How Do We Know If Our Story Concept Is Good Enough?
Earlier this week I posted an article entitled “The Most Important Storytelling Challenge of Them All.” A few passionately articulated comments ensued, one of which I posted as a guest blog because of its value-add.
And then there came another wave of very enlightened and deep comments to that one. Seems we’ve stumbled upon a topic that hits people at the core of their writing heart: determining if our story ideas are worth the time and effort it will take to turn them into a fully-developed novel or screenplay.
The consensus opinion:
We can sweat the details and the processes and the mechanics of writing until we’re blue in the carpel tunnel, but if the core idea itself is lacking in some way – or perhaps even more confounding, simply mediocre – all may be lost before the ship sets sail.
Too often our motivations to write a story don’t align with our choice of story idea. And that is the hidden trap that awaits us as storytellers.
We pick the wrong story, and for the wrong reasons. To avoid doing that, we need to understand who we are as writers – specifically, why we are writers.
It’s like a studio musician compared to a composer. One doesn’t necessarily beget the other, yet the former is a prerequisite of the latter.
In writing novels and screenplays, we are always called upon to be composers.
In fact, we need only be adequate musicians if our compositions touch the heart and mind.
And in choosing what to compose, we must understand why we desire to compose. That and only that will lead us to the right choices.
The most simple and challenging of question remains: how do we know?
When we finally land on an idea, when it intrigues us or even possesses us, how can we be sure it is worthy of the time and monumental effort required to evolve it into a complete novel or screenplay?
How can we know that others will agree that this is a great idea?
Who is to say what is a great idea, and what isn’t?
And, can a less-than-great idea become a great story?
Fact is, we never really know.
There is no way to get to the point of knowing. We must evolve and trust our instinct on this issue – our art, our aesthetic judgment – and doing that is the great mystery and forehead-bleeding challenge of writing stories.
Trust me, this is what separates the successful from the throngs of the otherwise equally talented. The successful have a knack for picking the right ideas.
Certainly there are abundant examples to be cited of story ideas that had at least three backers: the writer, an agent, and the acquiring editor at a publisher. As long as those three parties to the publishing equation believe in the core essence of the story, it can get into print.
Once you, the writer, believe, your job then is to find one agent, and then one acquisitions editor, who also believes.
It isn’t just the dumpsters full of rejected manuscripts that comprise the body of work that fails to find an agent or a publisher because the idea isn’t of sufficient power. Those titles you’ve never heard of on that bookstore shelf, the ones that won’t be around in a few months? Them, too.
Those writers thought they knew.
Often, they submitted an exquisite execution of a mediocre idea.
They chose wrong.
So again… how do we know?
I don’t pretend to have that answer. But I do believe I know how to cut the variable nature of the question in half.
Ask yourself – why am I a writer? Where am I on this journey?
That alone can lead you to the right story idea. It really can.
I have read many unpublished manuscripts, and I have marveled at what some writers believe to be compelling story ideas. This is why I beat the drum of the six core competencies, because each and every one of them needs to be mastered.
Concept – the heart of the idea that gives birth to the story – is one of them. A bland concept, one that is forced and contrived, even when competently executed, will not find an agent or a publisher.
Trouble is, one writer/agent/editor/reader’s bland is another’s Cold Mountain.
Which is why we never really know.
The best we can do is choose the right story for us, and for the right reasons.
There are questions, very powerful and personal questions, that reside at the heart of this issue.
Why are you writing this particular story?
Is it because you need a block of stone upon which to carve? Because you’ve been to a writing workshop and you now have all these tools and all this desire to write something? And so you sit down and dream something up, something you believe you can whip into a solid story by applying those tools?
Will any stone do, as long as you get to exercise your skills as a storyteller?
Or is it because you see the story inside the stone in your mind’s eye? In which case your skills are pointed toward the story for the sake of the story, not just the dream of writing one.
Big difference. Career defining difference.
I know, these aren’t the questions you expected here. But they’re precisely the ones you should ask.
There are two reasons to choose a story idea.
They force us to make a choice between two motivations behind the work of turning it into a story: the personal… and the professional.
Both are viable, both can get you published. As long as the nature of the story matches the nature of the motivation.
A rare few find energy and inspiration in both. But most of us come from one or the other as we begin a story, and too often we try to convince ourselves that we do so because of both motivations, when in fact that’s not the case.
Don’t be confused by this – if the story isn’t inherently commercial, if it is a personal passion that, despite its lack of inherent commercial appeal, you nonetheless are in love with… then this is a personal motivation.
You need to write that story. You are called to it. You cannot not write it.
And with enough craft and time, you may very well sell it. Because – and only because – you have chosen that particular story for the right reasons.
Or… if you love your idea because you think everybody else will love it, too…
… if the story idea is, first and foremost, your strategy to launch your career as a novelist, if it is merely that block of stone that will fulfill your dream of being published – then this is a professional motivation.
It is a very different animal. In this scenario the dream comes first. You are in search of a story to fulfill the dream.
And in that case, the idea itself must be absolutely killer. Commercial as hell. High concept, totally original, addictive and irresistible.
A story about your grandmother’s youth growing up in the south… that’s a totally different block of stone. Only a personally-motivated author could bring that to life and launch a career with it.
Don’t be seduced by the fact that famous authors write stories like this all the time – the rules are completely different for them.
You need to strive to understand the difference between these two motivations.
Because to invest a year of your life in an idea that nobody else will love – to concoct a story as a vehicle for your writing dream, versus yielding to an undeniable passionate calling from a specific idea itself — is… well, that’s tragic.
Too many writers commit themselves to stories that look and smell like personally-motivated stories – small stories, character-driven stories, stories that exist because they h.ave something to say – but for professionally-motivated reasons.
And this is almost always a disconnect.
It’s the different between going to college to become a doctor, or going to college to get a degree so you can find a job.
You must decide. You must choose your story.
Unless the story has chosen you.
In that case your job is to inject energy into the idea by applying the criteria of the six core competencies development model, and to an artful extent that your execution compensates for any lack of inherent appeal in the story idea itself.
We write stories from a personal – as opposed to a professional — motivation because we have something to say. Even if we also wish to get it sold.
We write stories from a professional motivation because, in essence, we want to write any story that will get us published. The story is merely a means to that end, whereas the personally-motivated story is the end itself.
In which case you have a tool chest of principles and skills at your disposal to turn that idea into a winner.
The great risk of professionally-motivated idea selection, because your dream is so urgent, is to settle. To accept and begin developing an idea that isn’t commercial and powerful and original enough.
All of us who write stories will be well served by an understanding of the difference.