Monday, February 08, 2010

Building a Story Up From an Idea

My brother Sarf asked a good, meaty question in the last post's comments: If you have a story idea and a setting, how do you go about fleshing that out? How do you hammer out the question of why it all happens?

There's more than one answer to that, so I encourage all my writer-buddies to jump in and offer their own strategies in the comments.

Here's my attack:

The Big Picture

1) Stories are about people, even if those people don't happen to be humans. Your main character, at the very least, needs to be someone the reader can relate to.

That usually means your protagonist needs some moral grounding, some intelligence, and some depth. Personalities that are too extreme, in any direction, don't work well in the role of protagonist. (They're great as secondary characters, however.)

2) Stories are about change. The story begins when the protagonist's life swings out of balance. Their actions thereafter are about trying to get their life back to normal.

They never really succeed, however. The events of the story must leave the protagonist changed forever, otherwise it's not a story.

The Meat In This Sandwich

1) Conflict and tension are what make a story gripping to a reader.

1a) If you keep implying that fireworks and mayhem are about to happen, the reader will happily plough through another 400 pages to see everything blow up. Tension is the sense (either to the reader or to the characters in the story) that the situation is escalating.

Tension can be completely internal and emotional, by the way. The promise of heartache and angst is just as powerful a way to keep the reader turning pages as the promise of giant robots punching each other.

1b) Conflict is when there's a struggle between two entities to trying to reach mutually exclusive goals. This is usually between two characters who want different things and are acting to get them, but a single character also can be internally conflicted if they want two things but can't have them both.

2) Empathy is what makes the reader care about what happens in the story.

The best way to make the reader care is to show them how much your characters care. If your protagonist is in distress over the events of the story, that emotion helps drag your reader's emotions into play.

The Nuts and Bolts

So how do you actually take an idea and setting and then turn them into a story?

First, figure out what the conflict is (or can be.) What is going wrong in this world? How are people going to be hurt?

Second, create a character who (1) will have their life thrown out of balance by these events and not like it, and (2) is able to act to try to restore the balance.

This person is going to be your protagonist. Their struggle to swing their life back to normal forms the body of your story.

Why? Because stories are about people, even when they're also about something massive like the end of the world. You need to focus on people, usually one person--your protagonist.

Your protagonist has a problem (their life is out of balance), and they're trying to fix it (by reaching a goal, something they think will help re-balance their life.) Now you need to give them obstacles; you want to make it virtually impossible for the character to get what they want.

And you want your character to care about that. It should cause them distress to not be able to reach their goal. They might be angry, sad, anxious--there are really only two emotions in the world: pleasure and pain. You want your character in pain.

Because that will cause the reader to empathize with them.

I explained in this post what I think you do next:

You have the protagonist act. They choose to do something they think will get them closer to their goal, but events conspire to give them something other than what they expected. Often, those events make the situation worse.

So the protagonist must act again, this time more courageously, and again things go wrong. You keep doing that until the character has been traumatized enough that they finally find the inner strength to overcome all remaining obstacles, reach their goal and fix the problem that started the whole story.

The Nitty-Gritty

There're a few last things to consider:

Every scene needs:
1) Conflict (at least two forces in opposition)
2) Tension (the sense that things are getting dire, or that they won't work out)
3) Emotion (one character must care about what's happening in that scene)
4) A turning point (a moment where things change irreversibly)

You want to consider how many possibilities for the above four things you have while you plot out a scene, but you also want to keep those four things firmly in mind while you write the scene, too.

Without conflict and tension, you won't hold the reader's attention. Without emotion, the reader won't care about the story or its characters. Without a turning point, the scene is wasted space--turning points are the moments when your story steps forward, and those are the only moments that should be included.


Again, I'll invite my writer-buddies to share their expertise in the comments. How do you take an idea and turn it into a living, vibrant story? What do you think are the essential elements? In your view, what's the most important 'big picture' thing to keep in mind? What's the most important 'fine detail' thing?

Are there some things you refuse to think about until you actually start writing, or do you plot out every nuance ahead of time? I'd be honoured if you shared your wisdom with us.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


scott g.f.bailey said...

I don't start writing until I know what happens in the story, how the story ends. If I can't take my premise or characters or whatever and turn it into a brief (one paragraph or so) story with an ending now, I won't be able to do that after having written 100,000 words, either. My theory is that a story is a narrative that tells how and why something happened, and if you don't have that "something happened" part yet, you don't have a story. Knowing that you are about to tell "the story of how Winnie stole the bee's honey" lets you know what is relavant and what isn't, in a way that writing about "a bear in a wood with some friends" doesn't. So first I figure out the end. Next I figure out what the forces in opposition are, and what the conflict between them is. Then I figure out the incident that pushes the protagonist into a no-return fignt over this conflict, and what the event is at the end that changes everything (resolves the conflict, restores balance, whathaveyou). This results in a big-picture structure that should be compelling and convincing, which outlines the essential character arc within the plot. Then I start filling in the story with likely events, all of which are based on conflict between characters. I think of drama as essentially two people arguing about one thing, and this argument starts on page one even if the subject of the fight is unspoken. So I try to make my protagonist/antagonist uncomfortable and in constant contact until the balance of power has swung from the antagonist to the protagonist (usually). Anyway, that's all big-picture stuff that I do before I write much of anything in the way of prose. I end up with a sort of list of chapters divided roughly into three acts and then I start writing and fill in details as I go along.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I should add that I don't necessarily do all of the above in any particular order; I figure it out as I can (some days I'm brighter than other days) but I don't write the story until I know what the story is (that is, how the conflict gets resolved and why).

maybe genius said...

I'm fond of the "tension on every page" stance - if you open up your work in progress to a random page, is there tension on that page? Is there something there to hold a reader's interest? If there isn't, you might want to rework the scene to heighten the tension.

Of course, you have to be careful with this, as with anything! You can't just throw in a random bank robbery to create some instant stakes. You have to choose tension that works for your story and figure out how to work it in. And it can be hard!

I'm a loose outliner. I don't have every single plot point planned to the T, but I have all my major plot elements outlined (on paper or in my head) before I even start. First, I get the story out. Then, I go back and work on my characters. I rarely have a perfectly fleshed-out character on my first pass.

So, I give them their circumstances, then I get to know them and build them based on how they react to the plot I've thrown them into.

Kate said...

Fantastic post!

jjdebenedictis said...

Scott G. F. Bailey: Wow, Scott; that was awesome! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a detailed outline of your process. I found it really helpful and informative!

Maybe Genius: Thanks for explaining your process! That's really cool to read, because you do things backward to me. I come up with characters first but tend to flail around on plot a great deal more. It's so helpful to get the perspective of someone who just works in a different way; it leads to more shared insights for everyone.

Kate: Aw, thank you! I'm so glad you found it useful. :-D

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