Now for some words on the genesis of the story, the background of the creative process that led to "Sepulcher."
Most of my stories begin in my mind with a concept of the major character, or an intriguing situation that pops into my head and demands to be written about. "Sepulcher" was different. It began with an idea. For years I had a tiny scrap of paper tucked in my ideas file. It read, "Perfect artwork. Everyone sees themselves in it."
The idea intrigued me, but the reason that scrap of paper stayed in my file was that I knew the idea might be the background for a good story but was not sufficient for a story by itself. A good story needs believable characters in conflict.
As I mulled over the basic idea, I reasoned that the story would need several characters, so that the reader can see how this work of art affects different people. I began to see that the artwork would have to be an alien artifact. If a human being could create a work of art so powerful that everyone who sees it experiences a soul-shattering self-revelation, then the story would have to be about the artist and the power she gains over the rest of humankind.
That might make a terrific novel some day. But I was more interested in a short story about the work of art itself—and several people who are deeply, fundamentally changed by it. Thus I had actually created the basic background of the story before anything else.
I settled on three characters: a former soldier who had become a kind of holy man; a hard-driving man of vast wealth; and an artist who is near the end of her life. Each of them undergoes a transformation when they see the alien artwork.
Again, notice that much of the action takes place offstage. The mercenary soldier Dorik Harbin has already been transformed into the priest Dorn when the story begins. The billionaire s experience with the artifact is offstage. We see only the artist and her moment of truth as she sees the artwork and is transformed by it.
In the final analysis, "Sepulcher" is a story that deals with the purpose of art. Why do we create works of art? Why do painters paint their pictures and writers write their stories? Beneath all the other facets of "Sepulcher," that is the fundamental idea that we examine.
And that is the most important part of the background to good stories. Almost every story has a philosophical point to make. That may sound pretentious, but the simple truth is that all storytelling is based on getting across some truth that is culturally valid. Homer was trying to set a standard of conduct among his semi-barbaric listeners. The most vapid sitcom on commercial television reinforces the social norms of middle America.
Everything in a story's background should be shaped for the purpose of making the point that the author is striving for, and it is difficult for me to see any item of background information that could be removed without damaging the story's impact.
You might try that as an exercise: Reread the story and see if there are any parts of the background that can be removed without destroying the story's understandability and credibility. Try the same exercise with several other stories, including some of your own. You will be surprised at how much you can remove without hurting most stories. And perhaps you will be equally surprised at how much you must leave in.
Remember the old newspaperman's rule of thumb: "When in doubt, throw it out." Every part of the story's background must work to enhance the story. If it doesn't, get rid of it. Learn to be ruthless with your own prose. Often the scenes you like best will have to be cut out of the story. Do not let that worry you. The result will be a tighter, cleaner story. And if the scene is really all that good, it will start another story cooking in your mind.
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