Your Stories as Molten Metal

Forcing structure on speculative fiction elements to transform ideas into a narrative.

By Carson Winter

The Buddhists say life is suffering. And because writing is an extension and reflection of life, it makes immediate sense that it should be suffering also. 

Writing is hard. 

Writing is really hard. 

No, actually—writing is fucking hard. 

This is something every writer, new or old, knows deep in their bones. Writing is the spring from which our joy bubbles, and it’s also the deep, black pit from which we find ourselves trying to claw out from again and again. We make it up a foot, then we slide back down with dirt under our fingernails. We grab a root (fuck yeah, a root!), and then the bastard comes free and we fall back into the blackness. Whatever keeps us in the pit is highly individual, but, for me, it was always story structure. 

How does a story work? Where do you start? How do you turn that dope idea about a haunted Minecraft server into a story that works

It’s tough, because as horror writers, we tend to arrive at the speculative element first. This is the part we get excited about. There’s a vampire that lives in the lighthouse; a priest that kills when the full moon rises; a great and ancient god that lives under the sea. And when we get a chance to sink our teeth into these ideas, we write with gusto. We labor over the vampire’s blood red eyes and shiny fangs or the tentacular proportions of our sea monster, but when it comes to shaping all that enthusiasm into a story… Well, sometimes dead is better. 

If you’re like me, structure is elusive and confusing. Beginning, middle, and end doesn’t cover it. Because when we invent stories, we don’t imagine them in any identifiable shape. They’re amorphous blobs of thought and action, scenes, ideas, or worldview. But they aren’t a story. At least not yet. 

When I was starting to write seriously, I found a lot of my stories began with one of these super-cool kernels, but failed to develop into anything I could recognize as remotely story-like. They meandered, they lacked engagement, they were the violent opposite of compelling: they were fucking bad. 

What changed everything for me was being able to separate the plot (the sequence of events that makes anything happen) from the speculative fiction element. 

And slowly, through much trial and even more error, I came up with an approach that greatly helped me wrestle my ideas into stories. 

(As with all writing advice though, I’d remind anyone reading this that this isn’t a prescriptive How To Write thing. I don’t think there’s any one way to write because there’s not just one type of writer. This is what worked for me and nothing more.)

So, let’s say you want to write a story about aliens that control people’s minds. Instead of using this idea as your step one, put it aside for a second. 

Now, come up with a realist conflict. Seriously, anything. Woman needs to take her daughter to daycare, but the car is broken down. Man is racing against his nemesis at a swim meet. A teenaged bagger at a grocery store wants to get off work early. Anything, really. 

You have two different kernels. Now’s the time to combine them and see what happens. 

What if our teenager keeps hearing strange voices in their mind? What if they’ve got a date but they can’t remember the person’s face because something keeps telling them to go outside, to look at the sky. What if they notice other people in this mom and pop grocery store similarly preoccupied, what if they stare outside and see customers gathered in the parking lot? What if they fight the strange murmurs and leave the store early, but can’t remember where they’re going? 

Now, you’ve got a story cooking. 

As genre fans, we tend to confuse the speculative element for the plot. For example, if someone asked you what Gojira (1954) is about, you’d likely say its about a monster attacking Tokyo. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Demonstrably, Gojira is definitely about that. But you could just as easily say its a story about a love triangle that plays out in the shadow of tragedy. Or a man trying to keep his weapon of mass destruction from entering the wrong hands. The core ideas here aren’t always fun—but they’re incredibly important. 

It’s these human elements that create the actual plot, the thing that moves us from one scene to the next. But better yet, it also gives us the most exciting thing about the speculative element: the what if.

If you notice in the example above, the realist scenario provides the springboard for a ton of what ifs that makes a flat strangeness (aliens in our heads) into a story that has legs to go from point A to point B. And better yet, because we’ve established a foot in reality, it is now imbued with emotion and observation—two things that are sorely missing in so much amateur fiction. 

For example, our teenaged protagonist has a simple motivation: he wants to get off work early to see his girlfriend. Immediately relatable, as most of us have had a loved one, and most of us have wanted to get off work early. Because these are relatable ideas to you as the author, you’re now able to fill your story with observations. This is the shit that makes your story come to life, its what proves that you not only have a story to tell, but that you have a perspective. 

So, what observations can you fill your story with now? 

Teen love—the passion, the excitement. The end all, be all of new romance. Secret texts, code-words, gifts. Dating in public places. I remember when I was a teenager, my girlfriend and I always had to go to parks to make-out because there was nowhere else to go. I remember when we turned eighteen and moved in together, we spent more hours than I could count walking around the local Hastings (a now defunct book and video store) because there wasn’t anything else to do. Teen love, for me, sewed the fabric of small town mundanity and hormonal fireworks into a unique tapestry. 

Or, for another example: work. 

What do you remember from your first job? Have you ever worked retail? I worked at a grocery store for nearly a decade (yes, RIP me). I remember once checking my phone on the way to the breakroom and within five minutes someone had spoken to me about being productive on the clock. I remember my first job—we used to throw ice in the fryers and play dumb when the assistant manager came around. I remember how long every shift felt—as if time had slowed to a crawl and you were watching minutes float by in molasses. 

These are details from my own life that could make this story feel like my story. 

Whether its work or love or anything else, these experiences form the foundation of your themes, and when put up against your speculative element, its unearthed naturally. These two forces, the normal and abnormal, work together in your story, form a symbiotic relationship, hold a mirror to each other until the truth emerges. Neither can be understated in their importance, neither can be dispensed with. 

So, what is a story?

To me, it’s a mold. Or a cast. A shape. It’s something you pour yourself into that is not you, that is not shaped like you. And when you pour out your memories, plant your feet firmly in the earth, and stare down the impossible, something magic happens. People lean in. They listen. And in this new shape, you’re stronger than you’ve ever been before. Stories, for whatever reason, are a shape we care about. Thousands of years in and we still love them. We can’t be stories. Our lives are too full, too erratic, too long or too short. They don’t follow satisfying beats and they rarely have good endings. We look to our imagination to elevate our lives into something molten. But even those flights of fancy fall short. So, we do the best with what we have: we live within them. 

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