Ideas, where do they come from and how do you grow them into stories?
I’ve been asked this a few times and the answer is at times simpler and other times more complex than anyone wants to think it is. Sometimes an idea can come from nowhere and grow to be a series of stories or novels, some can germinate for years and never go further than a seed.
I remember a talk Steven King did at a college somewhere in the northeast, he said his current work started as a short story and kept growing. He was sitting in a hotel and watching the news when a story came on about a woman who drove her car into some building, injuring several people inside. Why did she do that? What was her reasoning? He asked himself these questions and started making notes. What he thought might be worthy of a short story turned out to be a full size novel.
The series “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins started when she was watching the Olympics and on another channel the news was reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The thought of people the same age doing two so opposing things in different parts of the world planted the kernel of the hunger games. Whether you liked the stories or not, or even if you thought they were original or just another re-write of the myriad of people-hunting-people stories, the idea still germinated in the same way.
Where you find the inspiration is up to you, what inspires me may leave you flat. The news may be the worst place for you to get an idea, but I have taken inspiration many times and have more than a few short stories directly inspired by the news.
Despite where the seed came from , when trying to get a story out of the seedling stage and into flowing words, are the six cardinal questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. These things don’t have to be answered before you start plotting and planning how to drag your characters through the mud, but you won’t get far before you have to ask and answer them.
The Antagonists, Protagonists, Straw Men, all of the characters in your story need to know who they are to interact properly with each other. Who and what are arguably the most important parts of a story and there may be great debate here as to which is truly #1 and #2 but there is no argument that they are 1 and
2.What make your characters unique? What drives them?
A character with no depth will leave your readers begging for mercy, they will probably achieve that mercy by putting your book down. This is bad. Everyone has flaws, we all have weaknesses and strengths. The writer should be able to expound on those things and draw the reader into the character, make them want to read more, to hate putting the book down.
Why and How are they involved? Every character would have a reason to be involved or they would just walk away. Even a waitress in the café where the two lovers are having coffee on their secret rendezvous has a reason to be there. Is she tired and sloppy in her work? Is he happy and sunny because he has a job to pay the bills? The more a character is involved in the story, the more you, and by extension the reader, need to know about them.
Where are they from? If they are from Virginia and your story is in Iowa, you need to know why they are there. The point may never become salient during the story, but if you don’t know it will show.
What is the story arc? Without some sort of plot to your story, the reader will feel like they are being dragged through an endless series of random events and actions. Story plotting tools are easy to find and use, just google story plot summary and you will find a myriad of tools for plotting out a story. Your characters will need to overcome obstacles and disasters, jump through the hoops and fight to grab the ring at the end.
Why is the story happening? There has to be some impetus that got the ball rolling on the plot, give it to the readers. It may be the romance of a lifetime, the chance to win the heart of the woman of his dreams. The plans to the ultimate battlestation have been stolen, now they have to be gotten to the hands of the small band of freedom fighters. What is the McGuffin to move the story forward, make the characters stretch their ideals and capabilities?
#4: Where? When?
This is not just a physical location, the where of your story also takes place with the ‘When’. Time and location research is critical, details that would seem inconsequential to someone from that time or place will add no end to the flavor of your story if used right. Make no mistake, readers will expect you to know little details about the location the story happens in.
If you have never been to San Diego, research the city before you put your story there. If you have your characters walking from a football game at Qualcom Stadium to watch the Padres at Petco Park you will have established your book as a comedy to the people of San Diego. However, if your characters take the trolly between the two stadiums and have dinner in the Gaslamp District… now they know you understand their city. If your story takes place in Pearl Harbor during the attack, and you have the heroic pilot get into his P-51 to go fight the Japanese, you have again fallen into comedy.
This point is no less important if you are writing a fantasy novel on a strange planet with wild creatures or a sci-fi space opera spanning dozens of planets. Little details will make a story.
The scorned lover trying to break up the new happy couple will have methods, steps he will take to drive them apart. If he is a teenager it might be something simple and easily overcome for an adult, but hard for a teenager to see and resist. A criminal mastermind who loves the woman singing in the nightclub will go to great lengths to discredit the cop that falls for her.
Your readers want you to immerse them in the story, the worlds, the characters. They want you to entertain them, but you can’t do that if you don’t know enough about the story to tell it properly. Oprah Winfrey has a test she told her audience years ago to use when buying a book. They will open the book to a random page and read it. If that page does not grab their attention, they will put it back and move on to the next. Don’t be the writer that gets their book put down.
This is a fairly short prompt for getting ideas rolling, but I hope it will help someone to move forward with their own stories.
Michael was born at the Oregon coast, and raised in southern Oregon. He has served in the Navy, worked in the construction industry, been a graphic designer and taught art and design. Along the way he managed to raise three kids, travel to some wonderful and other horrible places.
In his youth he fell in love with the fantasy works of authors like Tolkien and Lewis, and expanded later with the likes of Jordan, Salvatore, Brooks. SciFi greats like Asimov, Niven, and Pournelle as well as authors like King and Koontz bear influences in his work. His first novel, Journey Begins, grew from a short story written for his daughter and first published by Amazon in 2015.
Michael currently lives with his wife, Kris in Virginia Beach, with their three dogs; Smokie, Ollie and Jethro
His Website; http://www.michaelarneson.com/home.html