Back at the beginning of lockdown – that’s over a year ago now – I went to the countryside for a few months with my family, accompanied by a writing prompt I’d come up with.
This prompt had been kicking around in my head for a while now. I had an idea of how to tackle it.
One afternoon, I isolated myself in a room and ploughed through the first couple of thousand words of what I thought was a pretty good idea.
Then I struggled with it for 24 hours.
Then I threw it away and started again.
What went wrong?
This is the story of a story, that took far too long , and took far too much effort to write, but which turned out fairly well in the end. I guess that’s what they’re all like in the rear-view.
The Origin of a Story Prompt
I get story prompts from what-if questions. The weirder the question, the more original the story prompt, and the more original the concepts and ideas that flow from it. That, at least, is my experience.
This one came from me staring at my own shadow, standing outside on a gravel road. My imagination, doing what it does best, took a flight of fancy.
I imagined my shadow moving independently of me. How would I react? Would I be confused? Afraid? Fascinated?
I expect many of us have imagined something similar, perhaps when we were younger. I’d encountered this idea before. myself.
Then came the question that motivated my first attempt at the story: Why?
Why would your shadow decide to abandon you? Does it want to be attached to you? Does it enjoy being the quiet, subtle reflection of everything you do? What might provoke it to escape from the gravity of your presence, and slip the anchor that tethers it to your soul?
That’s an interesting question, and even more interesting is the assumption built into it. That your shadow has agency. That your shadow has a choice.
In response to my story prompt, I wrote about a woman in a world where people were losing their shadows. In this reality, the shadowless are broken people. They’re miserable because they’ve lost a part of themselves.
They are lonely in a way only they can understand.
I wrote a scene I was particularly happy with, in which her shadow attempts to leave and she traps it by shutting out all the light. Then she contemplates what she will do when the sun rises, and her shadow is visible again. She begins to negotiate with it.
There are lots of assumptions there. In particular: That the shadow has agency, and therefore is conscious. None of it makes any sense, but that’s the beauty of speculative fiction. If it’s important in some emotional or storytelling way, it doesn’t have to make logical sense, it just has to remain internally coherent within the story.
I sat back in my chair, admired my own work, and experienced a common but unpleasant feeling.
The scene was great, the concept interesting, but for some reason the story wasn’t going anywhere.
Who cared about Amber and her shadow? Why was she important? The reason her shadow was leaving was that she wasn’t a very good person. It was a redemption story, my protagonist an antihero.
The obvious way to finish the story was to say that she changed and her shadow remained, but that would imply a story entirely centered around her. Alternatively I could try to make a commentary about how society loses a part of itself, but that’s not how I’d built the story so far.
It worked as a sketch. Not as a story.
Lots of my work ends up this way, stored where those things go to die.
A Failure, A New Beginning. Same Story Prompt.
My wonderful idea, that had kept my thoughts entertained for days, had become a terrible disappointment on paper.
That has a way of taking the wind out of your sails, and although I tried for a few hours, I couldn’t find a way to continue the story in any way that made sense or felt satisfying.
I walked away from it and focused on other things for a day. I figured I’d get back to writing once inspiration struck with a different concept.
The next day, keeping only the name of my protagonist and the idea that people were losing their shadows, I started from scratch.
The new story was utterly different. We were no longer in Victorian England, we were in Steampunk England, with a decades-long war underway. Airships bombarded national capitals and the war effort was the primary source of all economic activity, colouring everything.
Suddenly, people start losing their shadows. Why? The shadows don’t leave because they want to, yet their absence represents a loss. It’s a metaphor for something. As the story developed, I discovered for myself what that something was, and what it meant for people who experienced it.
Even now, I don’t want to put a word to what the shadows represent. Every time I do, I feel like I’ve narrowed the definition unnecessarily, and taken something away from the story.
The Final Product
I was very happy with it when it was done. Not bad, I thought, for something that came from a four-word story prompt.
I held onto it for far too long though, revising this word, or that phrase. I’ve reached the point now where my edits do more harm than good.
As a bit of fun, I recorded the story as an audiobook. It’s extremely short, at 1800 words. So it’s a quick listen.
I’ll release the audiobook on my mailing list tomorrow and the story text a fortnight later. I’ll update this article with links to each below.
Let me know what you think.