The Formation of Stories
From the drawing board of Nick Abadzis
“Where do you get your ideas from?”
This is supposedly the dumbest question a person could ask a storyteller – a cartoonist, a writer, a performance artist or whatever. But it’s a question that hints at the cluelessness any storyteller faces at the beginning of the creation of a new tale. A blank piece of paper, a blinking cursor on a screen, they both demand a first action: just dive in. In my experience, it’s better not to dwell upon questions. Where do ideas come from? Where do stories come from? Why, from living, from observation, listening and sometimes from the bones of other stories, dear reader, as you may well know. But what’s the process?
The most accurate and honest way of describing how a story happens for me is to say, ‘I make them up as I go along.’ Really. I may think I have a plan, but stories are so mutable they refuse to stick to it. Indeed, I wrote an earlier version of this blog entry where I followed a thread down a rabbit hole into a labyrinth where a shaggy dog wiser than I lives. I abandoned it on the grounds that it wasn’t really a piece of illuminating writing; it was turning into a story itself. One that was trying to say, ‘Dunno’ in an entertaining way. Saying ‘I don’t know’ in answer to that question isn’t being as disingenuous as it might sound; it’s more of a protective mechanism. I think part of it is that I don’t care to look, to find the source. You know, just in case there’s nothing there and it really is all done with smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, I have some weird sense of faith that if you have the smallest, dumbest, crudest and most insubstantial seed of an idea, then a narrative can accumulate around it, whatever the weather.
Still, I get asked that question and I suppose by now I should really have a ‘prepared answer’. I’m writing this over the Atlantic traveling from London to Washington DC and from up here the clouds look like the kind of fluffy thought balloons I imagine some of the askers of that question would expect a story to look like in its nascent form.
It’s a bit like asking where ‘thought’ comes from, I suppose. An idea in its raw state is an impulse, an apparently involuntary inclination that causes an action, a response to an upwelling of fresh, volcanic whim from some chasm that reaches down into the subconscious where there exists an ocean-wide magma lake of half-formed notions. From that Ocean of Notions (a real place in a children’s graphic novel I once authored) ideas come. One of them occasionally bubbles up to the conscious mind above, sometimes in reaction to outside stimuli, other times entirely at random. And, as mentioned, all of the stuff that exists down there has entered one’s psyche somehow either though observing, listening, reading. Human culture and the way we process our environment is the collective subconscious if you like, the place from where stories derive. The mind is the crucible in which it takes form, mutates, divides.
Or maybe stories form like planets do. Imagine a vast cloud of dust and rubble floating, a great mass of impulses. Some mysterious force somehow attracts two or three to each other, they stick, and the core of something greater is formed. An idea. The process continues, more particles join the core and there is an agglomeration of disparate elements, things foam and fuse together in new shapes. Eventually, you get something roughly spherical. No, hold on, that’s planets… and we were talking about stories, weren’t we? Well, there’s a parallel pattern in that rather ramshackle metaphor somewhere. The point is, without wanting to romanticize it, there is something mysterious about the whole process. When I’ve finished a work of any kind, I can never really find the same path back to the germ of the idea and understand it backwards. When I’m in the tumult of creating something, I know when it’s working, but afterwards I seldom really understand how I did it.
Getting an idea isn’t really that difficult. The storyteller’s initial problem is really taking that pesky idea and charming an outline of its final shape from out of that vast cloud of possibilities. This is where questions actually do help as you ask yourself, ‘What’s it about?’ and ‘What am I saying here?’
If it’s a good day and you’re lucky, you’ll get an answer. From out of that cloud, a shape may form. Sometimes this can be pretty scary, and it can feel like this thing is choosing you to tell it. Stories are contrary and individual beasts and you need to either tame them or allow yourself to get caught up in their nature (I generally go with the latter option). Every single one demands its own set of solutions to narrative problems. If you happen to be working on a story that is drawn from real events (like Laika), the discovery of a new fact can radically alter your perception of a story’s outline – but I’m getting ahead of myself there. The backbone of a story can mutate and flex into an entirely different shape from what you expected. But this is enormous fun: let it do this. If you’re being honest with it, characters will begin to introduce themselves to you. These are more shapes from the murk, voices from a glimpsed place that will become clearer the more you listen, faces that will cohere and solidify the more you focus. They’ll begin to populate your story. At this point, they are little more than ideas themselves, quirks of creativity that may randomly spark and begin generating their own subset of tales. It’s a never-ending process.
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not sure if I really answered that question. I suppose another answer would be that I have nothing to say on the matter. But it seemed better to just riff on it rather than to say that; to provide a few descriptions of how the process can feel and what the potential results of it can be. With any luck, it may have inspired or provoked or calmed you in some small way; enough that you get one of those impulses of your own that you can translate into something fine that can live in the world.
One last thing: you know that old anecdote, 'Truth is stranger than fiction?' A wise man* once told me that any artist worth their salt has an aerial picking up signals from the place where ideas come from. I agree with him, and this whole blog entry has really been a descriptive essay about that. But here’s an illustration too, about the way coincidence can inform a thing you create. It gives you the idea that there is a world out there larger, richer and much wilder than the one we see.
I spent years of my life working on Laika, which of course is based upon a true story (or, more correctly, several true stories intertwined with a few of my own). One of the characters that introduced herself to me along the way was Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky, who was very, very loosely based upon a woman who worked with cosmodogs at IMBP some years after my tale takes place there. My character rapidly changed as I wrote the story and lost all connections with that woman; she became her own character in service to the story I was telling. So I thought. After Laika was published, I had a conversation with the author Chris Dubbs whose earlier book on the Soviet cosmodog program Space Dogs had helped me research Laika. With Colin Burgess he has also just published Animals in Space, an excellent and exhaustive work on all those experimental animals who were launched into space, including Laika. We tell a very similar story of course but Chris and Colin had come across a photo of two cosmodog carers in the course of their research that I hadn’t seen before:
The woman on the right is spookily similar to my fictional character Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky. I thought I was making her up, but maybe I wasn’t. The aerial’s tuning itself OK, then.
Thanks for the use of the photo, Chris.
Nick Abadzis (over Montreal now) 27th September 2007
*Brendan McCarthy, in point of fact.
[UP NEXT WEEK: JANE YOLEN]