And, no, don’t go all business-school on me and talk about “making an ass of you and me”. Just don’t. I can happily make an ass of myself without any assumptions whatsoever, thank you very much.
Anyway, I’m not talking about those kinds of assumptions. I’m talking about the kind of assumptions you have to have when you start writing a story. Call them predefined variables if you like, they amount to the same thing. X=whatever the story requires, and I don’t want to have to redefine that every single time.
Things like elves being immortal in Lord of the Rings, Jedis being space wizards (if you so much as whisper “midichlorians” I’ll have you destroyed!), stormtroopers not being able to hit shit in spite of years of training…you get the idea. These are all assumptions made before the stories were ever even created, and they quickly become clear to the audience.
As I’m working on the behind-the-scenes stuff for this next book, I have to make clear to myself the assumptions and rules that will hold sway throughout. Connor will drink a lot, yes, and cuss a lot more, also yes….but those aren’t assumptions, they’re just inherent to the character*.
*Note – I did once try an experiment with a “clean” version of Connor…it was an utter failure. He is who he is, and who he has to be.
What I’m talking about is key stuff that is implied, and is fundamental to a story’s true purpose, but is never really explicitly described (at least not in so many words). For Connor’s stories, those are:
1) Everyone is broken and fucked up in some way…anyone who says/thinks they’re perfect is either nuts, or deluding themselves
2) There are no good guys or bad guys, there are only shades of grey and the choices people make (yes, I know there’s nothing original about basic philosophy, but it’s important to remind myself anyway)
3) There is always a price to pay (okay, that one got laid out pretty damned explicitly in Wrath & Tears)
There are others, but you get the idea. These are things I have to keep in mind as I plan and as I write. Things that underlie everything I’m trying to create, and to say.
When you create a story, you have to understand what are your base assumptions. They don’t necessarily have to reflect who you are as a person in real life (although they often will), but they do have to be internally consistent throughout whatever it is you are trying to create.
Sometimes things like this will be clear in your mind long before the first word gets written, but other times your characters and world will demand something you hadn’t thought about before. The assumption about there being no good or bad guys was not something I had originally planned. Hell, it wasn’t something I had even thought about in this context. But Connor and Oz forced that assumption on me pretty early in the process, and it helped to clarify some of the truth and authenticity of their lives and their world.
So what assumptions are you making about your world and your characters? What happens if you change one of those? Are things better, or worse? Especially for stuff like this, I always keep in the back of my mind one of the Steven King’s bits of writing advice: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”
Assumptions can be your darlings just as much as favored characters, plot devices, or even entire scenes…