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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, January 6, 2012

How to Take an Idea and Make It into a Compelling Story


The other day, my husband and I went to lunch with an old friend. All three of us love stories, so usually our conversations include some element of them from movies to gaming to books to writing. Toward the end of lunch, we spent some time discussing our friend’s latest idea for a book. It got me thinking about what’s needed to figure out the right direction to take a story idea so it can grow into a full and compelling story.

So what’s required?

The most important ingredient is conflict. This can come from conflicting emotions or desires in the main character. It can arise as two characters go after the same thing or one tries to prevent the other from achieving a goal. It can be the main character against his environment, a philosophy, his past, his future, or any number of other opponents. To put it more succinctly, conflict comes from unfulfilled desire and that desire butting up against obstacles within a character and within the character’s world.

The scenes of the story should be selected for their use of activity and how they help portray the story’s conflict. Notice, I said activity, not action. Action implies such things as car chases, fist or gun fights, or high risk, life threatening situations, the sorts of scenes often associated with action movies. Action can be activity, but activity also includes more commonplace events such as day-to-day interactions, dinners, kisses, etc. essentially the regular events of life.  There is nothing wrong with exciting action scenes, but for the sake of including action, a writer can forget that any action in a story must relate to the conflict. It can’t be there just to add thrills.

Compelling scenes can take place amidst more mundane activity. In Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, one of the tensest scenes in the early part of the book is when Annemarie and Ellen are simply indulging in the joy of a childhood race along the streets of Copenhagen. The tension begins with the simple competition of the race and builds as they draw the notice of a couple of Nazi soldiers. It rises further as Kirsti, Annemarie’s little sister, starts to say too much. The scene is based in the everyday world of Danish children and slowly reveals the darker elements, the things that are wrong, the presence of Nazis. The main trick to selecting scenes is to place characters in their worlds as firmly as we reside in our own. We rarely just sit or stand and do little else. Even in the midst of a conversation, we show nuances in posture, gestures, and proximity to others. Most people talk while doing other things: eating dinner, playing cards, watching football, cooking, or watching for their stop while they ride the bus. Be mindful of the world and activity around the story’s characters, especially the activity they might participate in. Use that activity to nuance the scenes tone; to reveal character personality, emotions, or interests; and if appropriate, to move the plot along or give clues. The flip side to this is to be careful not to overwhelm the scene with unnecessary activity. As with everything in writing and life, balance is the key.

Beyond that, remain aware of the general arc of the story, where it begins, the primary turning points, and how it ends. This is like a road system. It can turn, there might be multiple ways to get from Point A to Point B, but one way or another, if a car ventures off the road, it’s likely to crash or destroy something. Be aware of the road and where you wish to go.

Finally, pick a beginning scene that is compelling, resists the urge to give history lessons, and is near to the point at which the primary conflict begins. And remember, even great authors go through multiple drafts and edits.

So take your story idea and find the conflict in and associated with it. Plot out a general story arc, choose your beginning and ending scenes, continue the conflict through every scene, keep in mind the use of activity, and have fun.

What do you use to encourage an idea into a full, compelling story?

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