Award-winning speculative fiction author Claire North takes us through how to develop the premise of a story, and just where asking why could take you.
Let’s start with the simplest premise we can.
On Thursday evening, Sally quits her job. She picks up her coat, doesn’t bother to say goodbye to her colleagues, and walks out.
Now: ask why. Why does she quit?
If this is a spy thriller, then we’ve got numerous funky options. She’s been on a mission, now finished, and the second she hits the car park she’s going to run before they catch her. Or she’s been working on something that’s so ethically compromised, so utterly unforgivable, that she can’t abide it any more. But she knows secrets; maybe these secrets need protecting. Maybe they put people she loves at risk.
If it’s a crime novel, then perhaps she’s finished a heist, or is about to become a whistleblower. Maybe she’s just been sacked, and in shock she’s about to do something terrible, cruel, savage. Maybe her boss is currently bleeding out in the photocopy room. Maybe she did it. Maybe she found the corpse.
Romance: quitting is the rock bottom of her life. She had an unwise relationship with a co-worker, and from this place of disaster the only way is up. Perhaps on the other side of the world, something has happened which makes her re-assess everything she believes.
Fantasy/SF: she knows a secret, she has a secret, her job is not what it seems, she is not what she seems.
I’m an SF writer, so I’m going to go with an SF option, and make a fairly arbitrary choice. Sally quits her job because it’s been really frustrating. No big secrets, no hidden angel wings – I’m gonna stay mundane(ish). For years Sally’s been trying to get funding to explore an unknown signal emanating from, let’s say, Jupiter – far enough away to be difficult to get to, but near enough to be plausibly an issue of planetary importance - but everyone has dismissed her claims and her warnings. It’s nothing, they say. Finally after years of being bamboozled, she’s had enough.
She goes home.
Years of ignored research cover her floor.
If she’s quit her job over this, then it’s almost certainly a big deal. A passion. She hasn’t had much room for relationships in her life. This has been everything. It still is everything. Shouting hasn’t worked. Time to try something else.
These initial statements have an inevitable logic of their own. If we accept that she’s rage-quit in frustration over something she deeply, truly believes in, then other things – the way she lives, and what she does next – will flow inevitably from these very early choices.
She believes so passionately in this that rather than take “no” for an answer, she sets out to persuade others that she’s right. There’s something in the signal. She travels the world, scraping together what few savings she has to contact old colleagues and friends. Money might run out at any moment; that’s another plot problem to be overcome, a tension to layer on top of things, if it interests you.
Perhaps this is an ensemble story, in which case she builds a team of eccentric scientists, explorers and financiers to allow her to embark on a dangerous and potentially deadly mission to solve her questions.
Perhaps this is a story of one woman’s lonely battle to unlock hidden secrets, in which case she sits alone night after night, refining her equipment, listening, listening to the signal until finally, it starts to talk to her – but only her. Only she can hear the terrible warnings it contains. Is she mad, or does she know the hidden truth? Does she even know?
Perhaps this is a conspiracy story; mysterious forces don’t want her to crack the signal. It’s too dangerous. In which case our jaunt across the earth to gather answers is suddenly a race against the clock, and the obstacle that not knowing what the signal is doing is now less about communicating with something unknown, and more about humans, and what they fear.
All these choices, all these logical options, continue to branch inevitably from the beginning. You can choose which one you walk down, but they all come from the same place. From being driven to find her own answers; walking away from something old, towards something new. Doesn’t matter what genre this is, the heart of the story begins with that single act, and it’s the heart that you’re writing, regardless of whether you’re dealing with cops or monsters.
In this particular, SF iteration of Sally’s story, I’m going have an ensemble piece. By convincing others that she’s right, she manages to get together enough resources to launch an exploratory mission towards Jupiter to really nail what this signal is. If this is the case, we have to immediately accept that the world is one where technology is at a suitable level to achieve this – but that it’s still expensive and hard to do, otherwise she would have done it already. Perhaps governments have lost interest in exploration; perhaps all that matters is money, mining the moon, Venus, Mars. These choices continue to arise logically from pushing the story forward.
I’m going to say yes, corporate interests trump science, and we are in a world where Mars and the Asteroid Belt are both owned by financial giants, and no one can go beyond them without a mining license.
This option puts Giant Conspiracy back on the table again. Do the corporations who control the mining belts have something to hide? Do they know what’s coming from Jupiter, and why won’t they share?
It also puts daring-do (avoiding hostile forces) and betrayal (there’s a mole on our ship!) on the table. However the driving impetus is still the same - answering the question: what’s the Signal? All the obstacles I throw up against Sally are going to challenge, yes, maybe her life, but mostly her conviction. Because that’s the heart of what this story is, as defined by the choices I’ve made. If she was a loner frightened of being mad, that could be even more true; however down this route she is with people who her convictions are arguably also endangering. Same problem, different dynamic. I’m going to make her question whether this is worth the sacrifice. I could kill off characters to achieve this, or cause the signal to stop without warning for reasons they don’t understand, or introduce people who seem to know what the signal is and warn her off or... whatever. There are a thousand ways to bend and twist the things that matters to a character, and most of the plot choices you make will be about pushing against that emotional drive.
By now I’m nearing the denouement. Maybe we find the answers; maybe more questions (hello sequel). Maybe we meet aliens, maybe humans, and the terrible secrets they hold. Maybe you find something that changes the way science works, and vindicates Sally’s whole journey. Maybe you find war – whatever rocks your world. All these choices are justifiable, based on what we’ve done thus far.
Which is perhaps the whole point. You can take anything in the world – a woman quitting her job – and by obeying the logic of what that single starting point does, you can go anywhere. You can do anything. All that matters is stopping and asking why. Why are characters doing what they’re doing? Why is the world built this way? Why do people keep going, why do they change? You are explorers of ideas, but most importantly, you are scribbling something true to the shared language of emotional experience that links us all. Ask why in a human way, and there’s no limit to where your story can go.
Claire North is a pseudonym for the Carnegie award-nominated British author Catherine Webb. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was her first novel published under the Claire North name, and was one of the fastest-selling new SFF titles of the last ten years. It was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, the Radio 2 Book Club and the Waterstones Book Club. Catherine currently works as a theatre lighting designer and is a fan of big cities, urban magic, Thai food and graffiti-spotting. She lives in London. In 2017, Cat was shortlisted for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year award and also won the World Fantasy Award for The Sudden Appearance Of Hope. Find her on Twitter as @ClaireNorth42.