Monday, January 17, 2011

From Idea to Story

Okay, I know I live in Utah. It’s SUPPOSED to snow here. I get that. But it doesn’t have to mean I like it. What bugs me most is that I drive up I-15 and every other city has no snow left, while here we still look like a new polar bear exhibit. Oh well. At least it hasn’t snowed for almost a week and the warm weather is melting some of it.

One of the things I hate most about blogging is not knowing if anyone cares about what your are writing about. So I love it when someone asks a question. This is the second one from Julia “Jeuls” Wright. Which means the rest of you slackers are falling behind. So if you have questions about writing, publishing, strange airplane stories, or the mating habit of obscure Australian omnivores (wonder how many hits that last one will generate), e-mail me or just drop a note in the comments.

Here is the question from the lovely, charming, talented, and inquisitive Jeuls.

What do you do when you get stuck.  When you have a great story beginning or start, but no idea what happens next or where a story is going?  When you need answers and they're not coming?  Is there a name for that (writer's block?) or a therapy that has worked for you (or your author friends)?  Coming up with the whole skeleton of the story is something I'd like your ideas on.  Just in case you had anything to share with your minions, thought I'd ask :-)

Great question! I especially like the minions part. I’ve always wanted minions. I asked for some for Christmas once, but all I got was Legos. Side note, Lego minions are pretty cool, but when they begin asking you questions, your parents take you to a special doctor.

This is one of my favorite questions to answer. And as a bonus we get to use examples and cool pictures. First of all, how many of you are in the same situation as Julia? How many of you have stories you’ve begun, but didn’t know where to go with them? Don’t be shy. Raise your hands. Okay, actually put your hands back down. I can’t really see them. Unless I can, in which case you should probably be wearing more than that while you sit at the computer. Yeah.

There are a couple of possibilities here, but let’s start with the most obvious, and common issue. The problem is that what you have is actually an idea, and not a story. Let me give you a for example. You’re standing in the shower one afternoon, eating a Milkyway Dark Chocolate (sorry, most of my stories involve food) and scratching your back with one of those loofa sponges on a stick, when suddenly a great idea for a middle grade book pops into your head.

What if this kid got on his school bus one morning, just like every morning? But this time, when he got on, he looked around and realized he didn’t recognize anyone except this girl he really hated. And then she gave him a really scared look and all the other kids on the bus turned into aliens.

The idea is so strong, you can actually see the aliens and the little girl. (Although in your mind, she’s giving the boy a kind of come hither look, so maybe there’s going to be some romance in this story.)


This is going to be the best story ever. So without even turning off the shower (the muse has no time for things like conserving water) you jump out of the shower, run to your computer, and begin typing.

It’s possible this story—and your story—might have a happy ending. Sometimes an idea just clicks. You see the whole thing from beginning to end and all you have to do is capture it the best you can, complete from your imagination.

For some authors, this is the only way to write. Stephen King claims he just chucks some characters into an odd situation and watches them to see what happens. But for most of us, this doesn’t work. Why? Because we are heading out on what will probably be a long hike without the first clue of where we want to end up.

A story generally has a least four elements. They are:

1) A likeable hero that your readers will care about and hopefully root for. This hero can be anything from a blade of grass to a wooly mammoth. But it’s important that you have a hero or protagonist of your story. As readers, we want a main character we can root for. We may not agree with her at first. We may dislike parts of her. But we need to care about her and root for her.

Okay, take a moment to channel your inner Robin Hood, enjoy the Retro Friday music I didn’t post on Friday and think about the hero of your story. And while you’re at it, put something on and finish your candy bar. We’ll wait.

I’m holding out for you to come up with a likeable hero

Great. Now back to our story. In the case of The Boy and the Bus (catchy title , eh?) we do have a hero. Is he likeable? That’s going to be up to you. Are we rooting for him? Well that’s another question completely. You see, in order to root for your hero, I, the reader, need your hero to have a goal. What is he trying to accomplish?

2) That’s the second element of a story. The goal. What your hero’s goal will be depends totally on the type of story you are writing. And the goal can change. Don’t go for the obvious here. In a romance, don’t decide the woman’s main goal is to find a man. That’s okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t want your poor lonely heroine to die alone and sad. But is it noble? Will I stand up and root for her? “Get a man! Get a man!” Probably not. Unless the man is a really cool, handsome super-powerful vampire. And then . . . Nope not even then. I want something better, bigger.

I want Meg Ryan trying to save her independent bookstore. I want Katniss shooting an apple out of the judges’ pig’s mouth. I want Superman going back in time. (But please for the love of all that is holy, don’t have him die of a broken heart clutching a penny.)

Does our bus story have a goal? Not really. We could probably come up with one, and that’s part of turning an idea into a story. Let’s say that Bob (the boy) and Sadie (the girl) are snatched away to a faraway planet because it turns out that they are the only ones who can save the likeable, but slightly smelly Fergrulians from a terrible plague. Now we have a hero and a plot. The next thing we need is . . .

3) Obstacles

The idea that you need obstacles seems kind of obvious. I mean imagine that in our story Bob and Sadie get to Fegrulia, stop the plague, and leave. Not much of story. Most authors get that they need obstacles. What they don’t get is how important it is that the obstacles, are hard, big, impossible even. Think about The Fellowship of the Ring.

Here we have this happy little hobbit. The only thing he has to worry about is what kind of fireworks they are having at his Uncle’s party. Until a wizard tells him he has to take the ring, he gets chased by Nazguls, discovers the wizard isn’t at the inn, gets taken by a cloaked stranger, gets stabbed, almost dies,gets recued by a hot elf chick, is nearly caught, makes it to the elves only to realize he must take the ring, tries to go over the mountains, gets hit by an avalanche, tries to go under, gets attacked by a giant freshwater squid, hopes for help from the dwarves, discovers they are all dead, is stabbed by a cave troll, gets attacked by things that can crawl on walls and ceilings, get’s chased by a huge fiery demon, loses the wizard . . . and that’s just in, like, the first third of the first movie.

