Getting Published: Is Your Story Idea Strong Enough?

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.

Bottom Line

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.


Filed under getting published

19 Responses to Getting Published: Is Your Story Idea Strong Enough?

  1. Reading through this I’m not sure how many heavy sighs slid from my rib cage. Sigh. There’s another. 🙂 You know, I am so in love with my story, so in love with my characters, but, something is wrong. Parts of it are good and need work of course, the envisioned ending is good, the character set to be killed-off is interesting (and will be built up more to make even more so) but the main character? Damn she’s boring!

    Why can’t I make her interesting?!? What’s her frickin’ problem? I’m mad at her for not being interesting. Maybe I should kill her off too! LOL!

    In short, I hear what you’re saying! I really do love them all — even when they piss me off. It feels sometimes like sitting at the keyboard glaring at them and yelling from the inside, “WILL YOU DO SOMETHING!”

    Sigh. Again.

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    Evelyn: You could try what I’m doing, switch who the main viewpoint character is. Even if the plot technically revolves around the doings of one particular person, why do they have to be the actual protag/viewpoint character?

    I’ve been fighting with making the timeline for the MC in my current story interesting for a while (still in outline mode) but nothing felt quite right… then I figured “why not tell it from the point of view of the bard trying to find out her story, intertwining the interesting bits of her story (as told by others, so obviously embellished) with his own tales. Still keeps the major points driving the world the same but switches how the reader sees it.

  3. Hissssss! Fine!

    Thank you, Patrick. I did think about that — sort of. That may be just what happens. I’m afraid I won’t be able to bump her off quite so easily then, will I? She’s a bitch but so colorful compared to the one I was making into the headliner.

    I’ve heard others talk about how the story drives itself as it’s being written. I may have to let go and let it do just that. Maybe that’s why they’re not listening to me and won’t do anything. 🙂 I need to loosen my grip on the reigns I’m afraid.

    Perhaps I should just worry about descriptions and general storyline and let these characters do with it what they want! Damn control freaks! 😉

  4. Um, Patrick, you’re not, by any chance, the one in Knoxville are you? Just wondering. I’ll tell you why I ask if you tell me.

  5. My major doubt comes into play with this topic: What if the thing i find so fascinating is boring/uninteresting to the majority?

    i’ll not say that my project has been a waste, because it has been a great learning experience at the very least, but here my inner demons begin to break down any sense of self confidence about my own work. based on my experiences, that which i find unique and interesting draws no interest from others…

    ah well, nothing to do but keep working, learning, and enjoying the journey, no matter where it leads.

  6. Patrick Sullivan

    Evelyn: no I’m not, I grew up in Arkansas and now live in Colorado. And it’s funny how often people see my name and wonder if it’s the PS they know. The curse of one of the more common names (at least among caucassions) there is 😛 Though your name reminds me of someone from my online MUD (multi-user dungeon, World of Warcraft but all text) days.

    Adam: If you invest your interest in the story, let the bits that you find interesting bleed through, that tends to help from what I’ve seen. When an author loves their subject, it’s easier for the reader to do the same.

  7. Larry,
    I agree, ‘what if’ questions are perfect for thinking up a great concept. I tend to come up with some great premises for stories, but it’s turning them into a plot that’s the sweat-work. I think people often get premise and plot confused until they’re halfway through their book and realize it’s going nowhere.


  8. Nicely put, Suzannah. The premise/plot contrast is a biggie, and I haven’t heard premise mentioned much recently. Maybe you could do Larry a guest post on it?

    I have no problem with creating the premise of a story. My characters and settings also tend to evolve and develop in a way that satisfies me. However, folk who enjoy my writing, and are drawn into what I create, think I’m putting myself own when tell them I have no facility for intricate plot weaving. But as Larry emphasises, structure and architecture stop the writing falling down about our heads, whether we’re crafting a skyscraper, a tourist village or a mudhut. I don’t waste my hours diving in and having my days devoured unless my story can hang on a structure and intricate plot that comes together as satisfyingly as a finished Sudoku puzzle.

  9. Trish

    As a reformed panster (thanks to you, Larry) I have to say not getting the real story in place BEFORE writing has been my problem all along. Now that I have a killer character I’m going to wait and think and what if my way to a story. As always, thanks for the awesome advice!

