Inside a Writer's Mind 22: Catch-22 – 501 Prompts

You should read Prompt 22: Catch-22 before diving into how I came up with the story.

I’m really excited about this prompt and the ones following. By now, I’ve changed the format of prompts I used a few times. I went from scenes and situations to 3 noun prompts, to 3 word prompts with more description.

During the next few weeks, I’ll be using fables and similar small stories to kickstart my creativity.

In case you’re not familiar: a fable is a literary genre that anthropomorphizes animals, other creatures and objects to illustrate a particular moral lesson.

In my job as a coach and educator, I use them a lot to teach ideas and values to the kids in my classes because they are simple, colorful, and imaginative.

Of course, if you’re looking at the ancient fables by Aesop, not all morals still apply to our time. Still, it’s a genre that’s worth looking at for two reasons.

First, they are a very condensed form of storytelling. If you look closely at the structure, you see how they set up a lot, deliver the plot and its resolution in just a few lines.

Second, they are upfront with their intent of educating people. That’s their sole reason to exist. Most fables spell their intended morals out at the end.

That’s a debated topic nowadays. Should stories lecture their reader? A few days ago, people in Twitter’s writing community had debated that idea. The consent seemed to be that stories don’t need to represent today’s moral standards. That seems weird to me.

Everything you write carries a message if you want it to or not. Your story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always a context around it. Just as much as there is always a context around you as its writer. That message might be a moral one or sharing a specific viewpoint or cultural values. If your story has no meaning, what’s the point of telling it?

To me, it seems people confuse that idea with the question of how characters in the story are allowed to act. Can I, a straight white cis-male in 2020, write a story about a racist, sexist, abusive, intolerant, and violent protagonist? Hell yeah, I can.

BUT, and that’s what it comes down to, what is my intention? Am I glorifying these traits and types of character? Do I build this character up to be the hero? Or do I set this character up to change throughout the story, making them see the error of their ways? Or, if not, do I portray the behavior in a critical light that underlines the problematic nature of it?

There is so much to consider when representing asshole types of people in your story. No character has to be a saint because let’s be real, that’s unrealistic to begin with.

In short, all of these choices send out a message. If you want to write a story about the most horrible character ever and that character is the hero, AND they stay terrible throughout the story, you’re telling the reader something about your worldview.

Everything has a message. Everything has a context. Your story exists in the world we live in today. If enough people like it, it may be remembered in the future. That’s what fascinates me about those fables. Aesop wrote his around 550 BCE and they are still around. That’s just incredible.

Let’s take a look at Catch-22 then. When I decided to call it that, I thought it was smart to call the 22nd prompt like that, but, oh boy, do I cringe now.

When I change the prompt format, I always encounter some trouble coming up with ideas for the first few stories. It’s a good sign because I know I’m challenging myself.

Having a fable as a prompt is very different from just a few words or a scene. There is a complete story. It may be short, but it has its own arc. Here’s ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ in case you want to read up on it.

I didn’t really know how to approach it during my first brainstorming. So I came up with a few approaches:

  • Rewrite it
  • Mirror the plot of the fable in a different story
  • Continue it where it left off
  • Write based on the moral

For Catch-22, I went with the last option, and I structured the story around ‘A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth.’

The idea I ended up choosing was this one:

Character A is a notorious liar and con-artist. When the grim reaper turns up to collect their soul, and they make a pact. Character A realizes that they can only lose.

The main character is Connor Crawford. He’s obscenely wealthy and made his money by scamming other people, mostly the poor and the desperate. You can tell that I have been reading up on multi-level marketing, network marketing, or whatever you want to call it. I prefer ‘pyramid scheme’. It’s a topic that makes me really angry, and I guess I needed to vent.

Connor is living the life so many aspire to have. Until his judge enters the scene. In the original idea for the story, I wanted him to make a plea with the grim reaper, but when I started writing, it felt a bit too cliché.

That’s when I asked the Internet about mythological entities related to souls and came across Emma-ō from Japanese Buddhist mythology. He’s the overlord of hell and judges the souls of men by consulting his register. He is assisted by two disembodied heads resting on pillars to each side of him.

Well, that’s where Emma Oberton and the living statues come into play. Very creative, right?

At first I wanted her to expose 3 of his lies as a call back to the 3 lies told in the fable before revealing her identity as judge of his soul. I scrapped that idea because it felt too extensive for the kind of text I’m writing. I figured the story is about the outcome, not the way how it gets there. So the deal they end up making should be the focus.

Emma anticipated his pleading. It probably isn’t the first time that she has to listen to words like this. She ends up making him tell the truth or face his fate. Clearly, she knows what that would mean for someone like him. His entire life is built on a complicated structure of lies, and being obligated to tell the truth would destroy this construct.

Maybe Connor realizes at the end that he had lied that much in his life that didn’t know how to speak the truth anymore, or that no one would end up believing him anything.

Just like the moral of the fable says.