Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Starting Points

Where do story ideas come from is a common question for authors. While an author may provide an answer when asked how he came up with an idea, the question takes on a completely different dynamic when the author is staring at a blank page. It’s simple enough to pick a plot from the ten or so basic plots and if the author is writing for a particular genre there are many similarities that all stories in the genre share, but simply copying what others have done does not a good story make. We look at the stories that are out there and see a hoard of stories that are pretty ordinary. We don’t want our story to be like that. We also see some stories that stand out above the rest. That’s what we want. It’s hard to guess what will do that, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

The Theme

One potential starting point for a story is the theme. The idea behind this is that you as an author have something to say and you base your story around it. Before you knock this idea, consider that authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Bunyan and Charles Sheldon, not to mention many others, used this technique to produce classics. Also, consider that every book has a theme.

Look at Bleak House by Charles Dickens. He used it to point out the problems with the court systems. While we can only see this through the lens of history, in his day it stirred some people up. He didn’t take a neutral position.

If you want to do this, think about what it is that you want to say to your potential readers. Suppose your claim is that we spend too much time on social networking sites. That would actually be a relevant theme for today. Now, within your story, your job is to not just make that claim but to show both sides of the issue. Your character begins in a situation and something happens as a result of social networking sites. You must consider how you can put your characters into situations that show reasons for and reasons against your claim. Simply stating your theme will seem preachy, but if you for your argument well it will work.

Total Annihilation

Whether you know your theme yet or not, one way to find a story is to look for something that would totally annihilate your main character. I don’t mean literally, though that is a possibility. One of the best things we can do is to throw the protagonist into a life or death situation from the very beginning. What form that takes may be different for each story, but we want to raise the stakes for the protagonist, not just the friends of the protagonist. That is forcing me to reconsider a story I am currently working on.

In a spy story, the stakes are raised by sending the protagonist into the enemy camp where he will die if he is caught. In a detective story in which the detective is brought in to solve the murder, the detective may not be facing death in the traditional sense. In such a situation, the stakes are raised by putting his reputation on the line. While it may seem that it should be important that he solve the case before someone else dies, his reputation as a crime solver is more important. In a romance, the annihilation may come in the form of a life event that threatens the character’s happiness.

Whatever it is, there should be no going back. The character may not have the best solution at first or know what will happen later, but he should be in a state that he can’t stay in. The only way he can live is if he continues to move forward. If you can find a situation like that, then the story just might be worth telling.