(Quick note… check out the new posting on the Peer Review Page HERE, a novel partial by J Fairfield Perry.)
From Notion to Idea to Story: An Author’s Personal Account
Even though I’m deconstructing my own novel this time around, my approach won’t differ (much) from that taken with other deconstructions here on Storyfix. That is… the objective isn’t so much to show how the author did something, but rather, to illustrate underlying storytelling principles that we might otherwise not notice.
To show why a story works.. or not. Once we know why, then the how becomes a matter of choice and creative optimization.
Two things jumped out at me the moment this story launched itself in my head: there really is a huge difference – measured in many weeks and many drops of blood seeping from one’s forehead – between an idea and a story…
… and that the notion that we shouldn’t ever write stories in the first person is pure, unmitigated horse manure.
The writing teacher who told you that last one is either dead of old age or committed to remaining unpublished. Some of the best books on all the collective bestseller lists of the last two decades have been written in first person.
There are no rules. Only principles. And they are inviolate.
Death, taxes, gravity… and the principles of storytelling.
The Nature of Ideas
Ideas are like the days of our lives. They are inevitable, they keep coming at us, and they can either be ignored or committed to memory. Each day/idea is different, each contains common elements, and not all of them are worth remembering.
Some of them define us.
Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference. If you’re a writer, telling the difference is your job.
When I’m searching for a story to write (which can involve submitting to the idea or a story choosing us), I begin with a large and growing inventory of “what if?” conceptual ideas that I keep filed in the largest cavity of my mental warehouse. The place where I store ideas that just might amount to something.
I never write an idea from an initial rush of interest in it. I let it steep, age and either rot or grow. An idea always comes off different when you look at it again later on… this is key to making sure your idea is worth pursuing.
I’m fully aware of the fact that an idea does not a good story make – even when it’s a great idea… because the greatest of ideas need a long list of stuff added to them before they can become a story), so my initial vetting process has more to do with staying power than anything else.
If an idea won’t let me go, I pay attention to it.
Even then, I toss more than I pursue. As should you. Weak ideas, even when well executed, are among the most common reasons for stories sinking like stones.
When I do want to pursue an idea, I add more “what if?” propositions to see if the idea will either go away, collide with a brick wall (demanding violation of those principles that are, once again, inviolate)…
… or become intriguing to the point of love and then obsession.
When the latter happens, I officially knight the idea as a concept and begin building it into a story.
A story won’t work without a sturdy, compelling concept. A simple idea isn’t enough.
You don’t have to begin with concept..
Fact is, it doesn’t always happen that way. It did with “Bait and Switch,” but I’ve written other novels that began with one of the other of the Six Core Competencies, usually either a vision for a character or a passion for a theme.
Darkness Bound began with a character—the antagonist – in mind. The Seminar began with a theme I wanted to explore. I had to add concept to both of these initial sparks before a story became possible.
Principle: all stories begin with a single core competency.
The initial spark is either a concept borne of an idea… a character (also borne of an idea)… a theme (usually borne of an opinion or a particular passion)… or something that happened to you or someone who know (which may or may not yet be conceptual in nature). Or sometimes, with a scene that plays out in your head (their eyes met across a crowded room filled with IRS agents…)
A story rarely begins with voice… that’s like singing the shower.
If a writer creates a story because they like the sound of their own writing voice, if the story is a contrivance just to give their wondrous voice something to sound off about… this is a recipe for failure, with very low odds. And it happens all too frequently.
This is critically important to understand.
Because inherent to that particular truth is this: you always begin with one of the core competencies front and center, and usually the energy of it quickly gifts you with a second one (sometimes it’s almost simultaneous, to an extent you might argue that the “idea” came to you as a united concept and character… I’m picking nits to disagree, because they are both essential).
But from there, after that first creative spark, you must sweat out the other five core competencies. You’re not done – indeed, you’re not ready to write a draft that will work – until all six are solidly in mind.
This includes voice, by the way, as you’re about to see from my own experience with “Bait and Switch.” The more you know about your story, the more you’ll know what kind of voice is required to tell it well.
If you can only write in one flavor of writing voice, then you’d better be sure the story fits it. Stuart Woods isn’t competing with Jonathan Franzen for this very reason.
This development process can take place either as a story planning exercise or a draft writing exercise… it doesn’t matter which.
The Idea that Became “Bait and Switch”
I don’t know where it came from. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.
People ask authors all the time, “where do you get your ideas?” The answer doesn’t matter. They come from somewhere, and very often somewhere you cannot predict, comprehend or control.
