I had a question from a reader. Thank you, Freda!
Freda’s question: how do I get the ideas for my stories?
On the face of it, the question is straightforward, however, what then flows from the answer gets to the heart of storytelling. So for this month’s edition of Simon Says I’m going to answer Freda’s question and talk a bit about how I use ideas in the context of telling stories.
Before we get to Freda’s question, let me take a step or two back and talk a bit about ideas in general.
Like many authors—probably all authors—I find ideas all around me, coming at me all the time. I turn on the TV, I read a newspaper, I talk with someone, I see someone in the street, I read books—all are sources for ideas.
As an example, a few days ago I walked past a house and noticed the property next door is up for sale. The two houses are what we (in the UK) call semi-detached houses—they are two houses, but they are a single building structure sharing an adjoining wall. So far, so uninteresting…however, the attached house (in other words, the house not for sale) is the place where two children were killed.
That was an idea. I’m not suggesting it is a good idea, but it was certainly an idea.
Before I can write a story, I need to separate out the ideas that might be the basis of a story from the mass of accumulated ideas—this means discarding a lot of ideas. There are two reasons to discard an idea:
- the idea is just a bad idea
- the idea is a good idea, but is wrong for this story (even if I’m not yet really certain what this story is). Equally, the idea may be wrong for this place in the story.
These are reasons why I might reject an idea. When it comes to the reasons why I actively choose an idea (or more specifically ideas, more of which in a moment) there are two main considerations:
- The simple consideration is which idea interests me most. I am going to spend months writing a book and then after publication I’m going to have to live with this idea for the rest of my life, so I want to make sure I choose a good idea.
- The more complex consideration is story.
The Basics of Story
An idea is not a story. A story is not an intriguing situation or a complex dilemma. A story is not a joke in long form. At its very core, every story is the same: there is a person and that person has a problem.
In slightly more elaborate terms: there must be a person who wants something, but someone (or something) must be stopping them getting what they want. When someone wants something that they can’t have, there’s immediately a conflict.
The character who wants something is usually the protagonist, the primary character in the story. In order to be engaging and to have the energy for 100,000 words, that character must have some autonomy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by external events—simply that they need to act independently, to make their own free choices, and to be responsible for the consequences of those choices.
If we go back to the example idea that I noted earlier—a house for sale where two children were killed in the house next door—this notion doesn’t work as a plank of a story because:
- there are no characters (the children are dead)
- no one wants anything, in other words, even if there were to be a character, there is no basic engine driving that character
- there is no conflict because there are no characters to have a conflict, and without a conflict, no one will care.
This isn’t to say that the idea couldn’t evolve and be molded into an interesting idea, but in terms of story, at the moment, this house is just a setting.
A story is more complex than a person with a problem. A story is more complex than a single idea. In reality, a story is a combination of many ideas woven together.
Each twist, each turn requires another idea. Each twist, each turn leads to a range of ideas that are then winnowed down to one choice. That one choice not only has to be a good choice, but it also has to fit within the context of the previous choices and the subsequent choices to come.
Those ideas that are woven together are a combination of:
- ideas drawn from ideas I already had (maybe good ideas previously put aside), and
- ideas that come to me when I realize that there is something missing in the story.
I probably shouldn’t admit it…but some of my most inspired idea come when I semi-panic and just put anything down so that I can get to the next stage of the story.
Every story needs resolution. If there’s no resolution, then the reader will be left hanging.
If we go back to the notion that, at its core, a story is a person with a problem, it is that problem must be resolved. Once that problem is resolved, then the story has been told and the book ends.
That resolution doesn’t have to lead to a “happy” ending, but it must be a satisfying ending for the reader. So, for instance, if the initial problem is a murder (and yes, I know, describing murder as a problem sounds wrong), then that problem could be resolved in several ways:
- the murderer could be identified and brought to justice
- the murderer could be identified, and some form of “street” or “social” justice could be applied
- the murderer could be identified, but gets away with the crime
There are, of course, many other ways that this problem could be resolved.
As you can see, some of the resolutions may be more satisfactory than others—both from the character’s perspective and from the reader’s perspective. For instance, the last option (the murderer is identified but gets away with it) would be less satisfactory and may leave the reader feeling disappointed with that resolution.
Linking this back to the choice of ideas, you can see that if an initial idea does not lend itself to an eventual resolution, then there’s a strong chance that I’ll chop it.
Freda had a second question: what comes first the story or the title?
In short, usually the title comes second, and usually a long time after the story is finished. Occasionally the title comes first, for instance The Murder of Henry VIII arrived as a title before I had any notion about the story, but this happens very rarely (for me, at least).
Giving a book a title is very much like naming a baby—it’s there for life and the book will be judged on the basis of the title, so I find I want to meet and get to know the book before I’m sure of the title.
Added to which, there is one function of the title that matters more than any other: marketing. The title is the marketing hook, so the title must grab readers.
With the story, I tend to collect ideas and then look for a kernel and build. With the title, I go through hundreds of variations and iterations…and even then, I’m not always happy.
I hope this has suitably answered your questions, Freda.
For everyone else, this is probably a lot more than you were expecting to hear about story. That said, there’s a lot more that I want to say about story…but not today…nor this year.
I’ll be back in November. Until then.
All the best