This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.
I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.
This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?
There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?
Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.
As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.