Monday, August 29, 2011

Mentor Monday - Fixing the Fizzle - From Idea, to Plot, to Story

Ooh. I just had a great idea for a story!

If you’re like me, you probably say that a lot. So many things I come across give me ideas for multitudes of stories. Sometimes, I’d get so caught up in an idea, I’d sit down and begin writing to see where it took me, and the next thing I’d know, I’d be into chapter five or six of a new novel. I might even make it to chapter twelve or fifteen. And then, suddenly - the novel fizzled.

Why? I wondered. It was a cool idea. Why couldn’t I make the story work?

The answer, I have since leaned, is because I didn’t have a story. I didn’t even have a plot. All I had was an idea, and an idea is nothing more than a sudden thought with potential, which is why an idea can’t be copyrighted. It’s too vague and malleable. I will turn it into one thing, and you will make it into something else, which is why you should never be afraid of someone stealing an idea of yours. An idea is -

Ooh. What if the government could control the weather?

And the potential?
All the what ifs.

What if a secret government organization got hold of it?
What if it was run by an egomaniac who went rogue?
What if he wanted to take over the world?
What if he threatened the whole planet with hurricanes and earthquakes?
What if, just to give us an example of how powerful he was, he bombarded Japan with one earthquake after another until it sank into the ocean? (Hmm. I seem to remember a Bond movie with a similar plot.)

As you can see, my idea certainly has the potential to grow into something more, and you may have gone in a totally different direction. As a beginning writer (and sometimes, even now) I’d sit down and start writing, thinking I had a story. I would throw in some perfunctory characters and get the ball rolling. Eventually the novel, like so many others of mine, would have withered away and ended up as a half-finished manuscript taking up space on my hard drive for years and years and years - all because I didn’t realize that an idea wasn’t a plot.

Ideas tend to be broad, while plots are more specific, and story is even more sharply defined. If I narrow my focus from the broad to the specific, I might come up with a character who is a reporter, who learns of this organization and takes steps to expose them while trying to save himself from their death squads. I still don’t have a plot or a story, but I do have a log line of sorts, an overall premise. I need to get even more specific.

I zoom in closer and give my reporter the tools he needs to work within my overall idea. I give him a name and a newspaper. I give him a city to live in. And because he needs a real reason to do what I’m going to make him do, I give him a burning desire to become famous for his work, or perhaps he has a deep mistrust of the government. Maybe I’ll give him both. But there have to be complications, so I invent a family for him and make him a drug addict. I give him a history with baggage. And then, to get the story started, I give him an opportunity to learn of the secret government organization and what they plan to do.

But I’m still not ready for a plot. Every protagonist needs a foil. So I create one. I give him a name and a government organization to work for. I give him a city where his operation is based. And because he needs motivation, too, I give him a superiority complex. I make him a perfectionist with the need to always be in control, and I give him a deep mistrust of the government. And the complications? I give him a cadre of followers, not all of whom are totally loyal. And I make him a narcissist. I give him a history with baggage. And to get his story started, I give him the opportunity to put his evil plan in motion.

Now I’m ready for plot. And for me, plot is the road map that gets my character from point A (discovering the scheme) to point B (destroying the weather machine and saving the world.) I have a beginning and an end, (yes, it's cliche and corny, but it works with the pictures) and now I have to fill in the middle. The middle will simply be a series of actions and reactions between the two players that goes over the major plot points.

Hero discovers organization and writes about it.
Villain feels his hand is forced and starts the sinking of Japan and orders hero killed.

Hero discovers where organization is and sneaks in as a new recruit.
Villain begins to make life miserable for the countries of the world.

Hero snoops around and learns all he can about villain and weather machine but withdrawal kicks in.
Other soldiers become suspicious and capture him.

Villain decides to kill hero, but the narcissist in him wants the world to know all about his superior genius.
Hero agrees to write Villain’s biography in return for drugs, and because if he ever gets out of this, the book will make him famous.

Japan sinks and Hero is mortified. He decides to kill the villain and destroy the weather machine. With the help of an unloyal security guard, he escapes within the confines of the compound.
Villain’s goons search for him. Villain flashes photos of his captured family on compound tvs.

In the throes of withdrawal, the hero risks his life to save his family and find the weather machine.
Villain is furious that the hero has gotten away and goes to the weather machine to take his anger out on the world.

The two meet for the climax at the weather machine. The battle between them is fought, the weather machine is destroyed and the world is saved.

Notice the plot isn’t ultra-detailed. For me, that leaves room for side trips and detours, and like following any road map, I might even get lost a time or two, but I do have the map that enables me to find my way back. And as I write and fill in the specifics between plot points, my world becomes more defined and my plot slowly turns into story. Yes, it will have to be revised and reworked, but in the end, it will be a story - a finished story that won’t languish on my hard drive.

Save the World Today v2 by voythas
see more of his work at
type voythas into the search box


Andy said...

Really, how many wasted writing hours have I piled up chasing an idea without a real direction? Fabulous post, Barb.

Mur said...

Even your post has a fabulous beginning, middle, and end. Great post!

I'm Jet . . . said...

Wow. That's a novel right there!

I think the weather machine should have done a little better in controlling Irene, eh?

I'm Jet . . . said...

btw -- great pic of the guy and his typewriter . . .