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Vintage WD: The Secret of the Original Idea

Some writing advice lasts, like this excerpt from article from January 1949 WD article about staying true to your original story idea -- even if that means changing it.

Some writing advice stands the test of time, like this excerpt from Catharine Barrett's January 1949 WD article about staying true to your original story idea--even if that means changing it.

original story idea

If you have a story that just misses, test it by this method.

Have you a story that does not quite succeed; that seems to fail for some intangible reason that no critic or editor can diagnose? You have worked on it until you are confused, and the story is confused, and you have about given up in despair.

Try going off by yourself with paper and pencil and asking: “Where did this story come from? What was my first feeling about it, my original intent?” Put the answers down fully and exactly. Then return to your story and compare the two. Are you still aiming for the same effect? Are you keeping your story in line with your original feeling for it?

If you are not, you have struck upon a likely reason for its failure.

When we write, we are generally unaware of the faint shadings in rhythms, in word choices, in phrasings which we use, and which carry with them the overtones of our original idea for the story. Readers sense them, however.

When we go back over a story re-plotting it, altering the basic idea, we do not alter—for we cannot detect—these overtones.

The danger may be more obvious: a character created to carry out one function in a story may have qualities that conflict with her role in a later draft. Frequently, though, the details are so slight as to escape detection by the author; yet their inconsistency disturbs the overall unity of the story.

It is a good idea to set forth the original motivation for the story as soon as possible. In my own writing, I often find that the early impetus carries my story well into the first half, and then I strike a pause in which I chart the story. At that point, I set down in detail and with exactness what had created the impetus, the exact nature of it. When I have difficulty with my plotting, I go back again and again to that section of my chart: original idea.

I have come to feel so strongly about this factor in writing that I resolved some time ago never to violate an original idea for a story. If I cannot make the idea into a successful story, I’ll lay it aside till I can, or let it go entirely.

I came to this conclusion the hard way—by altering a story till it deviated from my original idea so much what when it was published I read it with a sense of frustration and fury.

My original idea for the story was a woman in her 40s, who had unconsciously developed a strong resentment toward her husband because of his lack of success, his failure to provide her with the sound kind of living she has anticipated and wanted. Her children were almost grown, her eldest son married and away in the service. She had never had for them the kind of home she’d always planned, and now felt sure she never would have it. Her husband, though kind and loving and with a sense of fun, was ineffectual in business. The mother had worked some of the time, though begrudging the time spent away from home and children.

As the story opens, she has received word that her son’s wife, the only child of a wealthy widow, is coming to visit. The mother sees all the shabby makeshift of her home through the imagined hypercritical eyes of the daughter-in-law; and there comes to the surface all the acid of her resentment, her sense of having been deprived of what was her right and her children’s right. The chasm between her and her husband seems to be beyond correction.

At first the daughter-law’s reactions are unreadable, and the mother tortures herself further; but then it is revealed that the girl loves every shabby detail of the house because her husband (now overseas) had told her of them. He told her, for example, how he had jumped on the sofa and broken the spring and been punished for it—so she was glad the broken spring had not been repaired. And most of all the girl longed to sleep in her husband’s boyhood room so that she might lie and look at the great stain on the ceiling that, although it was to the mother the most shameful shabbiness of all, had been to the boy like a great buffalo charging.

Thus through the girl’s eyes the mother sees that she and her husband have given their children all the important things of life. With this new vision, all resentment toward her husband vanishes.

[Read more about finding meaningful story ideas in this interview with Min Jin Lee.]

The Editor Objects

The story first brought back the comment from my agent and an editor that the woman was too unsympathetic. I had intended her to be bitter; I wanted to show how a sense of deprivation could develop into a warped quality of character that might grow out of all proportion. But, they argued, then her reversion to a loving, tender humorous wife at the end was not convincing.

I granted the logic of that argument and built in some evidences of her sterling character early in the story. But they wanted her sweeter yet. Also, it should not be resentment over a long period, they said, merely an emotion aroused by the pending visit of the son’s wife. After that, they decided, there should be no problem between woman and husband, but just the situation between her and her daughter-in-law. I did as I was bidden, though with a formless unhappiness about it.

The story did not sell to the major markets, but it sold to a second-string magazine for $350. It was when it was published several months later that I realized to what extent I had violated my original story, for now it was trite and slight and sentimental, lacking all the harsh reality that I had wanted for it. It failed entirely to make the point I though important. That was when I vowed to myself that I’d never again go against my original concept of story, if I never sold another.

Lay Them Aside

I have had a number of stories rejected that, rather than rewrite according to suggestions, and in violation of my own conceptions of them, I have laid away. Someday I may find the way to write them successfully—that is, so that they will say what I mean, but in a way that will be acceptable to the markets. In this way I protect myself from a sense of frustrations and anger and inadequacy; when I sell a story I have sold something that says what I have in it my heart to say, to the best of my ability to say it.

It is not that I scorn market requirements, or that I will not alter aspects of my writing to conform to editorial suggestions—but there is a distinction: you can remain true to your original idea, even though you pour it into the mold of market requirements.

Have an amazing story idea, but need to learn the basics of how to write a book? WD University's Fundamentals of Fiction will take you through all of the basics of writing a novel including how important it is to choose a great setting, how to build characters, what point of view you should choose, how to write great dialogue, and more. Register today!

Fundamentals of Fiction—WD University
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