What to Write About
As readers first, those who have enjoyed many a good tale, we came to writing expecting fully-formed stories to light in our minds. When they don’t, we wonder if perhaps we failed to acquire the secret technique to crank out a bestseller year after year.
Wishful thinking aside, we have more ideas than we can develop. They don’t come to us as fully-formed plots. They come as seeds—ideas waiting to be cultivated.
Story is the product of idea development. The ideas abound. It’s simply a matter of identifying, testing, and developing those that command your attention. Like all aspects and stages of fiction writing, establishing your idea is a process.
“Our stories materialize from scattered particles of life we absorb and combine and shape into new beings. All writers write from the same few—love, pity, terror do not change. …each writer’s vision is made of his or her local clay as surely as any mud pie of his childhood was. It is the act of the imagination that makes the feast.”
The irresistible, the appalling, the magnetic person, place, or thing tugs on the writer’s emotions. Perhaps he observes or imagines a character, sees or overhears an anecdote. Maybe a feeling haunts him or a landscape whispers of a mysterious event in its history. The writer’s inspiration might resonate from a person or occurrence, a family quirk, or the conviction of his worldview. Whatever the source, it becomes a catalyst that launches his imagination and sustains the drive to pursue his vision.
But oh, to mine the black diamond idea!
Occasionally the writer comes under a vision’s spell, but even when his muse sweeps him into empyrean, not all ideas can carry a novel. Readers expect the unexpected—convincing surprises, fiction without of stock characters and wornout plots.
Before setting out on what could lead to a cul-de-sac, hold your idea up to scrutiny. Fit yourself into the reader’s skin, climb into his or her head and look at the seed of story. See it root into the soil and sprout its shoots, then ask yourself:
- Is this interesting?
- How can I make it irresistible?
Maybe the idea revolves around an old man coming to terms with, well, being old. All right. Step back a moment. Will others find the idea compelling?
But wait. What if the old man reflects on his younger days?
Hmm? Jury’s still out.
Let’s suppose the old man’s younger days involved a turn of events that landed him smack in the center of a traveling circus run by characters more colorful than the big top?
Ah! Now that’s something.
That’s Jacob Jankowski’s edge of your seat ordeal in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.
I can just see Gruen trying to pitch this novel. ‘Did you say your protagonist is a ninety-three year-old nursing home resident who’s told what to eat and when to eat it as the remainder of his days pass beyond the pane glass window his wheelchair is rolled in front of?’ Either Sara Gruen can pitch or Emma Sweeney was as surprised as me to find herself enthralled and deeply moved by this rite of passage story. Sara Gruen knew what she was doing. And the first thing an aspiring writer can take away from her book is as plain as the elephant in the room—don’t forget the circus. Metaphorically, that is.
Before you judge your idea, flesh it out. Will the environment box the story in or set it soaring? Perhaps your idea has merit, but the medium to develop it isn’t there yet. Remember, readers expect to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. So when you’re chalking out your plot, don’t forget to give it a “circus”.
Let’s look at another idea—boy meets girl. The idea’s standard, except in this case the boy happens to be an uneducated orphan struggling to survive the mean streets of Mumbai. A plot begins to emerge with the colors of a circus but has a ways to go.
What if the writer throws in some high-stakes Q & A? Maybe a police interrogation? A threat to life and liberty has potential, but it, too, has been done and done often. A circus, by definition, breaches the bounds of the everyday grind.
How might the author up the ante? What about more Q & A? Maybe a game show?
Yes, we’re talking about Vikas Swarup’s aptly-titled novel Q & A. If you’re unfamiliar with it, perhaps you saw the film adaptation. Slumdog Millionaire? Swarup develops his idea within an exotic, conflict-ridden world, and then embeds this plot within the rounds of a game show. Swarup’s circus of choice provides tension, contrast, and structure.
As readers, it’s easy to dissect a novel’s creative slant. Retrospect, like looking in a car’s side mirror, makes objects appear closer than they are. Coming up with and developing a viable idea is another matter. But when we examine the stories of other writers, we can gain insight into what makes an idea work. By isolating the mechanism employed by these two authors in particular equips us with a new tool. After arriving at a plot idea, ask yourself—Is there a circus that can carry this plot to the next level?
Here’s an image I sketched to help me work through the idea development/ plotting process. In the event that you’d like to play with the visual, the square boxes with question marks refer to scenes from Q&A where the protagonist Jamal Malik is questioned. Q&A begins anachronically, but then travels the linear path of the basic plot (the bottom line). The idea is, once you come up with a story line, to see if you can invent a structural environment—or circus—that will showcase your plot.
Story arises from the impetus that starts the imagination on a quest to create a world in which the idea can grow organically in a movement toward meaning.
And if meaning is the goal, don’t write from what you know, write from who you are. Write what you don’t know about what you know. Draw from the emotional imprint life has stamped on you and show how your idée fix operates in a particular corner of the planet. When you dig into who you are, the story you choose to plot will portray an aspect of humanity with passion, originality, with meaning and soul.