  10. That’s a great post. I almost always start with the idea, the “what if”, and then have to work on the characters. It’s reassuring to know it’s not just me!

  11. I think the concept of a good story as an infection is perfect. Although I have to say the course of illness for me varies in length. I’m only now completing a YA novel on a mentorship, which has taken the better part of a year to develop and which I dreamed about for two years prior to that. I had other work I had to complete, but this idea just hung around and hung around and wouldn’t go away. I’m hoping my Christmas (and six drafts later) I’ll finally be over the first phase of infection.

  12. Although I’ll obviously have to be more careful in my proofreading than I was here!

  13. Excellent post, makes me think about how I have my stories structured. I think I go back and forth on what I start with. My Golden Idea started with a scene (which I guess you might call a concept, but it was just visceral action so concept seems a bit higher-reaching), but it ended with a delving into of character. Afterwards I worked on creating a masterful concept that stretched thousands of years. Oops, I have my work cut out for me.

    Sometimes I get the concept first and develop the character next. Theme is something I’m working on. I would like to have themes in my stories to help pull it all together with greater meaning – and maybe I do have some I’m not aware of – but it is hard to create a central theme when so much is going on. My stories are in fantasy, so the general theme is good vs. evil, but I certainly want something a little deeper than that.

  14. @Clifton — sounds like you’re immersed in the wonderful struggle of it all. Enjoy that process, the creative chaos can be pure joy.

    Your note made me want to add one — where we begin isn’t important. Our stories can begin with a character, a theme, or a conceptual idea. I’ve published novels that began in each of those arenas. The big mistake too many writers make is that they spring forward from that single starting point, seeking to develop the others as they go, without exploring the inherent potential and options for the others.

    The more efficient approach (notice I didn’t say “effective,” though I do believe it is… I don’t want to offend my pantser friends who claim they “just can’t” write that way… that, too, is just a choice being made), one that cuts down on rewrites and gets your draft much closer to the goal, is to ponder and plan on ALL of those fronts before you write, irregardless of which element came first.

    God (or the universe, insert your own diety or belief system here) blesses us with the initial spark of a story. Where it comes from is usually a mystery. The others are up to us to forge from the pure rock of our imaginations. For that we need a sharp pick ax and a lot of energy.

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  16. Soozie

    I want to write about my experiences, focusing much on the last 2 years with my husband who’s recently had a heart transplant and suffered his 7th stroke, this one a debilitating one. all by the age of 39, but the focus would be me really, the bizarre attributes of all my life that have gotten me this far and amazingly freaking survived it…..

    any ideas/suggestions on how to pull THAT together? 🙂

  17. @Soozie – this is a great landscape for a story. Not all stories have to be huge thrillers. The risk is to write it as too episodic or experiential — you absolutely need a storyline, and to make it work you’ll need to write it in accordance with the principles of solid story architecture.

    Which includes: a compelling hero we can get behind… dramatic tension, a quest or need for the hero, something immediate that needs to be found, solved, fixed, forgiven or otherwise handled (which is why these personal stories often fall flat, the writer is too interested in “what happened” than in solid storytelling). And a list of other elements and criteria.

    Story is conflict, pure and simple. You’ll need to bring conflict to the story — the hero needs and/or wants something, and there must be opposition to whatever that is (the opposition wants something, too). The story isn’t so much about what happened to you (or it shouldn’t be) as it is about the dance between these two forces, all moving forward when tension and escalating pace, with the requisite story points and themes solidly in place.

    Unless your story is non-fiction. That’s another proposition entirely. And yet, one that can still benefit from tension and pace.

    If you can do all this and still say what you need to say about your experience with your husband, then this will work. If not, if it’s more of a diary-type of “story,” then it’ll be tough to publish. Though, maybe well worth your effort as a means of personal catharsis and relief.

    I wish you well with this! Consult my story series here on this site, or try my new ebook on story structure, to help you navigate these waters. Larry

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  19. Ruth

    Evelyn – probably a little late for this, but still might come in useful at some point – perhaps your character didn’t have enough internal conflict? Just an idea. 🙂