To put it simply, I was intrigued by the following idea: what if a rich guy was locked into a prenuptial agreement that he now wanted to render null and void, and the only way to do so would involve catching his wife committing adultery?
Maybe this was an alternative to that old cynical saying: can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em. Who knows.
Then I wondered… what if that could be arranged?
What if, knowing his wife’s desires and vulnerabilities, the aforementioned rich guy set out to make this circumstance a reality? One with an agenda to get out of the pre-nup.
What if he hired someone to seduce his wife, feeding him his wife’s weak spots and fantasies and desires all the while? By putting the perfect guy right under her self-serving, potentially adulterous nose?
What if the guy hired for this job had no idea what was really going on? Or, at the outset, he needed the money and entered into the deal without truly grasping the stakes? What if his own moral compass was the subject of his character arc?
The idea presented several aspects of what makes a concept appealing.
It was vicarious, forbidden, compelling, challenging, delicious, thematic, and fraught with risk and twists. It was something I’d want to read about.
Was it original? It was when I got into it. Ideas are rarely original. Execution should strive to be.
Don’t discount this criteria about writing something you’d like to read. That you’d pay money for. In fact, put it at the top of your vetting list.
Because – and this was a decision I strategically decided to throw at it – in my story nothing would be as it seemed. And the hero of my story – the guy hired to do the seducing – would be more than meets the eye, with something of his own at stake.
A backstory that was sympathetic. A goal that was empathetic. A self-deprecating sense of his own gifts and weaknesses that was endearing.
Somebody we would root for. Feel for. Like. Want to be.
This is all stuff you can plan. That you should plan. Or at least, if you don’t plan, you must discover as you write your drafts.
Of course, all those subsequent “what ifs?” came after the initial idea.
They were – and it is almost always the case – the elements that turned my idea into a story.
The concept was launched.
Inherent to it, conceived as a direct by-product of the concept, was the appearance of a character, a hero. Also inherent to it as a another by-product of drilling deeply into an idea to find the conceptual core: conflict and dramatic tension, both of which are fundamental to story.
Interestingly, it was the vicarious nature of this idea – the secret truth that the reader, not to mention the author, would want to be this hero, would long to personally experience the world of a billionaire, to seduce a billionaire’s trophy wife and be paid millions to do so – that led me to voice.
I knew this story would work best in first person.
I needed to go deep into the head of this hero, to tell this from his point of view. Only first person would give me this access.
I also knew that, in order to propel the story forward expositionally in a way that optimized both tension and stakes, I needed to show more than what the character knew as the plot unfolded in real time.
So make that happen, I decided to break another rule: to use both first person narrative and third person point of view in separate chapters, the latter of which would show what was transpiring behind the curtain – or beyond the scope – of the hero’s awareness.
I’d seen Nelson Demille do it – brilliantly – in The Lion’s Game, so I was already a believer.
The reader would know more about what was going on than the hero. Which is a compelling and strategic dynamic in a story, one that opens up all sorts of opportunities for tension, drama and pacing.
Three things, by the way, that make a novel leap off the page.
It’s hard to be strategic in a draft. Much easier to go there from the blank page. My opinion.
All this was solid in my mind long I wrote a word.
Writing an effective novel or screenplay – any story – is an exercise in strategy. In making the right choices, not just the linear, obvious choices that emerge from writing from flow or inertia.
It’s about optimizing, not just getting it down on paper.
But that’s just me. My planning approach – or yours, however that looks – is but one way of getting to this first important creative stage in the story development process. I could have written a draft to discover these things, but that’s all it would have been… a draft. One that would have required, once the optimal creative platform had crystallized, to be rewritten from page one.
Writing draft after draft is nothing other than a form of story planning. Chew on that one.
The published version of the story was, by the way, the first draft I actually wrote, plus some very minor editorial (not story) tweaks. So I know this works, that it’s possible and feasible.
But do what you must.
Just don’t compromise principles, strategy and outcome in the process.
Your creative, expositional story choices should never be random, by default or because of some externally-imposed rule. Or worse, simply because that’s how you wrote it in a draft and it would be too much trouble to start over.
Principles… yes. They are sacred, and they are never confining. When they are honored, then there truly are no rules.
Follow your heart, your passion and the finger pointed by your idea. Because it is sending you toward a concept and a character and a theme, and it is there where the gateway to a story can be found.
Use the links to the right to get your copy of “Bait and Switch,” either as an ebook or via used paperback, so you can participate in this deconstruction process.
Next up: the double-edged opening hook employed in this story.