I have always thought that when a writer gets an idea for a story – or a poem, play, essay, or encyclopedia entry – she should keep it to herself. I’ve told a few people, over the years, my ideas for this or that piece of writing, and it seems to take the shine off. It’s not that you ruin it by giving away How It All Ends. It’s just that the excitement for the writer of finding out how it ends is part of the fun of writing. Most writers don’t want a map showing how to get from Kansas to Oz. Frank Baum may not have even known that was Dorothy’s destination when he first sat down to write.
Today, though, I’m going to break my own rule and tell you about my idea for a story. It could be a novel, or a play, but the main thing is, it’s fiction. You’ll see why in a minute. I’m going to tell you my idea because I already told it to our Christmas guests, and also, I hardly ever write fiction. So this idea might never see the light of day except right here, in the arms of 365Ink.
My idea begins with a female protagonist of 17, just about to reach adulthood. So far, she’s had a pretty good life, with two loving parents, a sibling or two, and a family pet. Sure, she’s had some heartbreak, like when that cute guy on the track team failed to find her equally cute, and never asked her out. More seriously, she’s lost some beloved relatives, like her favorite grandma and her first cat. (To my mind, pets are part of the family.)
Our protagonist – let’s call her Beth – has even had some regrets. It’s amazing how young you can be and have regrets. Try asking a five-year-old, “Did you ever do something you wish you hadn’t done?” They should understand that concept, having grown up with computers equipped with not only delete and backspace keys, but a quick way to simply “undo.” It’s right there, at the top of your screen. (I have no idea where it resides on a Mac, but I’ll bet it’s there somewhere.)
Our heroine, Beth, whether she’s five or seventeen, may wish she could take back the angry words she shouted at her best friend last month. She may cringe when she thinks of how she didn’t hug her grandma the last time she saw her. She may feel bad about not sending the thank-you cards she owes everybody for her latest round of presents. Life seems to be full of these opportunities for regret, reasons to rue the day.
In fact these moments can be divided neatly: Things you did that you wish you hadn’t done, and things you failed to do that you really wish you had. It’s not healthy to dwell on these things, psychologists tell us, and sometimes we can make up for them by pledging to be extra-nice in the future. Not just to pay penance, but to change, so we have less to regret later on.
But what if you had some kind of magic power, a power that allowed you to change those bad things you did into good things? What if you could also save the people (and animals) you love from terrible circumstances?
That’s my plot, or the beginning of it. To make things more complicated, and to keep the reader turning the pages, I would throw in some rules for this superpower. Here’s how it would work. Beth would be told, by some sort of unworldly messenger that would freak her out at first but somehow calm her down and convince her this was real, that she would receive this power on her eighteenth birthday, which was coming up fast. She would receive the power to change things that had happened, whether to “undo” something that happened, or to “do” something that had not.
Here’s the catch: Her fairy godmother would tell Beth that while she could use this power at least ten times, possibly more, she could not know how many more times she could use it after that tenth time. Once those allotted magic saves were used up, that might be it. For example, she could merrily start using her powers to get the wonderful guy she meets in college to marry her. She could avert a crisis in her first pregnancy by blithely summoning a perfect outcome. She could cure her mother’s cancer, get her father to quit smoking. She could even help strangers, if she saw one in obvious need. That would be five.
The closer she got to her tenth time, though, the less merry she would feel. What if she only got ten, or even eleven? What fresh hell might await her, and those she loved, after the last wish was gone? What if she blithely used her last wish to assure her dinner turned out on Thanksgiving, only to see her child, through the window, running into a street full of cars? What if she had no more left? Or what if she used up nine – how long would she wait to use that last guaranteed wish? To save her child, yes, but what if she had already used #10 to stop her house from burning down?
Of course we can’t wish bad things away, or compel good things to enter our lives. Not that easily, anyway. Life holds magic, and just one person can make a difference. We have to do it the hard way. It’s amazing, really, how super our powers can be. And here we have it – a brand new year. May you choose your path wisely, so you’ll never need that dreadful superpower.