Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Anatomy of a Book: The Embryo

MOOD: Typical Wednesday- not quite there, not quite gone

Our theme for the month: "The Anatomy of a Book". Kind of a hard subject. I've been thinking of it like anatomy of a body. The original, real, Gray's Anatomy is a textbook, not a TV show, organized by bodily systems, like the skeleton, circulatory system, respiratory system, etc. The various organs are included, but more important is how they work together. I thought perhaps authors might like to pick a specific part of a book, and maybe relate it to a body system, or specific organ, but it's up to each of us to decide how we want to proceed, I guess.

I'm going to start with the beginning, the core- the Embryo. In a human embryo, all the basics that will one day become the functioning human being are present, but not all the pieces of the basics are there. There's a brain- or a brain stem at least, but not enough cells and neurons to function on a cognitive level. A primitive heart beats and what will become functioning lungs are beginning to develop. The embryo also has some vestigial organs, like the remnants of a tail, that will disappear before birth.

To me, stories begin like this. It's the point at which two ideas or thoughts collide that begins the story. Before that point, the ideas are like the sperm and the egg, both with potential, but not until they join does the potential move forward to begin development into the eventual baby.

All stories must begin with ideas, but the ideas can be of many different forms. I find for me, I've often begun with the question, "What if...?" But it seems to me all the what-ifs have also been asked before by other authors. They don't have a lot of power on their own. Interesting, but by themselves just swimming around, not doing much. But when something else comes along, perhaps an unusual character, perhaps a setting, or more likely an unusual motivation, and the two ideas collide, that's the point at when my story suddenly takes on life.

I've just finished reading a book by my friend Anna Campbell, Tempt the Devil. While the story has its uniqueness, it's not all that far afield from most historical romances. Yet the sexual tension is just plain explosive, and kept the book all but flipping the pages for me. What was its power? Two very controlling people attempting to control the relationship and dominate the other? We've seen that before. Being the arrogant rake of a duke and the infamous courtesan who captivates all her lovers just sort of fits. In fact, it sounds almost ordinary, doesn't it?

Well, it's not. The question I think Anna must have asked herself was "Why?" Motivation, in other words. It's not enough that two people want to just control each other. It's not enough that they each wanted to be on top. It's more primal than that: they both wanted desperately not to be on bottom.

There's where you start to get into the pain. Why not be on bottom? A truly strong person can risk vulnerability. What then makes these two people so desperate to not be vulnerable, to give the appearance of strength when they really are so very wounded that they fear they will disintegrate under the control of another?

Anna found her answer, and I'm not telling you what it is. But she created an extremely powerful conflict by throwing together two passionate characters whose very essence depended on what the other could not give up.

That's the embryo. Two ideas that collided and joined to create the beginning and growth of life of the story. Some people talk of theme and premise, and core beliefs- and lots of other things. I've never been too big on most of those because they're too abstract. But it's really the same thing, just viewed from a different perspective.

You might have a theme, or premise, and start with that. For example, my first thought on LOKI'S DAUGHTERS, written a number of years ago, was a question, "Is there really any transgression that cannot be forgiven?" The answer that seemed to come to me was a plot that was far too dark for the market. I still would not write that story today. But then I watched a dear friend who was just beginning her fourth out of what became five battles with cancer. One theme for her life kept coming at me over and over: "Never give up. Hang on just a little longer because you never know what the next minute will bring."

When those two ideas collided, a unique story emerged, and a unique heroine who could never give up her battle to save her people, inspired by the Viking boy who had at the last minute hidden her in her attempt to escape his rapacious uncle. And then years later when everything looked so bleak, he returned. But what his people had done to hers was unforgivable. Or was it?

From those basic specks of ideas the story grew, and strongly motivated characters emerged. As in Anna's story, I had found motivations that upped the ante beyond simple wants and needs to those that meant the life or death of the very essence of my hero and heroine. The embryo grew to fruition and became one of my all time favorite books.


Genene Valleau said...

Very interesting way of looking at a story! And Anna should pay you for promotion--I want to buy her book and read it!

This post gives me new things to consider when I start my next project. Thank you!

Delle Jacobs said...

Not to worry. Genene, she's doing very well without my help.

Glad you could use this.