Getting from a concept to a story

The amazing thing about being a writer is that you learn to spot the ideas and ‘what if’s that other people would normally pass by. They’re everywhere, and they’re incredible. And they can also be incredibly frustrating. You can get incredibly intricate and detailed ideas in your head, but for the life of you, you can’t do anything about it. Creating a world is wonderful, but it’s just words on paper unless you have a story to take place within it.

So you’ve got an idea…

This afternoon I had a conversation this afternoon on the subject, so I’ll use that as an example: one character discovers that his friend doesn’t actually exist.

It’s a fantastic idea, and there’s a lot of directions you can go on the subject. So how do you shape that idea into a story?

Find the problem

At its core, every story is driven by some form of desire. Everyone wants something– a new bike, their crush to return their affections, the ability to live to see tomorrow, etc.

Every character is going to have a desire driving them– at least one, and often more.

  • Does the real friend want the unreal friend to find out about their non-existence?
  • Does the unreal friend feel threatened by their non-existence and want to feel more secure?
  • Does the real friend envy the unreal friend’s way of life? What about the other way around?

And so forth. There are nearly endless variations of things that your characters can want out of life.

Look for a solution

Once you figure out what each character wants, figure out how they’re going to go about pursuing that thing, and then have them pursue it. Plot is what happens when we watch them try, fail, try again, and possibly even succeed. Of course, they don’t have to succeed, and sometimes it’s for the best that they don’t. People don’t always want what’s best for them, and sometimes Character A getting what they want can have some nasty repercussions for Character B.

When that happens, or when Character A’s needs clash with Character B’s desires, that creates conflict, and that’s what the Western idea of story is built around.

Make sure the action is active

A general rule of thumb I’ve seen around: If the character can get over their internal by just sitting alone in a room and thinking really hard about it, then it wasn’t really a conflict. If a pair of characters can solve their conflict by just sitting down and having a conversation like actual adults, that wasn’t a conflict, either. Problems shouldn’t be solved by navel-gazing.

You can have issues be resolved through conversation and meditation, but the actual conflict will be whatever prevented those processes from happening in the first place.

The Lion and the Antelope

Image by Frank Vincentz via Wikimedia Commons

I was trawling through SMBC Comics, and I found one in particular that caught my attention.

It may not be the most hilarious page Mr. Wiener* has ever penned, but it makes a lovely point about conflict.

(*Yes, that is his name.)

One person’s bad day is another person’s best day ever– and in a lot of cases, you can’t have one without the other. Take, for example, a lion and an antelope: either the lion and her cubs risk starvation and the antelope gets to live another day, or the lion gets to eat while the antelope dies a horrible death. Neither can win except at the expense of the other.

Often the people involved have no idea what’s going on, which creates room for all kinds of tragedy. A sweet moment between father and daughter becomes horrifying when it’s colored with the extinction of an unknown society. Hamlet’s single-minded investigation into his father’s murder takes a sickening turn when he unwittingly drives Ophelia to madness and suicide. Edmund’s fondness for that lovely woman in white and her Turkish Delights inadvertently gets Aslan killed.

Of course, when characters do know the whole story, it creates a whole different kind of conflict: suddenly you’ve got questions like “which of us deserves to come out on top?” and “is what I have to gain worth what they have to lose?”– the answers to which can speak volumes about that person’s character.

For the most part I’ve been dealing with pretty large-scale conflicts, but not every struggle needs to be life-and-death. Often you’ll find out as much– or even more– about your character by the way they handle small disputes.