So, having an idea for a story and having a story are two different things. “Well, duh,” you might say. But the difference between the two isn’t just words.
Having a notion that the world is round is an idea. A story is like the ship you build to prove that idea. Like a ship, a story needs something to push it along, a method for navigating and steering it and a watertight structure to prevent it from sinking without trace into the dark and airless depths of crushing despair below. Like a ship, a story is a cohesive, complex, mechanical whole, the purpose of which is to deliver your idea to its destination (your readers). And like a ship, if any parts of the machine are poorly designed or constructed, your story will end up becalmed in the middle of nowhere, go off in the wrong direction or sink without trace into the dark and airless depths of etcetera.
A story has motive force, direction and structure. An idea doesn’t necessarily have any of those things. So, you have to build them around your idea to turn it into a story.
Motive force, first. This has a couple of aspects. The first is character. Until you hang some human need or desire on your idea and attach it to a character that the reader can root for, your story’s going nowhere. For the last couple of years, my writers group (the CSFG) has entered a team in the Write a Book in a Day contest, for which you’re given a set of random story elements, including three random characters. You have twelve hours – planning and writing as a team – to turn those random elements into a story. One thing that’s struck me about this exercise is that, until the team starts looking at the characters and their relationships, wants and needs, we’re just spinning our wheels. Story starts with character. Give your idea some characters to carry it, first.
The second aspect of motive force relates to the idea itself. One idea is often not enough, on its own, to build your story around. You need two things to bang together to make a spark. For example, a friend once told me about a dream she had of a scene from a novel I will have written, of two blue biplanes taking off over a snowy plain near an impossibly tall tower. It’s a great idea, but it didn’t give me a story. Then, rummaging through the bargain bin outside a second-hand bookshop, I happened across a photograph in a book about the Russian Civil War, of Russian peasants posed with the human body parts they scavenged from battlefields and sold for meat. Now I was getting some story sparks – setting, characters, direction – but what about the tower? Then I read an article about a type of newt that breaks its own ribs whenever it’s attacked, so that they puncture its skin and make spikes and BOOM! SPARK! TRANSDIMENSIONAL MONSTERS!
And suddenly I’ve got my story (it’s called “Cold, Cold War” and you can find it online at Beneath Ceaseless Skies). I probably could have written just from the first idea, or from the first two, but the result probably wouldn’t have had the zest that came from waiting for that third ingredient and that big spark. It’s a principle that holds true, I think, even for ideas that are much more fully formed – you still need to bang them against something to get that spark.
(As an aside, banging your idea together with completely random elements can be a really good way to get the spark. I use dice, playing cards and Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations as random spark generators.)
Direction, next. If you want to tell a joke, you need to know the punchline. It’s the same with stories. When your reader arrives at the end of your story, they should feel like every part of the story that preceded it was in service of that ending. To achieve that, you need to have a notion of where your story is going while you’re writing it. Depending on how you work, you may well strike out on your writing adventure without really knowing where you’re going to end up, but before you get too far, you’re going to have to sit down and figure it out. Then you can figure out how to get there.
Lastly: structure. In Western literary and theatrical culture 2-, 3- and 5-act structures are common and familiar. In movies, three acts are the norm and the proportions of the structure are often adhered to to the minute. Which isn’t to say you must be slavish in giving your stories structure, but I find the 3-act structure is a useful planning and editing tool, and its dramatic beats work well for the kinds of stories I tend to tell, and help me figure out the ‘how to get there’ part once I know what my ending is. (I also find that most short stories need to start somewhere near the end of the first act of the conventional structure – if not later – and that it’s often preferable to omit, combine or compress different parts of the structure to serve a given story.)
These kinds of structural archetypes are archetypes because they work. Your idea needs a good structure around it to become a good story, so, make use of what already works. Treat act structure as an adjustable template, but think of it like the hull of your story ship: some changes in design will make it roll belly-up and sink to the place of dark etceteras. Others might turn a bathtub into a catamaran. Practice and experience increases the likelihood of not sinking.
So, in sum, to turn your idea into a story: find your characters, bang things together to make sparks, know where you’re going and build on a solid structure.
Easy. Now go and write the damn thing.
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A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 edition of ACT Write, the magazine of the ACT Writers Centre.