Writers’ Criminal Ideas – developing a short story

I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ because I rarely know.

When I wake, story phrases or conversations come to me out of the dull mist of very early morning. But in respect of this story, I can give a direct answer about my criminal ideas.

Some years ago I was watching the news of multiple shootings in a school by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the media tried to analyse its reasons. Sadly, other such massacres have followed.

As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. I remember several school haters rather than school refusers holed up in their bedrooms after school, keeping themselves separate from family and peers. These boys, and sometimes girls, believed those around them were ignorant of what they themselves knew. Their ‘knowledge’ was of violence, rebellion, conspiracy, retribution. They had dark posters on the wall. Those youngsters, I can’t write about, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that role.

I can’t write about those particular youngsters, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that state of alienation. (This writer’s criminal ideas)

I created a younger boy from another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year.

Later it won a Bloomsbury review after topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that she “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” She went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” She suggested how I might develop it as a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl‘.

I put the story with its criminal ideas to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.  Later I tweaked it and put it on Kindle.

A Boy with Potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. It has elements of horror. It is a story of suspense. Crime is in the background; crime is the threat. Will it be a killer?  I believe there is an appetite for shorter stories, commuter length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words.” (and now it’s in its 2nd, longer, edition of 7,000 words). FREE Kindle this week.

Strong characters capture readers

The US presidential election campaign! How rich a source of strong characters and plot for any writer to capture!

Simon Schama didn’t predict it in his 2010 article where he discussed passionately what historical events all school children should learn.  Otherwise he might have included it.

The study of Machiavelli can raise the temperature of university seminars and one day, no doubt the phenomenon of Trump will do so.

One way of involving readers with your characters is to make them bold, multi-faceted, unconventional and unpredictable. But creating one or two strong characters shouldn’t mean falling short on remaining characters.

I was captivated by The Girl on a Train because the main character’s complex personality and back story were gradually revealed. The plot had me gripped because of her difficulties and situation.  She had strengths as well as weaknesses, and could be unpredictable so that the book was a good page-turner. I stayed involved until late in the plot when another character’s behaviour wasn’t credible. As a psychologist, I know that is not how such a person in that situation would behave. The book lost a fan at that point. Hawkins had not so carefully researched and designed that (male) character, and having lost my belief, I didn’t enjoy the novel from then on.

However, should Paula Hawkins write a novel with the same main character, I would want to read it. This is the power a writer has: strong or complex characters attract readers. Inadequately researched ones, lose readers. If you’re a new writer, there’s a useful article here from Writers’ Digest on character building.

It’s taken me a long time to complete my trilogy about a boyhood rivalry that begins in 1937.  I’ve worked hard to ensure that any actions make full sense in the light of the character’s personality. Readers love my protagonist and hate my antagonist – a psychological bully – but there are aspects of the plot that invite sympathy for him, and by the third novel, the hero is examining his own short-comings. The rivalry culminates in an act extraordinary enough to make an unpredictable but satisfying ending (I trust).

Endings have to satisfy readers by being believable in the context of the characters. It can surprise but I like to leave the reader feeling “Yes, that would happen” or “he would do that”.  It’s easier for a trilogy or series to achieve this than a single novel. The writer can lay the necessary stones on a path within each book.  Development of plot and personality is being built up over time. Less prominent characters affect the main ones. Wittingly or not, they are change agents. It’s best if the reader realises their effect on the main character’s behaviour  – rather than the writer pointing it out.

What a student remembers of his/her history lessons is often due to the character: king, rebel, victim, adventurer, cardinal, causing the historical event.

Whether it’s on TV or in a book, it’s the strength of characterization that makes for my involvement and enjoyment. I wonder if it’s the same for you?

arelativeinvasion_optforbookmark
A RELATIVE INVASION 

 

WWII, two boys, a fateful rivalry

                       INTRUSION    INFILTRATION    IMPACT