Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Crafting 101: Flesh on the Bones

There is a difference between crafting a story and just getting up and telling one.  Pretty much anyone who isn't afraid of speaking in public can get up and tell a story of some kind.  We share stories at weddings and funerals.  We share them during worship services, and amongst friends.  We share them on the radio and television. 

In this series of Blogs, I will look at a single story, and show the process I use to get from my first exposure to a tale all the way to the finished structure.

This is the third entry in the series.

The Pot Maker and The Tiger - The Story

1. Crafting 101: The Questions I Ask

2. Crafting 101:  Building The Structure

3. Flesh On The Bones

4. Crafting 101:  Donkeys and tigers and War Horses., Oh My!

5.  Crafting 101:  There Are No Little Characters...

6.  Crafting 101:  Putting It Together

7.  Crafting 101:  Introductions

Now that I have some structures on which to flesh out my story, I begin to compose the possibilities.  This means I have to flesh out each of the different relationships that interest me, play with the characters, and see what I come up with in the end.

My first cut and dry possibilities, generated by the structures I identified are as follows:

1.  The pot maker is somewhat of a hapless fellow.  He accidentally rides the tiger home.  His wife realizes the potential for fame or gain, and sends word to the Raja about the tiger.  The pot maker is rewarded for his bravery and made an honorary general.  When the army comes to attack, and he is recruited to become an actual general and scout the front, his wife convinces him he can do it.  He falls in line with the story, and scouts the front with the tree, becomes a hero in spite of his shortcomings.  At the end, the wife takes a victory lap, the husband is also happy, and goes back to the factory where everyone appreciates him even more.

2.  The pot maker is a good natured fellow who accidentally rides the tiger home.  He lies about how he captured it.  His wife warns him that such lies will only get him into trouble.  He dismisses her concerns, 'What trouble can come from this?'  The story he tells gets bigger during the telling until the Raja himself hears of it, rewards the Pot Maker, and promotes him to honorary general.  His wife points out that this is just the sort of trouble she feared.  The Pot Maker dismisses her concern, 'What trouble can come from this?'.  When the army comes, he is in despair. His wife once again points out that this is the type of trouble she feared, but now he agrees.  Between them, they concoct a plan so that he will not have to scout the front.  Unfortunately, when his wife slaps the back of the horse, instead of just moving, it takes off for the front, and he accidentally scouts the front despite his best efforts.  After the war is over, the two of them are happy to be alive and the Pot Maker goes back to the factory, a little wiser but full of many more stories.

3.  The pot maker is a braggart who accidentally rides the tiger home.  Full of himself, he begins to believe the stories he tells about how he captured the tiger.  He sends a message to the Raja, telling some wild tale about how he caught the tiger.  The Raja sends for him, makes him an honorary general.  His wife goes along with it, but warns him it could be dangerous to put himself forward like this.  When he is made a general, and made to scout the front, she does an I told you so, which makes the pot maker more determined than ever to scout the front.  Despite his bravado, he is terrified, and can't ride the horse without her help.  She does help him and he scouts the front with the tree, accidentally stops the war, and comes home a hero.  His wife doesn't get on his case as much, but he, realizing that he dodged the proverbial bullet, becomes a more humble person who has a mostly real story to tell.

4.  The pot maker is a storyteller who tells amusing tales.  He rides the tiger home by accident; tells a good story about the how and why of his capture.  His wife is exasperated, but she sees no harm in it, and lets it stand. Story gets to the Raja.  Raja makes him an honorary general.  When the scout horse comes, his wife is exasperated again, but the pot maker comes up with a plan to not scout the front.  Unfortunately, his plan goes awry, he ends up scouting the front anyway, stops the war and becomes a hero.  He goes back to the factory, a hero who now has a rapt audience, and what storyteller doesn't want that?

