Novelists: Hatch a Stronger Story Idea in 2014

 Three Ways to Discover Something New and Exciting 

But first…

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been inundated with “best of” lists for 2013 books and movies.  On the latter front, several movies scored well across the board, including a few #1 rankings each for Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Before I lean into the direction of the title of this post, I’d like to offer two thoughts about these movies in particular, and why they are seductively dangerous and misleading to novelists.  Both are subordinated beneath the eternal truth that storytelling in movies versus novels are similar (very similar in many cases) yet different. 

Emphasis on different.

Keep that in mind as we solider on here.

I didn’t care for either film.  I was bored silly, and very glad that: a) I wasn’t living the lives depicted there, b) that I don’t have either of these characters anywhere in my life, and c) wasn’t drinking the artistic Kool-Aid.

But that’s just me.  I’m not remotely saying they were bad films, far be it from me to dispute the findings of those who create those best of lists.  But I can say with confidence why they are dangerous fodder for novelists searching for the next Big Idea.

Because neither of those stories would work as a commercial novel, and both would be challenging as a literary novel.  (Inside Llewyn Davis was inspired by an autobiography; Frances Ha was an original screenplay.)

Neither has a story within it.  The are both entirely situational.   They drop the viewer into the very dreary world of two very dreary characters, and we splash around in that gray pool with them for two hours before walking out with anything at all other than a headache. 

They are character sketches.  They are well-rendered vignettes of darkness and hopelessness.  They are episodic, anecdotal, and without a clear point other than: life sucks then you die.  They are, in essence, the slice-of-life biographies of two characters without a discernible character arc. 

If you’re looking for resolution, or the living proof of the existence of story physics, or a good time, these are not the films to see.  If you’re looking for something that will depress the hell out of you, and/or value someone’s idea of art over entertainment, have a great time.

And, to be fair to the filmmakers and actors, they made precisely the film they set out to make, with high art and skill.  Acting Oscars for all.

Which brings me to the aforementioned point: there is something out there for everybody, both in movies and in books.  From that obviousness take this proven advice: write what you love.  Write what you’d love to read but can’t find (versus piling on to an established niche, like teen vampires and dystopian hero mythologies).  If the film (or book) is out there, the door through which new stories in that mold enters the game has probably slammed shut.

These types of “situational and plotless”– and this is my opinion, somewhat educated and tested – stories usually make for lousy, unpublished and often unreadable novels.  Even when they do make a dreary film out of such a novel, you’ll usually find that the novel indeed offered more of a dramatic spine, character arc and even the slightest whiff of resolution.

Notice that Jonathan Franzen hasn’t had either of his slice-of-life character-driven films, based on very literary, very successful books — despite offers and options — made into a movie yet.   (The great 2002 film Adaptation started out as a film based on a problematic novel — The Orchid Thief ; that screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was so frustrated he ended with a film about the adaptation process itself, rather than the novel… because he needed some sense of conflict and resolution to accompany the themes, and the only conflict he could come up with was within him; genius ensued.)

So, if you see these films, have a great time (and bring some Zoloft for the ride home).  But don’t take notes for your novel, and don’t for a moment think that this is something you can get away with within its covers.

Three Better Places to Find Better Dramatic Ideas

Yes, character is critical to a successful novel.  But so are dramatic tension, pace, something root for and against, all leading toward something akin to something resembling resolution. 

1.  Look Within

The most fertile ground for intriguing story triggers – because an “idea” is not a “story” yet, not until you add more layers to it – may already be on your radar.  To find it, look at your life and then add a strong dose of “what if?” focus to start a string of possibilities for… well, just about anything… and see what where it leads.

What if the fight you’re having with your spouse leads to a discovery that she/he is planning to kill you?

What if that thing you are making in the garage turns out to be something that will revolutionize an entire industry… and the folks running that industries want to either buy you out or wipe you out, either being fine with them.

I live in a condo complex where the octogenarians want to assassinate (with brooms) the two beautiful geese who arrive at our pond each year to have their babies… there are “what if?” possibilities in that, too.  (Coen brothers, call me if interested.)

You get the idea.  This “what if?” exercise works in any genre, for any topic.  And, in the end, the ultimate genius of it will be entirely your own creation, because only you get to define the breadth and scope and nature (read: how far will you go?) of the scenarios you put into play.

2.  Visit a Bookstore

Spend an hour reading book jackets.  Both the back covers and, with hardcovers, the flaps.  There you’ll find the entire story physics enchilada just short of the ending itself: concept, premise, character intro, first plot point (what complicates things and thus becomes the focus of the plot), what the hero wants, what blocks that quest, and even an invitation to discover something thematically weighty within it all.

If one of them rings your bell, if you find yourself reaching for your credit card, ask yourself why you are drawn to it.

Then listen for that bell going off on a new idea beginning to hatch, or at least the inspiration to keep digging.

