First Things First: The Story Idea


One night some years ago, my husband rented the movie Hard Target. Never having been a huge Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, I was disgruntled but resigned; after all, he—my husband, not Jean-Claude—had been pretty cool about Sense and Sensibility. You’ve been there.

Then the movie started, and I realized right off that the plot incorporated elements from The Most Dangerous Game—humans being hunted like animals—with the theme of the hard-bitten, world-weary ex-military type who gets suckered into helping a woman in distress. As the inherent virtue of her cause reawakens his sense of honor, she reawakens his humanity, transforming him from cynical and disillusioned to caring and capable of loving and bonding. I’d seen this dynamic in other movies and books, most notably the best film ever made, Casablanca (do not talk to me about Citizen Kane), and I’ve loved it every time. When I realized where the movie was going, I grabbed the popcorn, settled back, and got ready to savor an evening of painless—dare I say, even satisfying—entertainment.

Afterward, I scribbled down the basic concept and added it to my Idea File, a rag-tag hoard of scrawled-on supermarket receipts, envelopes, and paper napkins that had one thing in common: they were within arm’s reach when the light bulb of inspiration zapped the old cerebral cortex. In recent years, I’ve replaced this hard-copy hodge-podge with an electronic hodge-podge via Microsoft One Note, which is where I keep everything that the middle-aged hard drive in my skull no longer has enough memory for.

To date, I’ve incorporated aspects of the hardass-turned-helper scenario into a number of novels, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. When I pinpoint a concept that really spins my wheels—electrifies me, gets my heart pumping—I milk it for all it’s worth. Authors often revisit favorite story elements because they know that their own excitement about those elements will not only make their books more satisfying to write, it will make them a lot more satisfying to read.

A strong initial idea is the spark that ignites everything else in your novel. That spark can be any fragment that inspires you to start building a story around it: something that happened to you; an intriguing conflict; a historical event; a current event; an overheard conversation; a visual image; a memory; a dream; a piece of music; an intellectual concept; a setting; a scene or bit of business; a character, like Hard Target’s disillusioned ex-Army guy; or even an entire story premise that comes to you full-blown. It can be a primal plot that really speaks to you, such as a treasure hunt, a revenge story, or a coming-of-age tale. Actually, no matter where your original idea came from, it will likely hearken back to one of these age-old premises.

Maybe brilliant ideas come to you easily, and you just don’t have time to write them all. If so, I hate you very much. If you’re like me, you may find yourself between books, thinking, what now?

First, it’s a really good idea to know which genre you’re aiming for—mainstream, fantasy, literary, etc.—and what kind of tone you intend to strike with your story. Heroic? Tragic? Comic? Naturalistic? As I discussed in my previous article, “So You Want to Write a Novel,” these decisions should have something to do with what you most like to read.

Unless you’re a masochist, you’ll want to avoid ideas that have no chance of flying in the genre you’ve got your heart set on. I knew an unpublished writer once who was working on a very dark, tragic love story between two men that she was determined to market to genre romance publishers. Not gonna happen. I’m not saying there was anything wrong or weak with the concept itself—witness the wonderful movie Brokeback Mountain, from a literary short story by Annie Proulx—but her book had zero chance of being bought by a romance editor, period. She eventually accepted this, but rather than jettison a story idea she was passionate about, she jettisoned the idea of getting published in the romance genre, which was probably a good call.

The moral is, if you’ve got a story in your heart that’s aching to get out, maybe you need to write it and worry about positioning later. Writing from the heart is the only way to create something that’s going to move people, and if it’s a brilliant story, it will eventually find a home. But if you’re absolutely certain that you want to get published, say, in the classic mystery genre, you’re going to want to come up with an idea you not only love, but that works as a whodunit. Every genre has certain reader expectations, including the literary genre (and if your hackles are springing up in snooty indignation at my tacking the G-word onto the L-word, you might be reading the wrong columnist). Within the parameters of your chosen genre, a writer with artistic instincts will endeavor to come up with fresh concepts or truly fresh spins on classic concepts.

Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened.” Geores Polti catalogued thirty-six “dramatic situations.” Ronald Tobias wrote a book called 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. Someone else—wish I could remember who, ’cause I like this one—said there are only two stories: 1) the protagonist leaves home, and 2) the protagonist comes home. Regardless of how many of these primal concepts one acknowledges, there’s no doubt that the same essential ideas reappear frequently in books and movies. Much of modern popular fiction harks back to a handful of mythic themes that have been the foundation of storytelling for thousands of years.

Movies, plays, TV shows, and other works of fiction are great for generating ideas. Sometimes one little thread or snippet of someone else’s story can be spun into an entirely new and original tale. (The operative phrase here is “entirely new and original.” Cloning someone else’s story or lifting chunks, however small, of their wording is not only illegal, but shameful.) Think about the novel you’ve re-read twice or the movie you bought on DVD so that you could watch it over and over again. Something in that story really speaks to you. Why not start flipping switches within it and see what happens?

Let’s say you’re a romantic suspense novelist who’s really crazy about The Fugitive, the 1993 film based on the 60’s TV series, in which Harrison Ford plays a doctor wrongly accused of murdering his wife. U.S. Marshal Tommy Lee Jones tracks him with rabid persistence while he searches for the one-armed man who actually committed the murder. Your goal is to morph that nutshell plot until you’ve created an altogether different, and hopefully compelling, romantic suspense story. Envision the story elements as switches in a circuit box and start flipping them to change stuff around.

You’ve got your Tommy Lee Jones character. What if he’s—Flip—a woman? As fugitive and pursuer play cat and mouse, they begin to feel a mutual—and very dangerous—attraction. Our heroine-cop comes to suspect that her quarry is innocent, and even tries to help him. But is she really aiding and abetting a charming wife-killer?

Okay, what if it’s the fugitive who’s a woman? The U.S. Marshal could be the love interest, or maybe it’s someone else entirely—the lawyer she phones for help, or the P.I. whose aid she enlists, or some surly stranger she runs across who is reluctantly obliged to assist her. As the inherent virtue of her cause reawakens his sense of honor…Whoa! The Fugitive meets Hard Target? Why not?

How about The Fugitive meets Three Days of the Condor? Let’s flip the fugitive’s sex back to male again. He’s on the lam, and there’s a woman who can help him, but she won’t cooperate, so he has to kidnap her. Naturally, she’s just a tad outraged in the beginning, seeing as how she’s been abducted by a lunatic wife-killer. Just as naturally, kidnapper and captive are inexorably drawn to each other and, well, if you can’t fill in the blanks from there, you’ve got no business trying to write romantic suspense.

Ooh! Flip! Our fugitive’s a woman again, and she finds the one-armed man. Only he seems like such a nice guy, and he’s got a real (take your pick) Clooney/Pitt/Depp thing going on, and she can’t imagine him killing anyone. Should she turn him in or run away with him to Venezuela?

Or—Flip—he actually did the dirty deed—but he swears he had a good reason. Ooh! Flip! He did it to protect her…

Somebody stop me! You can keep going like that for hours. Just make sure your final storyline and characters are truly unique and not too derivative of your original inspiration.

“The Fugitive meets Hard Target” is an example of a high-concept idea, those instantly evocative premises that are so beloved of big movie studios and publishers of bestselling novels. The heart of a high-concept pitch, whether presented in person or in a query letter, is always short and crackling, and will sometimes feature a pair of highly recognizable and possibly paradoxical cultural references. For example, West Side Story could have been, and probably was, pitched as “Romeo and Juliet in the slums of New York.” In the world of popular entertainment, the right high concept is gold. I read an interview with Samuel L. Jackson when he was promoting Snakes on a Plane, where he talked about having told the studio, when they were courting him for the film, that he would star in it on the condition that they not change the title. Smart man.

