I love designing stories. The craft of writing a novel delights me with its challenges. This journal will chart the Odyssey of growing an idea into a book.
All stories start with a concept, something that tickles your imagination. A friend on Twitter asked me, “What manner of eldritch rituals do you use to summon the Idea Sprites?” I’ve found the best method to get good ideas involves a pentagram, fluorescent scorpion blood, and beseeching elder gods. When that fails, the best I can recommend is art and silence.
Art, meaning anything that ignites your imagination. Silence, anytime when the buzz of distraction recedes so your nonconscious mind can put new ideas together. For my current story, the art was the rock formations in Yosemite National Park. Glaciers gouge though solid granite, leaving rend marks on the cliffs. The awesome power made me imagine giants had carved into the valley, and there a fantasy setting was born. I wanted to write about a mountain where people believe giants hewed their way up to the sky, a setting of great moment and myth.
I added the idea of this vale-scared mountain to my Note Vault, a massive word document. With the setting in hand, I imagined what type of culture might arise in the shadow of axe-scarred cliffs. Then I drew up a character of that culture who perked my interest. Once I had a protagonist, I could begin my machinations in earnest.
I believe you can start engineering a story from the concept of a character, a plot, or a theme. Once you have one you can begin building the others. A cycle of tweaking continues until you have a cohesive story. In my case, I had a character, and I asked myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to someone of her unique background and personality?” That became the plot. I only drew the arrows going one way for simplicity, but it could begin from any point in the triangle. If from the plot, then the question becomes, “What kind of person would be least prepared to deal with this crisis?”
Why am I looking for someone ill-equipped to fix the problem? Because I want the protagonist to have to grow, to surpass herself to confront the peril. I believe stories where the heroines change are the most powerful. I want the reader to feel something after finishing my story, and for the best chance of that I’d like a cohesive and resonate theme.
A theme is an expression of the heroine’s growth. In one sentence, a theme tells what the protagonist is deficient in, what she’ll need to resolve the final conflict. When writing a story, I always have the theme in mind. First its absence is illustrated in the protagonist’s flaw. Later the theme appears in her learning, and she comes to terms with the theme in the final act when she transcends her flaw. In order to make the growth seem natural, I want to be clear about the theme before I write a story’s first line.
This might make some authors uncomfortable. Such a technique flies in the face of letting a story bloom from its natural muse. It raises concerns that such an engineered story will come off robotic and stilted. Allow me to offer two points of reassurance.
First, I have used this method on all five of my novels. Hundreds of people have reviewed them, most often with praise, sometimes with criticism. Not once has someone pointed and said that my theme was showing. Never has someone accused my novels of being heavy-handed with a moral.
The second bit of good news: Even with a technical outline, writing isn’t easy. It’s still challenging and fun. It’s still an adventure even if you have a treasure map. Laying down a good outline before you begin isn’t a restriction. It’s a foundation on which you can build wonder.
Here’s an example of how a theme can tie a story together. This is my first pass at my current story. A dark title was chosen, so I wanted the theme to also be more gritty than fluffy. (Seeing the theme is a touch spoilery, but you’ll probably have forgotten it if you choose to read the novel seven months from now.)
The theme reflects itself in every aspect of the story. First, it manifests in the protagonist’s internal goal. She doesn’t believe in the theme. Her character traits blind her to it. She’s so tough and resourceful that she could never accept that she’d be better off letting go of a goal, and that attitude will doom her, thanks to a plot designed with just this pit trap in mind. Her determination will drop her into impossibilities and razor-sharp realities, and her goals will conflict with each other in the final hour. She’ll have to let go of the dream that’s poisoning her.
Also note that the antagonist is struggling with the same problem. The difference is that the antagonist does not change. Because he cannot adapt, he will fall. An antagonist is a hero in his own mind, and every story is a tragedy from the villain’s perspective.
You may have noticed the title. I brainstormed several then set up an online poll so my Twitter friends could help choose a winner.
I Googled the victor, Never Wake, and decided it hadn’t been overused to the point I should stay away. Other writers may question my decision to hurl my title and story ideas into the maelstrom of social media. This information is most often held beneath the cloak. I’ve decided the benefit of input from my readers outweighs the small risk. I have to be confident that I can concoct a better story than some hypothetical copycat.
The next step I take after picking a tentative theme is exploring novel pitches. I prefer to write a story from the pyramid top downward, starting with the title, expanding to a short pitch, then a back-of-the-book-cover summary, then a four-act outline.
In writing a pitch I hope to find the most exciting elements of a story. I’ve scrawled out multiple pitches, with different areas of focus. I’ll share one here.
The pitch needs more work. It is possible one of my others is better, and I’d be leap-over-cliffs happy for your insights. However, it’s a start. I’ll continue to roll these ideas in a rock tumbler next week, while also reading for inspiration.
Until next week, then. Thank you for joining me on this adventure. Please do be generous with your own insights in the comments, and feel free to share this journal with fellow writers. For more depth regarding character growth, I recommend reading Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc.
May your pens glow with imagination.