Monday, November 27, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas

According to two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." If you write regularly, you probably already know this. Most authors I know are forever capturing story concepts in journals, dictating them to create audio memos, and scribbling on the backs of receipts. (Those who are serious take Ray Bradbury's advice and write the ideas down in full sentences.)

Most concepts wither away and die of their own accord. The excitement that caused them to be recorded fades. Some rattle around until they meet another idea and find their ways onto to-do lists. The most persistent refuse to go away. They keep popping up, sometimes hooking writers years later and demanding full treatment in a novel, a short story, or a script.

But an idea is not a story. Even the most evocative logline needs to be developed into something more, with characters, a setting, and a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. It's just fine to let all this development happen as part of the writing process. Writing by the seat of your pants ("pantsing") is a legitimate way to grow as story from a small seed, and it's a great way to end up with an organic work that is full of surprises (if you're careful not to settle for cliches).

There are rigorous ways to develop an idea. Once a story goal is clear, you can write lists of tasks the protagonist must complete and more lists developing the possible obstacles. These can be pruned, organized, and shaped into a detailed outline that provides the blueprints for a story.

It also can be valuable to look at the concept one piece at a time, and that's what I'll present in this post:

Choose characters who have a lot to lose. I just wrote a piece based on a real incident. Historically, reputations were at risk, but that was not very dramatic. I kept the same issues and the same event, but I lowered the social standing of the characters. These people had their careers, their marriages, and even their health at risk.

Moving up socially can work for different stories. For instance, an affair usually puts people at risk, but it usually would put a prominent televangelist more at risk than a grocer or a car mechanic.

Manipulate power. The best stories have people pushed to do the impossible. If it's not hard for the protagonist, it's not much of a story. A man needs to drive into the wilderness to say goodbye to his dying mother. A rich man goes there by helicopter. It takes him a couple of hours. He travels in comfort. A poor man needs to get a car. He can't get one that can go off road, which means he has to map out a longer route that may risk his getting caught in a snowstorm. He won't have a heater in the car. He will only have enough food for four of the five days needed to reach his destination, and none for his return. Etc.

Age can be power, too. Ten-year olds can't drive and are not allowed in bars. Sex? Think of what was forbidden to women through most of history (and into today).

Culture and intelligence can be power.  MacGyver was so versed in engineering, he could create problem-solving devices out of whatever was at hand. Most people couldn't. Or making language an obstacle can put your protagonist at a disadvantage. (In fact, there is a whole genre of fish-out-of-water stories, where local knowledge collides with the odd ways of an outsider.)

Raise the stakes by making the character critical to a larger goal. In his stories, James Joyce seems obsessed with the failure of Charles Parnell, an advocate of Irish Nationalism. He was a key figure in his time, and, when his adultery was revealed, his political support faded away and Ireland had to wait decades for independence. Making a potential personal failure relevant to the outcome of a cause that affects many can sharpen your story.

Avoid what's sensible. The best stories are not about reasonable people. They are about believable people who are pressed beyond what's reasonable. So be careful about providing any conventional answers to the story question. Find some that are not reasonable and make them believable.

George Bernard Shaw said it best, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Unreasonable men also have better stories.

That brings up what I mentioned above about not settling for cliches. Here's something I've tried with my classes. Make a list of 20 animals. When people do this, most of the animals are common across some of the students lists. Almost always, however, when the last few animals are listed, they are distinct for each student. Originality comes up later, with some work (and even desperation). Your answers on how to do a story task like break into a warehouse are likely to begin with the obvious. But, if you keep at it, you'll come up with something special.

Of course, this article does not provide an exhaustive list of approaches to idea development. In fact, it leaves out one of my favorites, which is a free-wheeling brainstorm with imaginative friends. I love it when anything is acceptable and people get competitive about going for the most outrageous possibilities. The best stories are often the most extreme, especially those that take the writer out of his or her comfort zone.

So, give idea development a try. Play with characters, stakes, and obstacles. The only rule is to keep going until something weird and enchanting emerges.

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