Sunday, March 01, 2009

Idea or Story?

How many times have you thought of a great idea, only to discover that the idea just doesn’t translate into a story?

That’s because an idea isn’t the same as a story.

You might have a terrific setting in mind, or a fabulous character, or an interesting problem or premise. But unless you know how to combine setting, character, and problem, your idea will remain just an idea, and the story will elude you.

What’s the difference between a story and an idea?

Unlike an idea, a story needs a beginning, middle, and end.

A story also needs a character struggling to reach a goal.

That means the character must want something... and want it badly. He or she must want something deeply enough to struggle past often overwhelming (and frequently dangerous) obstacles in order to get what he or she wants.

Your character has to feel the goal is worth the struggle, and your reader must believe in the goal as worth struggling for, too, or else the struggle itself will seem meaningless, and, hence, irrelevant.

The next time that you find yourself with a terrific idea but don’t understand why it hasn’t translated into a compelling story, why not test your idea to see if it meets the requirement of a story.

Ask yourself these basic questions:

1) When does the story start?
2) What does my character want?
3) Who or what keeps him or her from getting it?
4) How does my character overcome these obstacles?
5) When does the story end?

If you have trouble answering any of these questions, you may have a great idea... but you probably don’t yet have a story.

Only when you can answer these basic questions will you be on your way to shaping your idea into a story.

For more on developing ideas into stories, visit:

P.S. - Thanks to Adam Rapp for sharing these basic questions in a slightly different form (The Five Blanks Exercise).


naperville mom said...

Developing ideas into stories is the 'work' part of the job, I agree. Thank you for the tips:)

Jack said...

I think answering those basic five questions provides a good road map for navigating a successful story. They essentially provide a written outline that's so useful for keeping a writer focused. I sometimes read published stories that seem to lack obvious answers to most of these questions, but then I'm less apt to enjoy them as much.