Last night was one long dream for me. I was telling myself a novel in three parts—three parts because twice I got up to use the restroom, not out of necessity, but because I wanted to leave the world of that dream. But the characters were persistent and kept returning, although they changed considerably from segment to segment.
At first, there were three people, two men and a woman, incarcerated at a prison in a desert, presumably for nonviolent crimes. They escaped disguised as employees (more like cleaning people or someone in scrubs than guards) and spent the night in a nearby empty house. Then they took off in a van.
Sometime during the night they morphed into three women. Think Thelma and Louise or a “Golden Girls Take to the Highway” episode. While they were always on the run and in some perilous circumstances, including snowbound in a cave, they agreed it was the best time of their lives. (Don’t anyone get Freudian on me!). Finally, they ended in a twin city area—two small towns. They grocery shopped in the lesser town figuring they would not know anyone. But they ran into the husband of one; then another met the love of her life, and the third asked for a ride to the bus station. I woke up, and my mind finally went back to my WIP.
I know I’ll never turn the dream into a novel, what with changing characters and a lot of unexplained things like the snowy cave, but the kernel of a story is there if I wanted to pursue it. What I found interesting is the process involved, the way the story flowed in spite of my efforts to stop it. I thought of Elmer Kelton, the late dean of Texas fiction. He once described writing his award-winning novel, The Good Old Boys, saying he was sitting at the bedside of his dying father and listening to stories of the old-time cowboys at the turn of the twentieth century. Suddenly, he began writing, and the words wouldn’t stop. Elmer used to say that it was like a horse with the bit in its teeth, and he was just along for the ride.
Elmer wrote that way. One of his favorite pieces of advice was “Listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen.” He did not use Scrivener or Grammerly, a story bible, or any other devices and aids designed to help novelists tell a story. He simply told the story. A graduate of the University of Texas, he was not some unlettered genius but was knowledgeable about structure and the need for a story arc. He just never let those things dominate his storytelling.
For me, the three-part structure of my dream is significant, because I too learned about structure in school. Not so much the arc within an arc and subplots and all the intricacies that guide us today, but the basic Shakespearean pattern of rising action, climax, and denouement. To this day the parts of a novel to me are the beginning, middle, and end.
To say that storytelling should be natural is not to jump into the pantser vs. outliner controversy. I’m a pantser who works best from a page of rough notes. But I know everyone has to choose the way that works best for them. Perhaps what I want to suggest about storytelling is that it should be less of a science and more of an art, more instinctive and organic.
If you’ve never read Elmer Kelton, you have a treat waiting for you, whether you think you’re interested in cowboy literature or not. Start with The Good Old Boys, move on to The Wolf and the Buffalo—Elmer set out to tell the story of a particular buffalo soldier, but a Commanche chief kept taking over the story. And then move on to his classic, The Time It Never Rained, described as one of the twenty or so best novels by an American of the twentieth century.
Me? I’m going back to sleep and see what happens next.
Award-winning author Judy Alter writes historical fiction set in the American West and contemporary mysteries set in Texas. She is also the author of several cookbooks and is at work on a culinary mystery. Find more about her at http://www.judyalter.com.