Writing as a career isn’t easy—especially for those writers who are still in another career (the evil day job). We can’t have a career polishing five-year novels, and we know, given the demands of day jobs, family, and all the commitments in our lives, that our writing time is very precious. False starts, useless tangents, writing our way twenty or thirty thousand words down a path that ends up going nowhere—these are the thoughts that wake us up at night. And keep some of us from starting, always in fear of getting it wrong.
And let’s not even talk about waiting for the Muse to visit. There’s a creature who doesn’t show up for appointments and doesn’t check her voicemail. So often, she’s right there, with her basket of plot bunnies, so enthusiastic and helpful when you get started, only to go completely AWOL, right when you need her.
That Muse is fickle and flighty.
I’ve had an addictive relationship with the Muse in the past, feeling like I absolutely needed her by my side to get a writing session started. Over the past few years, I’ve been working to kick my dependency issues and learn to solve my own problems when plotting a novel.
All that work culminated in The Story Toolkit: a series of worksheets that takes writers like me from that initial spark of inspiration through a complete outline for a story that works from beginning to end. Even when I have no clue what to put on the page, I now have a system that asks me questions until I’m able to pull the answer out of my subconscious where it hides.
Stick with me a little longer, and I’ll take you through an early part of the process – how to move that spark of inspiration from idea to concept to premise.
An idea is often very general. If you’ve ever had that thing where you think you have a brilliant idea, and then you start telling it to a friend, and they start asking questions, and you suddenly realize you’ve got a whole lotta nothin’—well, you probably know what I’m saying. An idea is great, but it’s not really a story yet.
I’m going to write a story about the zombie apocalypse.
Great, I love that! But a story about the zombie apocalypse could turn out to be The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, or a host of other things. All “zombie apocalypse” gets you is “it’s gonna have zombies” and “things will be bad.”
So you need to move that idea along to the concept phase, in which you start to pick some elements that make up the story - those key things you want to write about.
- Do you want to focus on characters or events?
- Large scale vs. small scale?
- What’s the tone, comedic, suspenseful, horrific, emotional…?
- Is there a lesson, statement, or theme you want of focus on?
- Are there elements of period or place that will play key roles?
Answering those questions might take your concept to something like this:
I’m going to write about the zombie apocalypse, but instead of focusing solely on the humans fighting the zombies, I’m going to show the humans’ struggle to survive after the modern world is gone, to find food, safety, medical supplies. I’m going to focus on people. What will a person become when faced with that environment? I’m going to show the dark side, the man’s inhumanity to man stuff, but also show people growing in character, forming new family units…
Okay, so you’re writing The Walking Dead, or something close to it. But it’s still not a tellable tale. In fact, if you try to think about how to sit down and write The Walking Dead, it’s tough to see the big picture, because it’s made up of so many individual stories. Multiple premises. Note, in the concept above, the absence of story elements: characters, specific goals and motivations, and specific conflicts. Once you make up some of those things, you can start crafting premises for the stories you’re going to tell in the series.
Here is the premise for the first Walking Dead TV episode:
Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who has just awakened from a coma, leaves the hospital and goes into the deserted town in search of his family, but encounters dead people who want to eat him.
That’s a story you can tell.
Idea: That spark of “I want to write about…”
Concept: Start throwing in specific elements you want to use to make the story yours.
Premise: Come up with the characters, goals, motivation, antagonist, and conflicts that will work with your chosen elements to tell a story.
Let’s try another one, off the cuff. Imagine you just watched a season of Supernatural. [Okay, now stop imagining Dean’s smile for two seconds and come back to me.]
Your idea is that you want to write something like Supernatural. (And I’m not even going to question your intentions when you start watching the boys and calling it “research.”) In your head, you have this vague idea that it’s going to be like Supernatural, somehow have the same feel as the show, but you’re going to make it yours.
Your next step, then, is to move it into the concept phase. How are you going to make it yours? Elements of the series include things like the relationship between the brothers, family business, monsters are real, road trip, monster of the week, saving the world… Elements you might add as your own might be gender swap, a romantic relationship rather than fraternal, best friends, parent child, a family business that’s based in one place—like a freaky town a la Smallville or Buffy—rather than the roadtrip aspect…
Perhaps you decide on Supernatural meets Smallville meets Buffy as a concept. From Supernatural, you know what moves you is the relationship, the way those guys are always out to save the world but they’ll throw away all their work to save each other. You want to keep it all in one place, like Smallville and Buffy, and you’re going to create a mythos for your world which will explain why it’s full of baddies. From Buffy you appreciate the aspect of The Chosen One, and how difficult it is when the mission chooses the agent. One or both of your characters will be chosen to fight these baddies, and will struggle with the willingness to give themselves up to that. And, since you adore romance, you’ve decide that your relationship will be a man and woman rather than brothers.
In just that little space, you’ve traveled far from that vague idea of “something like Supernatural.” But, again, it’s not a story you can write until you start to come up with the story elements that allow you to craft a premise.
You need to make more choices:
- Who exactly are the main characters?
- The antagonist?
- What is the type of conflict?
- What kind of personal conflict will there be?
- What is the setting?
Answering these questions will allow you to craft a viable premise.
Anna Carson is a used book shop owner in the small town of New Hope. Her boyfriend, Greg, is the kind of man who wants to settle down to the same simple, quiet, happy life his parents had in the simple, quiet, happy town. What Greg and the town don’t know is that the town is sitting atop a system of caverns which imprison an ancient evil. Or had imprisoned an ancient evil, before Anna followed a map from an old book into the darkness and broke a magical seal. Now Cain, New Hope’s newest and most mysterious bachelor, is telling her that she’s the only one with the power to fight the demons that are slipping through the cracks, and that they must work together to seal the breach before Ashog, demi-god of the underworld, gains his freedom and unleashes his army of evil on the world.
Or something like that. You get the idea.
My worksheets ask me questions that expand on my concept and help discover everything I “know” about what I want include in the story.
Finally, I feel like I’m in control of the story. I feel like I know where I’m going when I sit down to write prose. This toolkit has put the pleasure back in writing for me so, of course, I wanted to share. I hope it helps some of you as much as it’s helped me.
What helps you flesh out your story? Do you have questions that you ask yourself and your characters? What moves you along when you’re stuck?
Best of luck on your writing adventures!
Do you have an idea for a book but don't know how to get started? Have you started books, but get stuck in the middle and can't quite finish? Don't be a slave to the Muse. Don't sit around and wait for the right inspiration to carry you away. Let The Story Toolkit take you by the hand and walk you through a step-by-step process of plotting a novel, from the first spark of an idea. It’s like having a developmental editor in your pocket--someone who can ask the right questions, straighten out that story you've got tangled up in your head, and smooth it out into a clear plan you can use to write a successful novel.
What do you think? Would this process work for you?
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Susan Bischoff is a fiction fanatic, author, freelance editor, and incurable romantic. She lives in Tennessee with her high-school sweetheart husband, a daughter, two cats, and one big puppy. She loves most everything girly: sewing, knitting, and other needlework crafts, baking, doll collecting, shojo manga, and is particularly fond of things that are pink. Another favorite pastime is replaying the kissing scene at the end of the BBC's North and South.
Find her at susan-bischoff.com.