The second thing we’ll do is to trim the opening scene was the length of it. As it stands, it’s about 310 words (or 14% of the story) and four of its six paragraphs are more of a rant. They contribute little to the story and not much to the character. Further, the opening paragraph has some inconsistency regarding the character. On the one hand he’s disgusted to have gotten summoned, but on the other he’s happy about it. We’ll make his character consistent. At the same time, we’ll work in his name. As we’ve mentioned previous in our blog, in first-person stories, be sure the reader know at least the gender of the narrator to avoid confusion, unless you have a very good reason to conceal that. Since I have no reason to conceal his name or gender, it’s best to put those in, unobtrusively so it doesn’t sound forced.
In order to save some blog space, here are the links to the original and final versions story so you can download them (and print them if you like) for easy comparison. This new opening scene is much about half the length of the original.
Bear in mind that this story went through several intermediate revisions. Few writers that I know of can go from rough draft to final version in one revision. For expedience, I’m simply skipping those intervening stages and rolling them all into one.
In keeping with the changes to David’s character in the opening, I wanted to continue those changes into the rest of the piece. I gave him a more sympathetic personality, lightened up on him some, and added a little more character background.
Here’s the old opening to the second scene followed by a shorter, tighter revised one (135 words vs. 80 words).
OLD: Eight fifty-one on the fateful morning. Cold and overcast, bad sign. I strolled into the Town Hall with a library copy of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad tucked under my arm. Having been warned by a friend that I should take along plenty of reading material, I’d picked it up out of my fondness for Old Sam. When I discovered the perfect marginal comment penned in the preface, I knew I had made the right choice. Twain had begun, “This book is a record of a pleasure trip.” The anonymous scribbler had added, “but the real pleasures have been censored out.” I decided that Dickens’ Great Expectations, my second choice, having been devoid of riveting marginalia, was too heady and too optimistic for the occasion. So, I let Mark Twain set the tone for today’s excursion.
NEW: I strolled through a cold, overcast morning toward the Town Hall with a book tucked under my arm. A female co-worker–with whom I hoped to co-work more closely in the near future–had advised me to take along reading material. Great Expectations clearly presented too much optimism for this occasion. On the other hand, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad was appropriate for those I was about to encounter. I’d been meaning to read it. Twain and I shared world views.
As you’ll see by comparing the two version, I made some changes and adjustments along the way. In the middle where I described the courtroom population, I deleted the “Sparky” reference and referred to him by his clothing (Tank Top). It’s not uncommon for writers to refer to unnamed characters (because the narrator doesn’t know the name) by some physical characteristic of the person.
Then I changed the ending. In order to add more depth to the main character, I added an interaction between David and Tank Top (and gave him a name). Even though the story is about David’s jury duty, the changes at the end extended his character beyond the story and therefore make him more real.
This is where some writers fall down. They have a great story idea, then they put it down on paper and think it’s done. They don’t understand the often used phrase “writing is rewriting.” Very few writers have ever written a single piece that was perfect in its first draft. A few may come close from time to time. I’ve written a couple of very good first drafts of short stories, but those still needed revisions. Most of my first drafts need a lot of work before they’re in good shape.
I can almost promise that any new writer who believes that his or her story is perfect in the first draft stage is seriously deluded. I’m not saying that all first drafts are bad, only that the chances of one being brilliant and not needing at least minor revisions are vanishingly small.
So, read the original of “Jury Duty.” If you happen to think it’s great, then read the current “final” version and note how much stronger it is. Even then, I’d be a fool to say it’s perfect. Is it good enough in this form? Well, that’s for you to decide.
At this point, I think I’m done for now with this series on how to write a story. I will do one more post, as promised, to discuss choosing the right point of view for your story. I’ll confess that this was more a broad outline than a detailed process. That’s because it’s not my place to tell any author how to write. All I can do is show how I accomplished it with this one idea. Every writer is different, and not all story ideas are handled the same way.
I dealt here with the short story, which mostly involves a single story line devoid of subplots and multiple complications (although longer ones may achieve greater complexity. Nevertheless, the basic process is mostly the same for short stories or novels. You start with an idea, you create the character who will be involved in the story, and you decide how your idea will affect their lives.
This works whether the story is idea-based (where the idea is more important than the characters, who often exist more to tell the story that to be an integral part of it) or character-based (where the lives of the characters play a central role against the backdrop of the idea).
Examples of idea-based stories are Jurassic Park, The Time Machine and The DaVinci Code. Examples of character-based stories include The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and Twilight. Stories such as Lord of the Rings fall in between. While the characters in this epic are important, the story stretches far beyond the individual characters. And then we have Sherlock Holmes, who is both the character and the idea. With Sherlock Holmes the stories are merely the backdrop to show off his character.
Readers interested in a more extensive guide on novel writing would do well to follow C. S. Lakin’s year-long (for 2014) series that begins with YOUR NOVEL AS A HOUSE
She posts a new installment every Wednesday, so you might want to subscribe and get notifications in your email. As for reading the intervening articles, I don’t see a link to the next one in the series on her website, so after you bring up the first one, just change the date in the URL to the next Wednesday. You can print them out to read later, as I’m doing.