People often ask writers, “Where do you find your ideas?” But for a writer, the more important question is, “What do I do with my idea?”
If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work.
The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.
For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?
Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start.
• Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.
• Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher stakes needed to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.
• Ask why this goal is difficult. Difficulties fall into categories traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even combine these. Your character may hunt bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).
• Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
• Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view, setting, external conflict, internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
Next week: Building the middle of your story.