tweaks. Some of those I then moved back over into the stage version, which made it stronger.
That’s an example of how a piece in one medium can be adapted. It’s not about just changing the formatting details. It’s about using the tools of the medium to strengthen the story.
When you get an idea, you need to decide what medium serves it best. Sometimes, you will be wrong. You may start in one format, and realize, as you write it, that it would work better in another format.
That’s wonderful! You’ve refused to be imprisoned by your initial vision, and you let yourself grow and change to support the story.
For a series or a serial, you need strong protagonists to drive it. In genres like romantic suspense or romance, often series are built around rotating pairs of protagonists. They are front and center during “their book” and get their HEA (for non-romance readers, that means “Happily Ever After”). Secondary characters in one book have started the sparks of attraction. The next couple moves front and center in the next book, and the protagonists of the first book become supporting characters. The reader gets to spend more time with characters they love,, and each book still meets genre expectations.
Authors who do this very well include Mary Balogh and Jayne Ann Krentz. I do that in my Coventina Circle Paranormal Romantic Suspense series. The central protagonists are members of the Coventina Circle Coven in New York City (the series is set after 9/11 but before the pandemic). Morag and Simon are the protagonists of PLAYING THE ANGLES. The second book, THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY, has Bonnie (who sublet Morag’s apartment at the end of ANGLES) and Rufus front and center. Technically, she is not a coven member, but her story demanded to be told next. The third book, RELICS & REQUIEM, focuses on Amanda (Morag’s best friend and coven sister) and Phineas (who was introduced in ANGLES). Book four, GRAVE REACH, features Lesley, another coven member, and Sam. Book five, THE BARD’S LAMENT (which was put on pause when I got sick and will be rescheduled), features Sylvie, another coven member, and Jared, who was introduced in an earlier book. Book six, DEADLY GROVE, will be Diana’s book. She is the High Priestess of the coven, and in a failing marriage through a good portion of the series. That was originally going to be the end of the series. Through reader demand, Hart Crain, who is a tertiary character in the other books, will be central, with a new character as his romantic partner. Jake, who drove into THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY on his motorcycle to vie with Rufus for Bonnie’s attention, became so popular that he, too, will get his own book. The publishers and I have discussed there being one more book, circling back to the theatre (PLAYING THE ANGLES takes place mostly backstage on a Broadway show, familiar territory) with a new pair of central characters to wind it all up, but have Morag and the others important to the action.
The five coven members appear in all the books, but their place in the books is different depending on the demands of the story.
I have not yet switched protagonists in a serial, but, should it serve the story best, that is what I will do.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes start with the format and search for characters and situations to fit it. The short play “After Arden” was written in response to a call for plays about what happened to characters from AS YOU LIKE IT after the play ended. “My Side of the Bed” was a premise that had been rolling around in my head for a few months, but until I saw a call for short, comic plays, I didn’t sit down, search for characters, and write it. “The Little Woman” was written in a fit of rage after SCOTUS betrayed us by overturning Roe vs. Wade. A play was the best format in which to tell that story. “Inspired By” was inspired by a passage in a NEW YORKER article, where the ex-wife of a writer put it in the divorce agreement that he could no longer write about her. Again, a play made more sense to convey the story than prose. And I integrated some awful things said by ex-boyfriends to me in the play.
The night I wrote this post (because I’m trying to write a little ahead, so I’m not overwhelmed), I got an idea (while cooking dinner). The title came first, which is very unusual for me. I usually struggle with titles. But the title “Paranormal Paraphrasing” hit me, and I liked it, and wanted to do something with it.
The initial plan was that it would be a flash fiction. The central protagonist, Victoria, a burned-out guide in an historical house, arrived quickly. I started building the ghost characters around her. I figured it would be either a flash fiction or a short story, a ghost story with flashes of both humor and maybe horror.
But, as I heard the characters talking, I realized it would work better as a play. After dinner, I sat down and wrote the first draft of “Paranormal Paraphrasing” as a 10-minute play. It will go through several revisions (and may be out the door by the time this post goes live). But the stage play format worked best to tell the story I wanted to tell. I got terrific feedback from a Trusted Reader on it, who encouraged me to expand it into a longer piece. The 10-minute version incorporated a good deal of her feedback, but I see where there’s room for expansion, and that goes on the schedule for next year, creating a longer version exploring some topics that were tapped and then moved on.
Although I may adapt it into a radio play, too, changing out some visuals into stronger audio cues. The characters and situations have a lot of potential.
If you start in one format and it doesn’t work, you can always change it. Nothing you write is ever wasted. Everything gets you where you need to go.
Do you write in more than one form? What dictates your choice of medium in which to explore your stories and characters?
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