Every novel needs a little chaos in it. That’s what ignites the story. The novel begins with a character or two in their regular, everyday lives (that could be anything from a pimp drinking coffee at Starbucks, to an astronaut doing her daily orbit around Mars). Then something happens to them, an event or a person or a wind change, that disrupts their lives. It may seem subtle; the pimp, misogynist to the bone (his women are his property), sees a father and his child pass by the front window. The man has the boy’s hand tight in his grip. The boy, six, stares vacuously at the world then turns to our protagonist. The look in the boy’s face, hollow, lost—the pimp knows that look. It sets off something in him, something from his own past. It makes his own face contort slightly, and when it does, the boy’s eyes shift: whatever the pimp saw in the boy, the boy sees in the pimp.
As for the astronaut: she’s taking down notes and glancing out the window of her spaceship at Mars when a full bottle of Coca Cola floats by—a Mexican Coca Cola, made from real sugar cane.
You create interesting characters; then you introduce a little glitch into the order of their
daily lives. Because a story must have conflict in it: inner turmoil, societal upheaval, a little of both. Shit must happen, bad shit, and that’s good because, who the hell wants to read a happy novel? That’s what you do as a fiction writer: make characters up, some you really like, then throw them into a little chaos and watch them suffer.
Chaos is the stuff of fiction, whether it be a drama, a tragedy, a comedy. My novelist friend Becky has a Post-It note on her writing table, “Remember, it gets worse and worse,” and next to it, “Will the reader turn the page?”
So, what chaos do you use in your story? Sometimes we start with things near us. My first manuscript was about a teenager who goes off to Catholic seminary college to study for the priesthood, then leaves an atheist. I went to college to become a priest and left two years later. In later books I branched out to other subjects: a historical novel on the 1932 massacre in El Salvador; a murder mystery set in the Mexican migrant farm world of Tennessee.
Are you looking for some chaos to throw at your characters? Just open the window and glance out at America, where a man in a hotel room filled with an arsenal of legally-bought assault rifles shoots into a country music festival crowd, killing over fifty people, wounding five hundred more. Or ICE breaks into a neighbor’s apartment and drags the children away–legally. Or a city pours lead into its people’s drinking water. Hey, this could become a dystopian novel, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A world in which massacres happen seasonally, the shock over them lessens, the citizens go on with their dull lives. It takes bigger and bigger massacres to grab people’s attention. That’s a good one; but pick a chaos, any chaos, there are so many to choose from! The Homeless Nation, for instance, how that country lives on our sidewalks in pup tents, and we walk on by. The United States, the land where Nazis, once disparaged as a barbaric hate from the past, rise from under the ground like locusts and swarm the land. A place where—get this—people are judged by the color of their skin, I know, crazy, right? A country where the law favors the rapist over the victim, where a president threatens a football player’s job for putting his knee on the ground, where it’s legal for cops to kill black men, where the government replaced its slavery system with prisons and put black and brown men in them to package Victoria Secret boxes with sexy bras made for teenage girls—free labor. Just look out the fucking window, it won’t take long to find something to disrupt your characters’ lives, and hurl them into chaos.
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