Research can yield awesome ideas. I call this “exploratory research,” when you have a vague notion of the kinda thing you maybe sorta might want your story to be about— “vapor” in my parlance—and you start reading research books to help condense that vapor into something more substantial. Back when I was writing novels set in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, I was reading a book about rural medieval England. The author noted that in those times, peasants were so close to the earth, so in tune with the cycle of nature, that one who was very ill might dig his or her own grave, lie down in it, and wait to die. A picture materialized in my mind of an aristocratic priest coming upon a peasant woman digging her own grave. That one image gave birth to the plot of Heaven’s Fire, a romantic suspense novel with a Pygmalion theme that was published with the most noxious, sulfur yellow, oddly berry-festooned, what-the-hell cover in the history of mass market paperbacks. Check it out if you don’t believe me. Here’s some actual sulfur for comparison. Hell yeah, I’m still bitter.

Story ideas. Right. Okay, so things that actually happened to you or to other people can provide ideas with a heady verisimilitude. Anaïs Nin maintained that writers should keep journals in order to capture the emotional charge of real-life events in the “white heat” of the moment. The journal she wrote from 1914 to 1977, and which eventually totaled 35,000 pages, is now in the Special Collections Department of UCLA. Given the people she knew and the things she did, I would guess there are countless great story ideas within those pages.

Articles in periodicals and non-fiction books can be excellent sources of inspiration. Whenever you read something that really grabs you, even if it doesn’t inspire a story at that moment, photocopy it and stick it in a file; it might be the genesis of a novel. In her memoir A Match to the Heart, Gretel Erlich wrote about indigenous cultures that regard people who’ve been struck by lightning, as she was, to be shamans, adept at practicing magic. This got me thinking about what a modern shaman would be—maybe someone with ESP. So, for a romantic suspense story, I created a female veterinarian who gets struck by lightning and develops psychic powers as a result. Because I like character-driven fiction, it’s often the characters I come up with first; they make me ask the questions that evolve into the plot. In this case, my veterinarian’s internal conflict comes in the form of a charming Irish police detective who thinks ESP is so much hooey.

Most of us, when we set out to write a novel, have a pretty clear image of what we want it to be when it gets there. But the journey can be long and bumpy, and it can be tricky keeping on track with that original story idea as we go along. Maintaining the integrity of your premise as you write your novel is a skill born of experience; like so many other skills, it takes practice to perfect. The process is facilitated if the core idea that forms the backbone of your story is strong, succinct and clearly envisioned.

When you’ve narrowed down your ideas to The One, take it and mentally massage it. Turn it over and over in your mind, looking at it from every angle and exploring all of its possibilities. People it with real and empathetic characters and fortify it with one good, solid conflict. And then work it and shape it into a concrete central core that will support an entire novel without getting derailed under the weight of all those words. You’ve heard this a zillion times, but it’s true: if you can sum up the basic premise of your novel in one or two sentences—always encapsulating the conflict—you’re on target. It means your story is focused and will have that much more powerful an impact on the reader. Write those one or two sentences on a Post-It and stick it on your computer. This is your through-line. It’s the heart and soul of your novel.

And as you write that novel, stay on message. Don’t get mentally lazy. You are the God of your story. If you don’t keep it on track, if you let it just sort of happen willy-nilly, you’ll end up with… whatever you end up with. That’s not art; it’s happenstance. Art is having a vision and seeing it through to completion.

The ability to do that—to come up with a sensational idea and breathe life into it—is at the heart of creating great fiction. It’s what separates artists from craftsmen, and what results in those really legendary books that end up on our keeper shelves.

As for how to get started exercising this literary godliness, meet me back here next month for “Planning Your Novel—Or Not.”

Louisa Burton
October 2008

“FictionCraft” © 2008 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

Pin It on Pinterest