Behind the Story: “Problems Aren’t Stop Signs”

I like writing about problems. As in, you know, their problematic nature. It’s the stuff of a great story. And I had this idea for a writing challenge: take one self-inflicted problem and make every next sentence add a specific complication. Why, transgression zero’s blowback would mount and mount and surely hit a sublime ridiculousness. In the end that’s what crime and punishment often are, aren’t they? Sublimely human things we did to ourselves.

To be clear, I’m not meaning that each next sentence would deepen a plot element or characterization (or both). Such writing craft proven over the millennia would’ve made too much sense. No, I would daisy-chain every next sentence with a direct new complication to or consequence of what came before. 

The set-up: A small town mayor (eventually our Tori) embezzled taxpayer money as a down payment on snatched-up Panhandle scrubland she believed would skyrocket in value. There’s a water management project set for state funding that will keep her land high-and-dry from the rising Gulf levels. Well, state revenue shortfalls nixed discretionary waterway plans. Open then to Tori in her swamp and hatching a skunk ape craze bound to draw in beaucoup sun seekers and cryptozoologists. She’ll flip that land to resort developers yet. Tori, though, can barely keep her half-brother in the shaggy costume (she’s in charge of whipping up media interest), and mud and snakes and owls abound, and her local paper contact wants to investigate the town finances.

Problems stopped the works. Not Tori’s. Mine. Oh, I clicked along for a few thousand words: No one much cares about a Bigfoot rumor! The reporter has a lascivious interest! And the cops show! Now cops are combing the woods after a prowler in a get-up instead of news crews  breathless over skunk ape sightings. Great fun in principle, but also just eternally-mounting problems that left Tori stranded in the woods. I wasn’t headed anywhere. And good fiction is always, always headed somewhere. Toward that resonant end that eluded me. How does a story take intentional steps to its big honking end if problems are continually mounting but never resolving.

Answer: the story can’t. And that’s a huge problem.

So. Unheeded consequences. With that for a north star, I set about reordering events, trimming excess, and slowing down for Tori’s character development. It took versions long and short that flopped in all senses but one: I came on the ending moment. And whether by instinct or accident, the moment was where I’d run out of creative gas on Try One. This was when Tori, a few steps ahead of the cops, finds the discarded skunk ape costume in the swamp, her half-brother having wandered off drunk on Abitas. If a fake skunk ape was Tori’s genius machination to rescue her fortunes, then in literary fashion mustn’t she become the skunk ape? Sure, she did. As a last resort, after her grand schemes collapsed and her path forward dissolved into one final and major problem: impending arrest. 

In retrospect I’m surprised how much of that first writing exercise survived the darling slaughter. The bumbling half-brother? There but more so, a ruined influence that leaves Tori even more isolated and self-aggrandized. Reporters and hot tips? There, on time and on purpose. Cops? On hand and with those dogs. An insider land scheme gone haywire? Haywired, skunk ape-style.

Sometimes you edit out a borderline creative flourish and the whole thing crashes, say like removing a vital organ. I left two such flourishes alone, at the risk of alienating editors. For one, having been avalanched with consequences, Tori must inevitably face them. She does, in the woods and dressed as an unconvincing skunk ape. But her story isn’t about heeded problems. It’s about her failure to heed them. I let her stumble around skunk-aped to that natural point where she glimpses the obvious: Tori’s real problem is Tori. Deceit. Greed. With mud tearing at her boots and searchlights closing in, the fiction writer’s reflex would let guilty-as-sin Tori admit she brought this on herself. Predictable, and kind of didactic. And not who or where Tori is. She had to glimpse her lesson—and dismiss it. She veers off instead into a conspiracy theory romp that I thought pulled various plot threads together. And is also pure Florida.

The second risk was a bit chancier. The ending. I could have played things another paragraph or two, show exactly what becomes of Tori. Instead I stopped where the creative flow stopped, a mostly unresolved but vaguely signaled fate with the cops still chasing her. Any longer felt anticlimactic and stepped on the same reason she doesn’t learn her lesson. She’s not ready to learn it. She’s lost, a walking unheeded problem in skunk ape boots. She’s enjoyably, deviously, totally human.

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“Problems Aren’t Stop Signs” appears in the September 2018 edition of Mystery Weekly Magazine.

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