A man’s suitcase is lost on a flight he regularly takes. Five years later, the suitcase shows up on the conveyor belt, and you think, “Wow, wouldn’t that make a great story!”
Not really. That might be an interesting premise for a story or an incident in one, but only a character can have a story. Stories require conflict; suitcases don’t have conflicts.
A notion isn’t a story either, and last week I wrote how I had the notion to write something about blood diamonds and then expanded that to include human trafficking. Those were my subjects for context and plot points but not characters, and I still needed a protagonist. Whose story was it?
In an earlier novel, I had introduced an FBI agent and a CIA agent who had teamed up to solve connected murder and arms smuggling cases in Poland, and I thought they’d be an ideal team to work on connected diamonds and trafficking cases. But every effort to team them up again felt contrived, so finally, I simply wrote the opening scene I had always imagined: my CIA guy in a bar in Africa.
He picks Cooper up in the bar. An Army deserter, sharpshooter, gay, and lost in the world. I hadn’t even thought about a character like Cooper until he introduced himself to me.
So I had found my protagonist, but how to introduce him to the world? The story is told entirely from his point of view, so I knew I had to give my readers a strong sense of who he is from the opening. Here’s how I finally did it:
The rain turned to steam as soon as it hit the ground, or so it seemed to Cooper as he ran down the street, stopping only long enough to help a woman load a box onto a pickup truck before dashing off again. He heard a girl shout from a doorway, “You going to see Little Sister, American Cooper?” and he turned around to run backward, water splashing at his heels as he spread his hands, silently asking, What choice do I have? The girl flashed her white teeth in a big smile. A second prostitute, the same young age as the first, cried out, “Why you go all that way, American Cooper, when you got a Little Sister right here?”
Cooper is kind enough to help a stranger in a downpour, has a nickname so apparently he’s well-liked, and has a sense of humor. He’s young enough to run down the street, strong enough to lift boxes, and is in some exotic place. All of that in the first paragraph.
Now I had to throw a story at him, and I did.
Trust me, it’s not about a missing suitcase.