Whether you are writing a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or a story about an alien school bus, you must put your character in situations where the reader feels empathy for him, fears for him, and wonders how he will possibly manage to succeed.

4) Which leads us to the fourth element. Consequences. We almost have the four parts of our bus story now. We have the heroes. They have a goal. We are going to give them big hard obstacles standing between success and failure. Now all we need is to set the clock ticking. What happens if they succeed? What happens if they fail?

In Demon Spawn, I knew my main character and her friends were going to try and help Visala, the seraph. cross the outer circles of Hell to get to Judgment. But I needed a really god reason. The carrot part is that if they do this, Visala can clear their names in an attack on the Trans. And Onyx—Blaze’s friend—demands they also get angel-fire. That’s the positive. But if they fail, the seraph dies, they will be thrown in prison for life or worse, and they might get killed by the denizens of outer Hell along the way.

And to increase the tension, there is something odd about Hell and Judgment, they only have a limited time before the seraph dies, and our hero doesn’t trust anyone’s motives.

In our bus story, we must have some pretty drastic consequences. Obstacles and consequences help the reader root for your hero. Especially if the consequences are not just to them, but to someone they love. I would root for our heroes in the bus story just because the Fergrulians are likeable, if slightly smelly. But what if the plague’s next victim will be Earth? What if Sadle’s little sister will be the first to die? What if the plague will hit Earth in less than five days? Get the picture?

So the first thing you do when you get an idea is wait. Let the idea muddle in your brain for a while. Give it time to germinate into a full story. Who is the hero? What’s she trying to accomplish? What stands in her way? What if she fails?

Once you have all four of those elements, You can give yourself the beginning (how it all starts) the middle (what they are trying to do and what stands in their way) and the end (success or failure, or something in between.)

Another thing that helps is letting the first idea meet, date, and hopefully mate with a second idea. Take the story of Shrek, you know the big green Ogre. The first idea is that an ogre has to recue a princess to save his swamp. Fun idea, but not all that unique. However, when you combine the second idea—that the princess is actually an ogre at night due to a curse that can only be broken by love’s kiss—lots of new baby ideas are born.

Way back at the top of this post, Julia asked if what she was facing was writers block. I don’t think so. Writers block can and does happen. But it is generally when your story has hit a snag and your subconscious needs time to work it out. In our trail analogy, you know where you came from, you know where you are going, but you’ve temporarily lost your way.

What I think Julia is facing trying to force a story that isn’t quite ready to be born yet. It’s only an idea, waiting to turn into a full blown plot. Give it time. Imagine the characters. Explore the setting in your head. Start to hear dialogue. Don’t tell anyone yet. Just wait. And when it finally demands to be set free put it on paper as fast as you can.         

Of course there are a whole slew of ways to ways to do what I’ve described above. if you’re an outliner, outline away. If you’re a researcher, start looking things up. If you’re visual, draw pictures. I like to start a character bible. What about the rest of you? What is your tried and true process for turning an idea into a story?      


David Glenn said...

What I do to get myself set up for a story is draw a map of the land, then decide what creatures and races would live there. Oh, and is the girl in the picture that was posted on here Kyja? I ask because that pictured came close yo how I saw her while reading your books.

Anonymous said...

That's a great post!
So here's a question:
What happens when your character ends up taking a different route than you planned? Do you have to go back and rewrite the setup?

Your faithful minion,
Albert Cassius Giordino

J Scott Savage said...


Mapping can be a great way to start. especially for epic fantasy.


In mind mind, having your story change course is like taking the scenic route on your hike. As long as it will still get you where you're going, enjoy the view. If you find that you're actually losing ground, take a careful look at your map. BTW, say hi to Dirk for me.

Blue said...

I'm going to press the pause button on writing the story, and come up with these elements you've explained so nicely. I'm not sure what will materialize, but I hope it's something good! Thanks Jeff!

PS: Do I win the Most Faithful Minnion award?

J Scott Savage said...

Blue, you totally win the faithful Minion award!

Anonymous said...

Great post,I find myself facing this all the time. I have great ideas that just hit me sometimes, but I can't find ways to piece them together or make them grow. This really helped me see what I was facing!

Blue said...


Erin G. said...

Great post! This never even crossed my mind before. I have lots of ideas, but no real plot. Thank you for the tips!

As for questions, I'm reading Australian aboriginal literature for my World Lit class. So, I'll take you up on the mating habits of obscure Australian omnivores! :)

. . . Just kidding. I really don't want to know about that . . . Haha.

But I do have a real question. Do you keep a commonplace book? Like a notebook you carry around to write down ideas whenever they strike you? If so, how has it helped and influenced your writing? If not, do you know any authors that do?

Lorrie said...

ok question for you but first if I'm going to be a minion I want to be the cute little cyclops one from dispicable me (just sayin') here's my question; you refer to Stephen Kind a lot where does your intrest come from?

J Scott Savage said...

All minion types are accepted here, Lorrie. Especially cute little cyclopes. I quote Mr. King a lot because, although everyone may not be into what he writes, from a straight prose standpoint, he is one of the best writers of at least my lifetime.

Tyson Plastow said...

You mentioned before you are part of a writer's review group. Would you ever take small submissions for feedbak? Like a couple of pages? Or even a plotted story?


J.J. Bennett said...

Okay here's my question. What do you do when you're having problems with page 1? I can say I've rewritten my page one at least 15-20 times. Will you EVER get to a point you're pleased with it?