5.  The pot maker's wife believes he is capable of anything, and worships the ground on which he walks.  The day after he rides the tiger home, she makes him out to be a hero to their neighbors.  The story spreads until the Raja comes to hear of it.  He calls the pot maker to the palace and makes him an honorary general.  The pot maker can hardly believe the tale that is told of him, but since he likes a good story, he doesn't quibble with the details.  When the Raja sends the scout horse, the wife lets everyone know her husband is more than up to the task.  Trying to live up to the impossible image she has, he agrees to scout the front, but he needs her to tie him to the horse.  She does, and sends him off at top speed.  He scouts the front, becomes a hero, and she is the only one who isn't surprised, because she has always believed in him.  He goes back to making pots, telling tales, laughing at strangeness of life, and everyone is happy.

There are, obviously, other variants you could wrest from the story, but these are the ones I explored
Putting the flesh on these bones takes much longer than any other part of the process; for me anyway.

I don't worry about how long the tale is during the fleshing out phase.  I'm not even trying to tell the story as a whole.  I may spend several days telling just a piece of it to myself, and trying to visualize the images and get the characters and place set in my mind.

I will practice dialogue runs that I know aren't going to make it into the story, but listening to the characters interact can help me figure out what bits of business, types of language, and physical characteristics to give the characters.

 This is the phase of story crafting that convinces the outside world that my elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor.  I tell to myself in the car, mopping the floor, doing dishes, putting away the laundry, and anyplace else I happen to be.  My family doesn't even ask anymore; they understand I'm crafting out loud.

There are some people who write out their stories word for word, but I do not do that at this phase, or sometimes at all.  I need the characters to remain fluid so I can explore, change, and experience them.  If I want them to be real on stage and in my body, then I have to make them real for me, and get my body to shape itself into theirs.

Here are the steps.

Step 1: Explore the characters: what makes sense?

This is about how these characters interact.  I may very well spend an hour while I'm mopping the floor imagining arguments, outings, or what sort of life the pot maker and his wife have with each other.  This is when I'll decide how old they are, what sort of relationship they have, what their home looks like, what sorts of things the do, how their neighbors regard them, and lots of other things that will come into play on what choices the characters make later.  I'll create arguments, how they met, whether they were happy about their arranged match...which is what it most likely was, or if they chose each other, and what sort of dreams they may or may not have had.  I am a writer, and I like to play with characters.  It is what makes them very real for me.

Step 2: Explore the scenarios: What flows from all of the info I have about the two of them?

While considering the various scenarios, I think about the fact that when I first heard this story it was funny.  I liked the fact that it was funny.  Some of the scenarios lend themselves to be funny, some do not.  I could certainly make this story more serious, which I discovered when I started running down the scenarios with different types of personality traits and marital choices between the pot maker and his wife.  I also discovered that the pot maker and his wife could turn into conniving, scheming, really unlikable characters.  You never know where a scenario can take you until you go far down the path, and take it to pretty bizarre lengths.  Staying out of the dark was an important thing for me with this tale.  I do have some really dark material, but that is not what I am going for in this tale.

Step 3:  Begin shaping the story incorporating the various choices that seemed to work best

Start putting the actual scenario in the story together using the tone I want, the characteristics of the main characters that feel right, and incorporate the relationship between husband and wife that I think move the story along while remembering that this story is funny, and I want it to remain so.

It is not uncommon for me to change my mind pretty frequently about what the main characters are doing or saying while in this stage.  Their conversations are much longer than what will make it into the actual story, and I linger here to make sure that when I start cutting things down to two or three line exchanges you still get what kind of relationship you are seeing.

Sometimes this is a very cut and dry experience, done in a few hours, and sometimes this process can take me years.  I sat on the Pot Maker and the Tiger for almost three years before I started telling it.

The longer I work with the characters of a given range of story possibilities, they begin to blend and change until I've got some characteristics of each scenario blended into the relationship that seems to work best to me.

So, at this point I have answered a number of my primary questions, I've built some structure, I've set the main character and his primary relationship pretty firmly in my head, and I'm pretty sure I know how the Pot Maker got into this situation, and why he did what he did.  Excellent!

What's next?

Time to bring in the secondary characters, and figure out just how much characterization of each of them I need or want in this tale.  Voices, sound effects, characterizations and more.

Happy Crafting!


  1. This blog series is a definite for small run publishing as a book to sell. Well written and useful.

    1. Thank you, very much. The hard part is making sure the posts don't get too long! Saying what needs to be said and keeping the bulk of my musings from cluttering up the page.