The big idea, concept or premise

ideaTo be successful, any new story has to be built around an idea, or concept that makes it new and exciting. A school for wizards is an idea or concept, but it’s not a story premise. A story premise needs both a character (for example, Harry Potter) and  a central conflict or problem that drives the story along (for example, overcoming Lord Voldemort who wants to subjugate all wizards and muggles).

Often this premise can be expressed as a one sentence  log line about a type of character, the central story conflict they face, and the consequences if they fail. And Hollywood is rife with stories about movie moguls who have either accepted or rejected a movie simply on the strength of their log lines.

The log line or story premise tells us who and what the central conflict in the story is all about and why it’s important to us and the central character. And if it’s not the type of central conflict your readers care about then the story will almost certainly fail.

So how do you find these magical ideas and premises? It’s not easy. Since publishing my first three novels I’ve been working on the plans for my fourth. To date I have developed two different  outlines as potential stories, but I am having difficulty is choosing which is the better story. So when I came across Erik Bork’s The Idea I thought I would give it a whirl.

Firstly, Bork doesn’t distinguish from ideas that are just ideas and those that are story premises. To him an idea is synonymous with the story premise — it has to be about a big problem. And that problem should be big enough to take the weight of the whole story to resolve it. There are many other potential problems that writers might think of but which do not measure up to the task. The test is does it really matter to the main character and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter to the reader or audience.

Bork identifies 7 attributes of a good story ideas with the acronym PROBLEM

  1. Punishing (pushing the character to the limit. Practically every scene must be about resolving the problem)
  2. Relatable (character)
  3. Original (or at least fresh)
  4. Believable
  5. Life altering (high stakes)
  6. Entertaining (an emotional experience)
  7. Meaningful (for the reader or audience)

Bork dissects and analyses each of these attributes and provides a summary checklist for each of them that is both detailed and helpful.

There are many books out there on screenwriting and story telling that look at the importance of  a workable story premise or log line.  But what I like about Bork’s work is that he brings a more detailed perspective that is both useable and practicable in assessing the viability of a story premise.

Was the book useful in resolving my own dilema as to which story to choose? Yes, I think it was helpful to a degree. But it is important to remember a story premise is just the starting point for a story. To see if the story works you still have to flesh out some of the detail in a plan or outline, at least that’s the way I way I do it.

Busy daydreaming

It’s over a month since I published “Collision” and I have been busy thinking about what to write next. It will almost certainly be in the sci-fi genre and set in the current day or near future. It’s not that I don’t like space operas or dystopian future worlds; I just don’t think I can improve on what’s already out there. Like any author, I am looking for something that is new and fresh; or at least a new way of looking at an old idea.  According to Christopher Booker (author of “The Seven Basic Plots”), there are only seven basic plots that underlie all our stories anyway.

At least eight ideas have emerged as possible storylines; but how do you choose which one is best? At the moment my ideas are little more than loglines about an interesting  character and what happens to them. Clearly, I need to develop the ideas further. But how?

One way is the pantsing approach – just  start writing some scenes and see where the characters take me. But with eight different story lines to test this would be a lot of effort. Then there’s  plotting approach  – mapping out a storyboard or outline before writing. But again it’s a lot of effort if I’m only going to choose one of the storylines. Any kind of planning therefore has to be restricted to a high-level view of the plot.

Of the two approaches, I always thought I fell into the plotting camp.  When working on “Collision” I started by using forty or so cards to map out the scenes before I started. Each scene card was simply a one-liner description of the scene. It was a way of getting started and finding a sense of direction. But if I’m honest and compared the original cards I used with the final draft of the manuscript, you would hardly recognise that it was the same story. During the writing process, I changed some of the characters, their relationships to each other and even some of the locations. What I found is that when I started drafting, some scenes just did not work, or new ideas would emerge, or I would find gaps in the storyline that had to be filled in. At times, it even felt like the characters themselves were behaving like belligerent actors and wanted to move in their own story direction.

Since publishing Collision, I have been looking for ways of improving my writing process, particularly the planning part. I don’t want to write long detailed outlines because I know I wouldn’t stick to them. I would be like a skier going off piste after the first scene. But some kind of high-level plan of the story’s structure would clearly help. So I have been looking to see what the gurus say about story structure on the internet. There’s no shortage of material about story structure, with each guru having his own spin on the number of acts, parts, plot points or beats. Most are based on screen writing structures around the hero’s mythic journey and while they differ in terminology, they all seem to recognise the same basic plot points.

One of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Larry Brooks’ “Story engineering”, which I would recommend to any newbie author. Brooks uses a four-part structure with nine milestones. The four part structure is very similar to a simple three-act structure, but with the middle act split at the midpoint. Thus, there are three major plot points (or turning points) at the end of the first act, at the middle of the second act, and at the end of the second act. The other milestones are:  the opening scene, the hooking moment and the inciting incident, which occur which occur in the first act; the final resolution scene that occurs in the final act; and two pinch points, which occur midway through the first part and second part of the middle act. The hooking moment is an early scene that captures the readers’ interest. The inciting event is the event that changes the hero’s world forever. And the pinch points are scenes where the antagonistic forces show their strength.

Brooks is by no means the only one to advocate a four-part structure or to use similar milestones, but he argues the case with such evangelic zeal that he is well worth the read. There are also approaches that have a lot more than nine milestones, or which break down the part structure into smaller units called sequences (groups of scenes) or beats.

Will any of these approaches help with the planning of my next novel? I really don’t know. Sometimes, to find out, you just have to try and see what works.

As I have freely admitted, I am a bit of technophobe and this is only my second blog. In future, I don’t expect to blog more frequently than monthly – I would rather use the time to write.  But I would be delighted to hear from anyone that has experienced the same writing problems and whether they have found any better solutions

Finally published!

On the 29 October 2012, and after nearly two years in development, I published my novel, “Collision – A Sci Fi Romance”. It took less than an hour to actually publish the book on Amazon. Even for a technophobe like me, the process was simplicity itself. I simply followed the input screens on Amazon and uploaded the file and cover. The following day I got an e-mail from Amazon telling me it had been published. I went onto the site, and there it was. Amazing.

Does this mean anyone can self publish a novel on Amazon Kindle? The answer is ‘yes’; but of course there is the small matter of actually writing the book in the first place. That means you need an idea for a book and a great deal of will and determination to follow it through. Many, of course, start to write with good intentions, but after a few thousand words give up in despair. It is not as easy as it seems. Some might even finish the first draft and then despair at the thought of editing the draft; a process that can be as long as the process of writing itself.

In my case, I had a slight advantage; I had written two non-fiction books before, one of which went through six editions, and I had acted as editor of a technical newsletter for one of the largest firms of accountants in the world. I had also contributed chapters to a number of other publications and published a lot of articles. I knew I had the basic writing skills; but could I write fiction? As I was to discover the world of fiction was a totally new experience for me.

At about 25,000 words I started to falter; I had concerns about the plot, about the characters, about dialogue, and about virtually everything.  And I realised that I needed to do much more research about how to write fiction. So I did, what I suspect most newbie writers do; I read dozens of ‘how to write fiction’ books. I have quite a library of them now. Most of them are very good, and will help you identify what you are doing wrong. But don’t expect them to turn you into a Stephen King or a Dan Brown. They won’t. At best they will get you to look at the way an author is telling a story in a different way.

I said earlier that it had taken almost two years to produce the book. It’s taken longer than I expected; but there was a lot to learn during the process and I am still learning. Perhaps the next will take far less.