Monday, October 29, 2018

Developing Ideas into Books

Taking an idea from “tickle” to full-fledged story. Terry Shames

We have a “free” week to write about what we want, so I am writing about developing ideas.

Writers know that ideas are thick on the ground. In fact, some of our friends roll their eyes when something odd happens because they know we are thinking, “Hmmm, good idea for a mystery.” But not every idea is a “good” one. I once had a friend say to me, “I have an idea for a book, and I’ll give it to you. I don’t need any credit or anything. I’d just like to see it written.” I asked her to tell me the story. She said, “Well, there’s this man sitting on a plane and he’s thinking about his life.” Okay. And? “That’s it,” she said.

I’m quite certain that she had other vague thoughts about it--how old the man was; why he was musing about his life; whether he was young or old; a bad person reconsidering, or a good person who had made a mistake--but she didn’t know how to articulate them. She didn’t realize that the man had to have a background and some characteristics that made him and his situation interesting. It had to have a plot. The story had to have a reason for telling it. Was it a cautionary tale? A thriller that begins with a man on a plane destined for trouble? Was the plane going to be sabotaged? Was it a story of a man on the verge of great understanding that would leave to change? Was there someone on the plane following him? Would he meet someone that would change his life?

Note the most common characteristic of the questions: Change. In the beginning of a book, there is the “usual” for a character.  Soon something happens to send the character outside the usual—a death, a birth, an accident, meeting someone who sparks a change. The rest of the book is about either getting back to normal, or evolving to a new normal.

The initial job of a writer is to take the germ of an idea and kick it around (either mentally or on paper) to see if it has possibilities. This is often the stage where ideas die. The author can’t think of a compelling event that might interest readers. Or they think of a good plot, but no characters step up to populate the idea. Or the author realizes the idea will require a lot more knowledge and research than she wants to put into it-- she doesn’t feel like it’s her story to tell.

Sometimes the second an idea springs to mind, it’s complete with characters, setting, and plot. It’s rare, but it does happen. Those times are golden. But that’s not the usual. More often, there’s the tickle of an idea that keeps nudging an author, but it takes work to flesh it out. You have to keep thinking, “Who is this person? What does she want? What’s her personality like? What are her relationships? What’s going to happen to kick her out of her “usual?” What will she have to do to either change, or get back to normal? Who will help her, or will she have to go it alone? What’s her attitude during her ordeal? Does it change? Was she weak and at the end of the book she’ll be strong? Will she break under pressure? Does she have other people to consider—elderly parents, children, some other dependent? And these questions are just about the protagonist. You have to ask the same questions about the antagonist. You have to ask questions about the plot. What sets it in motion? How is it going to proceed so that it will maintain interest? How will the plot and characters interact? What will be the resolution—if there is one? And finally, where will all this take place?

Even after the author has fleshed out an idea—plot, characters, setting—he still has to  figure out of a story has “legs.” Is it going to hold readers’ interest? Is it a timeworn plot that he doesn’t have a new slant on? Is it a story worth spending several months to live with? Sometimes the answer is no, even if you think it’s a good idea. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t come alive.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’m moving forward on the germ of a story that has plagued me for years, and I’m having trouble getting started. Because it’s a domestic thriller, I thought it would be important to plot it out. And that’s where I got stuck. I could not think of a plot to fit the situation that intrigued me. Finally I went to a writer’s workshop recently, where one of the speakers made me realize I could just start writing. So that’s what I’m doing.

“Winging it” may mean I’ll write 100 pages of wasted words that eventually go nowhere. Or it may mean throwing out 100 pages when the plot finally reveals itself. But I’m finding great satisfaction in pushing the main character into situations she isn’t comfortable with and watching her grow into my story. I don’t have an answer ready for who she is and how she will respond, but I’m beginning to learn her. Meanwhile, another couple of characters have started to stretch their limbs, as if they’ve been hibernating in my brain, and saying, “Look at me. Look at what I’m up to.”

Gradually, gradually I’m beginning to feel as if the story will take shape. At some point I’ll have to start answering all my questions, but for now I’m trying not to be impatient, trying to really explore each scene, even though I know I’m writing things that will never make it into the final book. I feel as if I’m reading the book at the same time I’m writing it. Stay tuned. I may hit a wall, but I hope not. I hope eventually I’ll start to feel that familiar excitement when the story begs to be told and I know I can tell it.

Happy Halloween, Everyone 


Cathy Ace said...

Good luck with the new idea, Terry. It's a process I went through to write THE WRONG BOY. A story I had to tell. Normal life, an upending situation, a creeping development of abnormal, then the "new normal"...or not. It's fun, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did (though this stage of having the book out for blurbs and reviews is terrifying, especially given it's so far from my own "normal" type of book).

Terry said...

Thank you, Cathy. I feel like I'm tiptoeing on eggs.