On the way home, the train hit a deer. We, in the second car from the engine, thought we had hit a rockslide. The noise was astonishing. Turns out the deer took out the entire air system under the train, which included brakes and toilets and air conditioning. We were dead in the water, stuck in a little alcove with no cell service.
Four hours later, another train pulled up alongside, and we carefully stepped directly from our train to the next, and soon we were on our way home.
It took us twelve hours for a six hour trip. Annoying. Inconvenient. But is it a story? No.
Yet many friends suggested this was the start of a new book, or a new story. But it’s not, really.
So what makes a story? An interesting setting. An interesting conflict. An interesting protagonist.
There was nothing really interesting about our predicament. The crew was kind and helpful, the passengers patient and understanding. And we all knew that Amtrak has its issues with under-funding, sharing the track with freight trains and common delays. I take the train frequently. I know about the delays, as do most people who take the train on a regular basis. It’s part of the deal.
An Interesting Setting: Stories set on trains are always fun for people who love trains. But Amtrak? Not nearly interesting enough a setting. The Orient Express? Now you’re talking.
An Interesting Conflict: There are only three plots: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Himself.
There was only one real conflict on this trip, and it had to do with the poor deer. We were ten minutes from Portland. Maybe if we were in the middle of the Serengeti, or hundreds of miles from any kind of civilization, we could conjure up a nice conflict.
An Interesting Protagonist: Not that I saw. But then, just as a good president is made by the conflict he faces, a good conflict is what makes an interesting protagonist. What normal person aboard that train would rise to the occasion to battle the conflict and become everyone’s hero? Hmmm…
I collect interesting settings in my Compost File. I also collect interesting protagonist names and character flaws, and I am always on the lookout for interesting conflicts. But they don’t always fit together. It takes a certain amount of magic for the three to click together, and when that happens, the story begins to tell itself.
Re-read The Flight of the Phoenix for the best possible example of an interesting conflict, played out by an interesting protagonist in an interesting setting.
And I, for one, will continue to ride the rails, happily so, searching out story ideas, even when it is inconvenient.