I had a moment recently when I was thinking about the situation that we often run into in which someone will relate an experience at an event and later, another person who was also at that same event will have had a very different experience. Related to that is the stories that are passed down to us are often one person’s experience. How would the story change if someone else were telling it? So, I decided to create an alternative story.
Growing up, I was a fan of myths and fairy tales and I decided to rewrite one of them. When the idea occurred to me, I was out and so without being able to reference any sources I was stuck with my memories and realizing that my recollection of many stories was hazy and incomplete. The one story that I could recall with decent clarity was Jack and the Beanstalk so I decided to work with that one.
In some ways, that story is fairly easy to work with because there are only 4 characters: Jack, his mother, the giant and the giant’s wife. The existing story features Jack as the hero and would clearly have been written by either Jack or an admirer of Jack. On the other side of the good/bad equation is the giant and his wife, so it makes sense for an alternative story to be told from their perspective.
If the story we have were distorted to make Jack heroic, then an obvious alternative would be to turn Jack into the villain. Then it would make sense that he stole the items as he did in the story, but make the victim undeserving of the theft. How could we make Jack look particularly horrible? He could steal from a child, but I could not think of a reason that a child would have a hen that lays golden eggs or an enchanted harp. I considered having Jack steal from a poor widow, but anyone that has a hen that lays golden eggs really should not be poor. Then the thought occurred to me that the victim does not need to be particularly vulnerable. Instead, I could make the theft particularly horrible through the betrayal of a trusted relationship.
The other aspect I wanted to take advantage of is that when we tell a story with the intent of making ourselves look good, we exaggerate. The cliche that illustrates this point is the fish that we caught grows with every telling of the story. How much more impressive is Jack’s theft if he stole from a giant instead of an average-sized man?
As the story began to coalesce in my mind, I had to address the mental state of the victim. The value of the treasures stolen is quite impressive. The victim of such a theft would be distraught unless the treasures did not have much value to them. The two obvious explanations of would be that the victim was exceeding rich, but then the crime loses potency, or that the victim did not value them as much as the treasure’s worth might otherwise indicate. When I decided to take the second option, the personality of Martin began to solidify.
The final aspect that I had to consider was how to tell the true story of Jack. I could have simply told the story as if I were narrating the events of Jack finding his way to Martin’s doorstep and the building of the relationship between the two and then the betrayal. Instead, one character related the events to another character. One reason is that I had to consider that some readers may not be as familiar with the story and so I then was able to summarize the original. This would also address the potential problem that there could be multiple versions of the story out there. Another reason is that it is easier to illustrate Martin’s betrayal. His reaction when he realizes that the story being related is about him is simple and clear. If I were trying to achieve the same result while telling the true story of Martin and Jack, the same effect would take paragraphs.
That is basically it. I have read interviews with some authors that they simply begin writing and after a while they step back and determine what the story is. I know that other authors have a very detailed plan before the put the first word down. My process is to build a basic framework and then start writing. Most of the time, I stick to that framework, but sometimes as the story unfolds, the framework must be reworked to fit the evolving story.