Ideas, Concepts and Dramatic Questions

One more week until school is back. Just seven more sleeps until the morning that I wave my kids off to school, brew a coffee, and settle back into some writing.

I can almost smell the coffee.

While I haven’t been writing (click here to find out why not), I’ve set myself another small goal – one that is easier to achieve when you only have small pockets of free time. I’ve been spending time on Twitter: figuring out how it works and what the rules of engagement are (there are lots of unspoken rules – believe me!); building up followers; checking out the blog posts written by authors, and providers of services to authors. There is an incredible wealth of information to be accessed via twitter. I cannot believe that I never knew how powerful Twitter is, until now.

Every now and then I click on a Twitter link that leads to a post that really resonates with me – because it has just the right information, at the right time.

A couple of days ago, I clicked through to this post entitled ‘Beware the Under-cooked Story Concept’ by Larry Brooks. The basic premise of this post is that a strong story requires a strong concept, and that too many writers begin writing their novels with only an idea. These ideas are what Larry calls, ‘undercooked concepts.’ Without a strong concept, a story becomes episodic.  To paraphrase Larry, ‘the story has tanked before it has even got underway.’

Yikes! As I read through, I realised that my story idea is so undercooked it’s probably going to give me poisoning! If you’ve been reading my blog regularly you will know that my story idea goes something like this … the protagonist, a boy in his late teens, is cryogenically frozen after his death in a car crash. What no one realises is that he had been pronounced dead in error – and frozen alive. Many years later he wakes in the cryogenic facility when the backup generators fail. He is still suffering from amnesia sustained during the car crash. While he has been frozen, the earth has been hit by a series of super-flares from the sun. The species that have survived the radiation have mutated.

According to Larry’s definition and examples, what I have just described is an idea – a starting point that could go anywhere. I don’t yet have a concept, and I don’t have a dramatic question arising from my concept.

But all is not lost. I have been doing some thinking about my protagonist over the past few weeks, and decided that his overridding quest will be to find his pre-amnesia identity. He becomes obsessed with trying to find his old home and answers to his background. This leads him on a dangerous journey across the post-apocalyptic landscape he has found himself in. This is his core story goal. I think this is my concept.

The other day I was talking about my story with a writer friend, and thinking aloud. I told her that I envisaged that when my protagonist discovers his real identity, it would be one that would bear little resemblence to the person he has become, and that this would cause him a crisis of identity. Which identity will he choose to identify with – the person he was, or the person he has become? Can they be separated?

It’s not surprising to me that I have ended up thinking about identity issues. I have a shelf full of books on the subject of identity theft. It’s an interest of mine, albeit a wacky one!

I’m not sure if I’m 100% of the way there yet. I noticed that other writers had posted their concepts in the comments section of Larry’s post to get his thoughts, so I think I’ll do the same. If he gets back to me with some helpful advice, I’ll let you know!

Meanwhile I’ll keep thinking, reading and learning, and hopefully I can write better because of it.

Postscript (1 February) – I did post my concept into the comments on Larry’s post and there was a heap of interesting discussion that made me think about my decisions, and it has helped to stimulate some thinking about where my story is going.

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14 thoughts on “Ideas, Concepts and Dramatic Questions

  1. Hi SJ, I think you have to be careful of taking someone’s thought as gospel. It may be true to him, but not to everyone, and not necessarily to you. Often your ideas are there, but if you concrete them in to soon, you lose the fluidity of growth. Maybe that was where you were going anyway, but has his comment stopped you growing your story in a number of different direction?

    I once witnessed a heated conversation between to old friends about this. One really knew every full stop in his story before he picked up his pen. He swore it was the only way to write. The other sat down to a blank page and started writing. She did more editing, but her stories were exciting.They danced, piroeted, flew, became butterflies and rainbows. They went in directions never dreamed of. At the end of her books, she had to read them through to discover what she had written.

    Obviously neither way is wrong. But had she waited until she knew the end, she would never have started. That would have been a loss. For him, had he just begun to write, he may never have finished, although I suspect he would have been so terrified of the empty page, he too would never have put pen to paper – ever. The concept was just too foreign. However, if a new idea came to him while he was writing, he couldn’t bring himself to incorporate it, in case it altered the end he already had. He talked to me once of an idea to a short story he had already written. I suggested he write it as another story. he couldn’t. He rewrote the first, almost word for word. Sad, it was such a good idea.

    Really, each person does what they do best, but they need to do what they do.

  2. I hear you! I don’t like to firm up too much of my story at the beginning, in terms of the events, and I won’t be plotting out the entire story in advance, but I do think it helps to understand your character’s motivations early on. That way they behave consistently and they lead you to where the story should go. So I think in this case, I was already starting to think along the lines of what Larry was suggesting, but reading the post helped me to solidify my thinking and realise why I was thinking along the lines that I was. As a new writer I find that sometimes I am doing something instinctively without understanding what it is that I am doing.

  3. What an informative post. I appreciate your thoughts on Twitter and how you’ve managed to find it useful. I have yet to establish an account, because I couldn’t understand the point of it.

    It sounds as if the time away from your novel has been a really good thing. I’ve posted on this topic – giving the brain a break – because I think it’s a powerful tool for improving one’s writing. The distance gives a fresh perspective, as you’ve so concisely illustrated above. Enjoy the last week of the school holiday with the kiddies – although I understand about smelling the coffee!
    Cheers ~ Gwen

  4. I’m working on a new post, in which I’d like to reference your blog, specifically this fantastic post! Would it be okay to quote you and provide a link to your blog?

  5. it’s an interesting question SJ. Isn’t it the same as the BIG dramatic question that is at the heart of every good book? In my experience you can discover that through the drafts until it becomes clear ( or someone else points it out to you via an expensive MS assessment service). This is surely the long route. I think some time working it out before might even save as much as a couple of drafts. None of that prevents you from discovering exciting new places and ideas, it just keeps you on the (SJ) main path.

  6. My big concern is writing a meandering series of events that never quite gets going. I read a great blog a few weeks ago (can’t find it now or I would have linked it) from a chap who had received a rejection from a publisher who said that his story was an entertaining series of unrelated events, that lacked an overall purpose, or theme, or concept, or whatever name is used to define that thread that runs through good stories and holds everything together.

  7. Pingback: Tweeting for (Big) Dummies | Writer in Training

  8. The funny thing for me is I think the chatter actually helps me! Looking at things from a different angle gives me new ideas. I am fast coming to believe that every writer is different and needs a different way to develop their story. I am a talker by nature, so when I talk through ideas and concepts with other people it really helps stimulate my thinking. I imagine for others it just throws them off course.

  9. So glad that you found my blog! I totally “get” your thinking process as you write, and I really like that idea of “do I like who I am now…or who I was before?” Great idea! I can’t decide if my new heroine should be 35…or 70…tough call.

  10. Glad to find it! Funny you should mention whether your heroine should be 35 or 70. I’m currently reading, ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ and just tonight was watching the film, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ Content with older characters seems to be very much on the menu for me at the moment. I think those older characters can be very interesting and historically they have been quite neglected. My vote is for 70!

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