Story Progression

My day started at three in the morning with a dog barking, a moment of unreasonable panic, and then snuggles that led to sleeping in. So this is a late post. I could talk about the human psychology of my own reactions – because they bear on writing fully developed characters – but instead I’m going to talk about authorial foresight.

Most usually, when I start writing a story, I begin with a scene, and work forward from there. Which is not to say the stories are completely chronological, just that I’ll often start in media res, filling in the before and after as I write. There are mechanisms for this. Telling the audience is one, and that can be done in ways that are not the dreaded info-dump. Flashbacks are given a bad name, but also are very real, especially in a story where the memory of the character is flawed. Outside traumatic memories that are crystallized at the moment of occurrence, like god’s own flashbulb of hellish recollection, the human brain has a remarkable capacity for forgetfulness and preservation of sanity through the mists of time and distance from some painful event. There is also, of course, the omniscience of the author within the story world, where memories of the past can be accurately retold, in the context of the character’s present. The author knows all, sees all.

Unless she doesn’t, of course. Which is where I am, a pantser, with a scene that I know is not a good jumping-off point for the rest of the story. It’s a short story, and the scene is near the end of it, and so I don’t want to start there. I could, oddly enough, if I were writing a novel. It would change the emphasis of the plot, into something more focused on recovery from and the consequences of an incident on a starliner, a passenger ship on a routine trip from planet to planet. Since I’d like to have this remain a short story, with the focus of the story being on space marines conducting a search and rescue when they wound up at the right place at the right time, I knew I had to take that scene and make it the end, or almost end, of the tale. This is not how my brain works.

Instead of my usual process, figuring out what comes next, based on character actions and motivations, I had to go backwards. Where did this begin? What people did I want to focus the story on? The fact that I was writing for a themed anthology made that a simple enough decision – I needed to write space marines. Never having served in the military myself, I wanted to write a scenario I did have some experience with. Search and rescue, then, complete with narrowing in on a downed (well, ok, drifting in space) craft using electronic measures. Staying safe in a potentially dangerous environment while reaching the survivors, if there are any. It was an interesting exercise to suss out why they would bother, when the situation made survival highly unlikely. Which would set up the seed scene I had in my head.

As a writing exercise, it was good for me. As an author on a deadline it was highly annoying as it slowed me down rather a lot. It would speed my work up if I did have that authorial omniscience! But I don’t, so I’ll work my fog until I find some landmarks, and sometimes they will make the bridges between story elements obvious.

Like this, which came from the central conceit of the story, and illuminates my next path forward in the tale.

Marine Captain Genesio Tressach was dictating his notes when he heard the tap at his hatch. He spoke the end command, then raised his voice. 


 Staff Sergeant Consolato put his head through the hatch, sideways. He looked incongruously like he was standing on the bulkhead at an improbable angle. 

“Sir? Have you gotten… Ah, nevermind.” 

“Yes, Sarge. I have the last of the interviews here.” He poked the desk and enlarged the screen. “Can you read it better now?” 

“Sure can.” Consolato, unabashed, came all the way into the cabin. He hadn’t been standing on the wall, just contorted. The man was more than just double-jointed, his superior officer had learned some time ago. It made training with him… interesting. 

“Learn anything new?” He asked now, his eyes narrowing while he scanned the lines of transcript on the screen. 

“Not much. We have a layout of the ship drawn up. We still don’t have a clear idea of what happened to her. Compartments were breached and decompressed. There are reports of explosions, but the eyewitnesses are contradicting themselves.” 

Consolato shrugged eloquently, accepting this as a constant of the universe. “And we had no scan data from the lifeboats.” 

“Not equipped for it.” His captain tapped out of the transcript and opened another. “Best we can figure is that about half the people aboard got off. There weren’t enough lifeboats to take them all, even if they’d all made it.” 

“Yeah.” Consolato ran a big hand through his short hair. “I heard that, too.” 

“So there were people aboard her.” Captain Tressach leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “We don’t know if any are still alive. There were fires. Particulate matter… smoke. That’s the killer. Unlike a fire on planet, the smoke has nowhere to go aboard ship, even if the fire is out. Scrubbers will fail. Smoke inhalation has likely killed anyone that survived the initial incident.” 

“Seems like the scrubbers would at least…” Consolato stopped talking when he saw the look on Tressach’s face. 

“They were not being maintained.” 


“Much of the crew didn’t make it off. One who did was a junior maintenance technician. He told us that the scrubbers were serviced only in ports. Never while underway. They didn’t have spares. They didn’t even have the parts to service.” 

“Saint Tallulah preserve us.” Consolato shook his head, an expression of disgust on his face. “They had a deathwish.”

6 thoughts on “Story Progression

  1. The other downside of starting with a scene near the end is that you know how everything will turn out but the characters must not.

  2. My two stories in progress both came from music. One is a spin-off of a world inspired by Kenny Rogers’ “Planet Texas” (space cowboys). The other was kicked into being by three albums. The male lead in the song cycle is not the romantic figure, but a psychopomp, a guide, helping the female lead find her way to redemption (perhaps. Album four should clarify the story.) Both stories that came out of the music are rather different from my usual, and required s bit of digging and sorting through stuff.

  3. What’s the anthology called, Cedar? Your excerpt here has gripped me, so I’m longing to read the story in its entirety once the anthology is out. 😀

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