I’ve been posting quite a bit lately about the sources for some of the stories in my new collection, “The Mutual UFO Network.” From personal experience, to second-hand anecdote, to a heard first line, to an image that fascinated me, to a memorable person I knew, I felt my way toward a story. It’s one thing to have that glimmer of inspiration—that thing that makes me put words on a page—but it’s quite another to come up with just the right premise for the material.
Over the years, I’ve shaped enough material into stories to intuitively know to look for the unexpected in a premise. I may have mentioned, as an example, the title story of the new collection, a story about a man and wife who make their living creating doctored images that con people into believing they have evidence of extraterrestrial life. Starting with that premise, I felt my way toward a moment early in the story when the wife starts to believe there may just be something to all the people who claim to have seen UFOs. I didn’t expect one of the scammers to suddenly become a believer. That little turn creates the plot that follows.
Another story in the collection, “Bad Family,” began when I read about Mao’s Red Guard in China and the way they destroyed things of beauty. I created a Chinese woman who marries an English Language teacher, follows him to America, only to have him eventually divorce her. He remarries and he and his new wife and his first wife have a friendly relationship up to the point that the first wife begins to anonymously harass them with threatening notes in the mail. The premise takes what I hope is an interesting turn when the second wife admits to the first how scared she is, and the first wife surprises herself by inviting the second wife and the husband to move in with her. That turn, the unexpected invitation from the harasser, provides the forward momentum for the story.
Learning to think in terms of opposites makes you more receptive to the unexpected. It’s that turn that makes a premise fresh and invites readers to look at your material from a new perspective. The turn also adds texture to the material and opens up layers of your characters you might not otherwise discover.
“Always expect the unexpected,” says best-selling novelist, James Patterson. This is particularly good advice for the short story writer. The writing of a short story should be a process of discovery. Putting the world of the story a bit off-kilter by looking for the opposite of what one might expect can take you down an unfamiliar path at a time when familiarity would be deadly. Familiarity means we think we know everything there is to know about the material, the premise, the characters. Getting comfortable with leaving familiarity behind can send you along a narrative arc that will surprise you as it opens up more truth in your material and the characters who live it.