Showing posts with label story concept. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story concept. Show all posts

Monday, December 30

Testing Your Story Concept

I've been following screenwriter Matt Bird's blog, Cockeyed Caravan, for a couple of weeks. Recently Bird wrote a post, The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist: Mad Men, chalk full of useful information.

Here are what, for me, were the highlights.

1. Is your story concept strong enough?

It makes sense that if you're going to write a book--something that is going to take, for most people, a few months (or years!)--it's a good idea to make sure you're starting off with a story idea that can go the distance.

Let's put our story ideas to the test by asking these questions:

"Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?"

I'd come across this notion of an ironic contradiction previously when I read  Blake Snyder's excellent book, "Save The Cat!"

Blake Snyder writes about irony in relation to the logline, or one-line, that summarizes your story. He writes:

"The number one thing a good logline must have, the single most important element, is: irony."

Here are Snyder's examples:

Die Hard: "A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists."

Pretty Woman: "A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend."

A Note About Irony

(If you don't care whether those loglines really are ironic, then you might want to skip this section.)

I admire Blake Snyder. When he wrote Save The Cat! I'm sure he'd forgotten more about screenwriting--and writing in general--than I'll ever know. That said, the idea that either of those loglines is ironic doesn't sit well with me.

Here's one of the definitions, or senses, of "irony" that I think comes closest to how Snyder used it:

"(1) :  incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) :  an event or result marked by such incongruity. (Merriam-Webster)"

I think this usage note gives voice to my reservations better than I could:

"The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable," in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly. Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of 'ironically' in the sentence, "In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence, "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market," where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency. (The Free Dictionary)"

So it seems that what Snyder and Bird call "ironic" many would call "improbable." But, enough about terminology!

Ironic Contradiction

Another way to think about irony, and ironic contradictions, is as a hook

A hook is a familiar idea to most writers. The hook introduces a question that your reader will want answered. Snyder writes:

"[A] good logline must be emotionally intriguing, like an itch you have to scratch."

Lee Child mentioned that one way he hooks readers' interest is by asking a question he leaves unanswered until much later in the story.

Before I leave this point, I think that Breaking Bad had one of the best hooks I've ever heard. You have a genius teaching chemistry, sleepwalking through life, until he's told death will claim him in a few months. Then, as the result of a desire to provide for his pregnant wife and children, to leave them some money before he dies, Walter White starts to use his genius to make meth. And money. Lots and lots of money.

Is the protagonist going to have a happy ending? Um ... no. That's obvious right from the beginning. This is a doomed character. But we're interested! Walter White is doing something very bad but for the best of reasons. He's a weak guy putting it all on the line, finally (tragically) fighting for something he wants.

I was going to go through more points but it seems I've reached my word limit!

I encourage you all to read Matt Bird's article and, if you haven't, to pick up a copy of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!

Photo credit: "This Is The Construct" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 3

Writing A Story? Make Sure You Have A Concept Not Just An Idea

Writing A Story? Make Sure You Have A Concent Not Just An Idea

NaNoWriMo is over but as I begin to edit my manuscript (I gave it a week to rest. More time would have been better, but I'm impatient) I'm looking ahead to my next story and what this one will be about.

When I came across The Secret To a Successful Concept by Larry Brooks, I knew I'd found the perfect article.

Larry says--and I agree--that each story begins with an idea. The trick is to turn that idea into a concept. But not just any concept. You want to develop the idea so it grabs your reader's attention and keeps them turning the page.

How does one do this?

Larry writes:
The secret of a successful concept is to move from the situational to the actionable.
From a state-of-being to a call-to-action.
From a snapshot toward a moving and evolving set of images and possibilities.
From an explanation to a proposition.
From a character to a journey.
From a story about something to a story about something dramatic.
In other words, don't just tell a story, create DRAMA.

What is drama? Here's David Mamet's definition:
The quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute, goal. (David Mamet On How To Write A Great Story)
Larry Brooks holds that drama results when you turn a story idea into a story concept.

Here's an example of a story IDEA:

- My father when he was a child growing up on a farm.

This idea is just a snapshot. How do we transform a story idea into a story concept, something deep enough, juicy enough, to support an entire novel? This is how: We create a sequence of dramatic events. But before we get into that ...

Not About Pantsers And Plotters

Larry stresses that the difference between working with a story idea and a story concept doesn't have anything to do with HOW a story gets written. The key is understanding the difference between a concept and an idea. Being able to intuitively tell when your idea needs more work before you wade into your first draft.

Story Concepts: Examples

Idea: A story about growing up on a farm.

It's a perfectly good idea, but it has no drama. Who is our hero (I call gals heroes too) and what is his or her quest? What does he or she need to overcome to accomplish his or her specific goal?

A story about growing up on a farm… as a black slave in love with his white master’s daughter in 1861 South Carolina? (Larry Brooks)
That has it all. Our hero is in love with the farmer's daughter, someone completely off-limits to him. Here we have obstacles and conflict galore! Not only would the farmer kill the hero if he found out how he felt about this daughter, our hero has a whole segment of society set against him.

Also--and I love this!--the hero's goal is specific (he wants to be with the girl he loves) and universal at the same time. His goal is easily pictured, it's something we can all relate to, AND it is intensely personal for our hero.

Turning Story Ideas Into Story Concepts

Larry Brook's approach is twofold:

1. Ask a compelling question, one the reder wants answered.

2. Make sure your compelling question form (1) leads to other compelling questions.

Here's Larry's example:
- What if a boy grows up as a slave in 1961 South Carolina and falls in love with his master’s daughter?
- What if that daughter is half-white, from his relationship with another slave years before?
- What if that slave has hidden the fact she is, in fact, his mother?
- What if she is killed by the master before the truth is revealed?
- What if she left her son a hidden note, to be delivered if anything ever happened to her?
What a great way to transform a story idea into a story concept! Larry Brooks' blog,, is chalk full of great information.

Other articles you might like:
- Amazon's KDP Select Program Has A Lot To Offer New Writers, But What About Established Ones?
- NaNoWriMo Ends. Editing Begins!
- Amazon Sweetens the KDP Select Pot For The Holiday Shopping Season

Photo credit:"Sleeping 猫" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.