Having a core concept for your story before you write will provide you with a creative beacon – a lighthouse by which to guide your creative efforts so they stay on course to your ultimate purpose: a completed novel.
While this seems fairly simple, it can be a lot harder than it looks. It is the rare writer who has a focused concise story concept right from the beginning. Many discover the essence of their novel during the development process or even as they write.
At the beginning of the story development process, many writers find themselves with a collection of story elements they’d like to include but no overarching concept.
Without a core concept, the first inclination is to try to pull all the good ideas into a single all-encompassing story. Problem is, people think in topics more easily than they think in narratives. And while all the material may belong to the same subject matter category, more often than not it doesn’t really belong in the same story.
Still, no one likes to abandon a good idea – after all, those aren’t that easy to come by. And so, writers stop coming up with new ideas as their attention turns more and more toward figuring out how to connect together everything they already have.
This can create an every growing spiral of structural complexity in the attempt to fit every notion and concept into a single unifying whole. And before you know it, your inspiration and enthusiasm have both run dry to be replaced by creative frustration with a candy coating of intellectual effort that is not unlike trying to build a single meaningful picture from the pieces of several different puzzles.
To determine the central vision for your novel try these techniques. First, shift your focus from what your story needs, and ask yourself what you need. More precisely, consider why you want to write this story in the first place. What is it that excites you most about this subject matter? Is it a character, a plot line, a thematic message or topic, or just a genre or setting or timeframe or…?
Create a list of all the elements you have been pondering to possibly include in your story – put it on paper so you can easily see them all at once. Next, considering your own personal interests, prioritize that list,putting the items you most want to include at the top and those less compelling ones at the bottom.
(Tip: sometimes it is hard to pick the most interesting and it is easier to start at the bottom of the list with the least interesting and work up!)
Now, block the bottom half of the list to see only the top items. These are the aspects of your story that are most inspiring to you and represent the heart of your story. Think about them as a group and see if you can perceive a common thread.
This common thread is called a log line. Log lines are like the short descriptions of a program you see in cable or satellite television listings. As examples, here are the log lines for two stories of my own:
Snow Sharks (Don’t Eat Red Snow) – A group of rich teenage ski-bums are terrorized by escaped sharks that have been genetically altered by the U.S. government to act as mobile land mines in potential arctic wars.
House of W.A.C.S. – In 1942, this cross between Animal House and The Dirty Dozen follows one of the first groups of young women in the newly created Women’s Army Corps as they learn to work together as a team to thwart a Nazi fifth column and protect a crucial war factory.
The top two examples are plot-oriented, but many novels may be much more concerned with character growth or a thematic message or even both.
For example, the log line for “A Christmas Carol” might be:
An unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from an emotional connection with the suffering of humanity as a shield against his own childhood pain, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately see how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, and seeks to make amends.
Naturally, you don’t have to stick to one sentence in your log line – that could be an exercise in futility and put your attention more on form than purpose. The point is simply to boil down the heart of your story to its essence with the least possible number of words.
In this manner your collection of potential story elements begins to take on a unifying identity – a sense your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them and what it all means – all at a high-level overview.
If your material is too limited or sketchy to get a grip on it, just describe what excites you about your potential story, rather than what’s in it, such as:
“I’m fascinated with the notion of an archeologist finding a modern device embedded in the ruins of an ancient civilization.”
You really don’t need more than that to center yourself on what you’d like to write about and, so armed, you will much more easily be able to pick and choose which ideas to include and which to exclude from your novel in progress. And, it will also inform your Muse as to where future inspiration should focus.
If, on the other hand, your wealth of story ideas is so wide-ranging or diffuse to easily see the thread, gather these ideas into groups organized by having a common connection and put each on a separate sheet of paper.
Then, try writing writing a separate log line for each group. Each of these sub-log lines will help focus a different part of what you’d like your story to be. So, rather than trying to find the core directly from your original list, try to see the central concept outlined by your collection of log lines – essential a master log line that takes all the sub-lines into account and finds an overarching concept in them as a collection.
By applying some or all of these techniques, you’ll should be able to define the essences of your story sufficiently to pick and choose which inspirations and concepts to include or exclude and to direct your ongoing story development so all the elements work together and generate in the reader a sense of a unified whole.
–Adapted from my book, Write Your Novel Step by Step