An Idea is Great, But it Ain’t a Story… Yet.

Don’t you just love the feeling when a thought or concept tickles your mind in the right way and the longer you contemplate it, the greater the potential it has for existing as a piece of writing? And it always blindsides you, doesn’t it? On some idle Thursday whilst you’re hip-deep in work or chores and too preoccupied to be overly critical of it. And in its purest form, untested by experts, it’s a thing of beauty–this idea of yours–but as the title of this post suggests… it doesn’t even live in the neighborhood of being a story.

So, despite the fact that you were clever enough to have jotted the idea down on paper–preventing it from pulling a Papillon-esque escapeand attempted to workshop it somewhat, tacking on the odd bits of reality to make it less ethereal, in the end all your efforts amounted to were pages of writing that eventually found their way into a file folder or a desk drawer.

That’s because you haven’t moved your idea into the development stage yet. What you’ve done up to this point is commonly referred to as seat-of-your-pants writing. It’s all fun and loosey-goosey and noncommittal and some writers are actually able to complete stories in this fashion with nary a problem. The rest of us, however, tend to run out of steam, write ourselves into a corner, or worse yet, discover that our idea lacks staying power.

The workaround is to create an outline for your idea. This is where some writers begin to whinge that outlining is boring, it locks the brain into rigid thinking, it creates too much anxiety, and makes your story sound just plain silly. If you’re that writer, there’s nothing more I can offer you here other than a good luck handshake and a pat on the back. I wish you well.

For everyone remaining, before we get to the outline, I’m going to tear a page out of the screenwriters’ bible and suggest you create a logline (for more details see: At Loggerheads With Loglines) which in this case will be a single sentence synopsis of your story’s plot with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

Why a single sentence? I think Albert Einstein summed it up best, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it and to prove it to you. I’ll create loglines right here on the spot, from the first three ideas that pop into my head, so that you can better understand what I’m talking about:

“After her parents die in a tornado that destroys her isolated small farm, an agoraphobic girl struggles to survive in the harsh wilderness as the frost approaches.”

“A wife returns home from grocery shopping and finds that her husband is married to another woman and her own children no longer recognize her.”

“A twenty-something virgin with a week left to live races to fulfill her dying wish to find true love in her small town.”

These representative concepts aren’t the best, granted, but they serve their purpose in showing how your idea would look explained in a concise manner that would plant recognizable images in your audience’s mind.

The first concept sets up not only the tragedy but also the protagonist’s weakness and the ordeal she must overcome in order to survive. The second is more in the speculative fiction vein, as normal events take a sharp left turn and create a reality-bending mystery for the protagonist to solve. And the third, while seeming a bit unrealistic and extreme, introduces the notion of a ticking clock which implies a sense of urgency.

You’ll notice that character names and details are missing from the above sentences, and that’s because they have no place here. Your goal is to introduce the protagonist (by gender and sometimes following an adjective and/or job title if absolutely essential to the story), establish their goal and set up an obstacle, preferably with a hook to answer the unspoken yet ever-present audience question, “Why should I read this?

If your initial attempts fail to net the desired results, rework the sentence, and keep reworking it until your idea sounds like a solid story. Once you’re satisfied, you’re ready to begin the precursor to building an outline by examining the overall structure of your story. The easiest way to accomplish this is by answering:

  • Who is the protagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who is the antagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who are the supporting cast and what are their main wants.
  • What are the major events and sequences and in what order should they appear to properly convey the story?

With these answered, you can safely move onto plotting your concept by applying the five stages of dramatic structure (see: Climbing the Freytag Pyramid), which are:

  1. Exposition – Where you introduce the setting of your story, the characters, their situation, the atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict.
  2. Rising action – Difficulties arise that intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time.
  3. Climax – The turning point of your story, where your protagonist has changed and their hidden weaknesses are revealed.
  4. Falling action – The conflict finally unravels and your protagonist either wins or loses to your antagonist. Also where the final suspense is usually located when the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
  5. Dénouement – The satisfying ending to your story in which the conflict is resolved—or not.

The great thing about this stage is you don’t have to fill these stages in any particular order. Not really sure what your rising action is yet, but have a lock on your dénouement? Jot it down. In fact, feel free to move around and provide details as they come to you. And give your inner critic a little free reign as you get in the habit of asking yourself a ton of questions, because each answer you give is a baby step towards fleshing the whole megillah out.

After that’s done, congratulations, your idea is now a plot. In order to turn it into a story, all you need to do is…

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

PS. For anyone still reading this that felt the off-the-cuff writers got short shrift in this post, allow me to apologize and offer this one quick piece of advice:

Start your story off with that touchstone moment–a powerful situation–something that thrusts your character(s) into the deep end of the problem pool of an injustice or imbalance, something that possibly pisses you off in real life (allowing your rage to carry you through to the end), something that signifies there’ll be plenty of conflict and tension coming down the pike. And deny your character(s). No easy solutions. Let them wrestle with the problems in their own unique manner. And toss additional problems in their path for good measure.

(This is where you accept the good luck handshake and pat on the back).

I wish you well.