The initial idea for a story usually consists of one of two elements: a concept, or a character. Sometimes it’s a theme, but that makes you the exception (and a lucky one, because theme often gets the least developmental treatment).
If you try to write your story with one and not the other, and if that one is anything short of earth-shatteringly wonderful, the story won’t work. Not until you add the other.
Which means, not every idea that pops into our writerly brains is strong enough to carry an entire story. Not unless the concept and the character — both separately and together — are sufficiently compelling.
Because the core concept of a story, best expressed as a what if? proposition, is only one of the six things we need to pull off in order for our novels and screenplays to work (Click HERE for my Six Core Competencies post).
And the same holds true for character. There are five other things that go with it.
If you’re writing for publication, your idea needs to appeal to your target audience as much as it does to you.
While that may seem obvious, don’t take it for granted.
Some writers are so enamored with the notion of actually writing a novel or screenplay that they settle for the first seemingly decent idea that comes along, hoping to bring it to life through the sheer poetic power of their writing.
Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. Because a flat concept in an otherwise competent story is like eating a gloriously prepared meal without a main dish. The potatoes are wonderful, but hey, where’s the beef?
And a rich character – yes, that’s an idea, too – without a fascinating story to tell is a cake half baked. Chewy, but not so tasty.
Great ideas infect our imagination.
They grab us like an addiction, they wake us up at night, they make us want to talk about them, test them, stretch them or simply run our fingertips over the sheer luxury of its texture.
So how do you know your idea is strong enough?
Listen. It will tell you. Because it won’t go away. It will demand you add the other elements to it so that it might live. I nursed one idea for nearly 25 years before I wrote it — just sold the novel, too, it’ll be out early next year (more on that, rest assured).
Can you express our story idea with a killer what if? question? One that demands an answer? One that leads you, beckons you, toward ensuing what if? questions that, if taken far enough, become an irresistible storyline?
Until you can, then you’re not ready to write it yet. Or if you’re a panster (contrary to popular rumor, I love pantsers.. more than any other type of writer, you can benefit from what I’m doing here on Storyfix).
If your idea is a concept, an irresistible what if? proposition, then you aren’t done until you have a compelling character to add to it.
If your idea is that character, then you need to concoct a rich storyline before she or he has a shot at an audience.
Either element alone will remain on the plate, virtually untouched.
Here’s a few compelling ideas – either what if? questions or character sketches – that kept their authors up at night:
- what if you could raise the Titanic from the ocean floor? (Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt is the character that made it happen.)
- what if the Catholic Church has been protecting a dark secret for 2000 years? (Dan Brown brought Professor Langdon to this one and made about $300 million in the process.
- What if the Los Angeles police department buried a murder case in order to protect it’s own pre-Rodney King racial bias issues? (Harry Bosch, the detective that won’t go away, thanks for Michael Connelly.)
- What if a 14-year old murder victim could speak to us from heaven, and in doing so sought to find her own murderer? (Alice Sebold, thank you.)
- What if a mafia kingpin had two sons who looked a lot like Al Pacino and James Caan? (The king of character-driven storytelling.)
- What if vampires went to high school and fell in love? (Coming to a cinema near you, for the next ten years.)
If your story idea begins with character, with no conceptual hook in sight – a perfectly valid and common jumping off point, by the way… my most successful book, Darkness Bound, began with a juicy vision for my antagonist – then the strength of the need to attach a story to that character will lead you toward a lively conceptual landscape upon which to turn that character loose.
And vice versa. Because both are fundamental to great storytelling.
Concept plus Character – a Sum that Exceeds the Parts
If your concept isn’t the strong suit of your story, then character must fill that role. And in doing so, character becomes concept by virtue of our not being able to get enough of that particular hero and the world in which you’ve set her/him. Harry Potter is built on this dynamic, we care much more about Harry than we do the solving of his book-specific, plot-driven problems, interesting as they may be.
In Harry Potter, the world in which Harry lives is the concept.
So which came first? Concept or character? Both are story ideas. You’ll have to ask J.K. Rowling that one.
And the answer doesn’t matter, because before Harry Potter could ever work, both had to be realized on the page.
So where your idea is concerned, don’t settle. And don’t rush it. Allow the concept to steep in its own juices, to infect your brain with potential outcomes and the inspiration for compelling character journeys.
If that doesn’t happen, if the idea doesn’t nag you into submission and if it doesn’t naturally inspire a character or a storyline to explore, I suggest you put the idea aside and extend your creative antenna for the next one.
Because not every idea turns into a concept, and not every concept will become the character-rich story that will break you into the business.
But a fresh, compelling and inherently rich concept, one that a juicy character can sink her or his teeth into, just might.