3.  Visit

Do if for the same reason that a bookstore visit might pay off – there are dozens of current and recent films reviewed there in summary, literary form.  They’re just like book jackets, and you can ingest twenty of them in the time it’ll take you to drive to the B&N at the mall.

Another cool feature is the separate summary rankings from both critics and viewers.  It should be noted that both sides overwhelmingly disagree with me on Frances Ha(92/79) and Inside Llewyn Davis (93/75)… which means pay no attention to my filmic assessment if character-driven fare (to the exclusion of dramatic plot and resolution – not to mention having a good time) is your thing…

… and pay very close attention here relative to how these films and those like them can lead you, the novelist, into an abyss if you try to shadow them on your pages.

May your next idea in 2014 be more Hunger Games (84/81) than not, in terms of how the application of craft will lead you toward being discovered by agents, publishers and readers.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Novelists: Hatch a Stronger Story Idea in 2014

  1. Thanks. I needed this.
    As we left the theater after Llewyn Davis, my husband said, “Did you ever see the first plot point?” “No,” I replied. “I don’t think there was one.” “Good. I thought I missed it,” he said. “I want my money back.”

  2. Hey, great post, Larry. Ways to find fresh material in a fresh new year. Thank you.

    I’m going to try this with my Pinterest page. Don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a site where you can save photos of anything and everything that grabs you. I must have picked those images for a reason. Now I’ll roll up my sleeves and apply some “What if” questions” to them. 🙂

  3. Martha

    Oh dang. I usually love the Coen Brothers movies, but this tips me off to save my money and my time and spend both watching one of the other flicks that might be a better experience. I know you see lots of movies, so I trust your judgment.

  4. You mean like last night, when we got Chinese take out and I said it would be fun to open a fortune cookie with a fortune that said “You will die the moment you lose this fortune”? My wife is seeking therapy for me. My son began plotting. But I get your point. I started writing a book late in 2013 about America shortly after the final economic collapse. I was told it’s dystopian, and that’s dead. I said it’s not, there’s no rigid government in control. Then it’s post-apocalypitc, I was told. That’s dead, too. But I pointed out that there’s no apocalypse. Just the end of a nation. But no bombs or zombies. So I’ll write my non-dystopian-apocolayptic and see where it goes. Maybe it really is dead. But at least it will have structure!

  5. 2014 looks a lot better with Larry Brooks in the mailbox. You hit three great sources of stories. Nothing like a jump start on Jan. 2.

  6. MikeR

    But(!) … don’t let your next/first novel attempt to BE “Hunger Games!”

    For many years, we were scourged with “Harry Potter me-toos.” Then, the bookstore filled with “teenage vampires pimping (bad) plot-lines from Anne Rice.” Now, we’re going to be deluged with hunger games knock-offs.

    Which should (but, rarely does) emphasize the suggestion that you generally should “watch where everyone else is going, and then go some other way.”

    “A creatively imagined, absorbing story, well told.” Something that ISN’T just like every other scrap of worn-out carpet on the bookshelf. Something that paints my own personal picture in my own personal (Gentle Reader’s) mind’s eye. Something that lets me forget that I am actually in seat B-13 in an almost overbooked cross-country Southwest Airlines flight that’s filled with hyperactive (real!) valley girls on their way to a cheerleading competition. (Yeah, it happened. “Gaaaaaaa-a-a-aack!”)

    Use your imagination, then lavish a sincere amount of craftsmanship upon your work, and “I will be pleased to have paid you for it.”

  7. MikeR

    @Ron – If you, and/or your son, can write that novel of yours … and include that very excellent scene in it … and make the whole thing center around a =hero= (a point that will become very important when Hollywood’s biggest name stars are fighting to sign-up for the sure-to be-a blockbuster movie!) … hey, we can dream, can’t we? … then I for one would like to read it.

  8. Jennifer Rose

    Your suggestion reminds me of when I was first figuring out this ‘writing thing’ several years back. I would go to the library (one of my favorite places) and flip open books and read the first line or two. I would stop when I got bored and let myself keep going up to two pages. If I really found myself drawn to reading more, I would check the book out. I found this exercise really fun because then I learned of all the multitude of ways that authors begin their novels. It was like a giant research project.

  9. Daniel Azander

    Great post Larry and
    May story engineering be ever in your favour.

  10. I especially connect with #2. I joined Bookbub a few months ago and have been getting my daily-deals email. After reading thriller blurb after thriller blurb after thriller blurb, it had quickly become apparent what hooks me (other than a good cover and title) and what doesn’t. For me, I think, it directly relates to “high concept”, as defined by Larry in SE. It seems most blurbs fall into the same pattern: typical hero versus typical obstacle to avoid typical high stakes, all while [insert subplot: love interest/hero’s internal struggle, etc.]. While all of that is great, mandatory even, after perusing title after title after title, nothing ends up standing out. They all blur together. The ones that end up standing out to me now are the ones that have something extra, something unique, something out of the ordinary to offer. As a writer, I think that “uniqueness” is THE hardest thing to come up with, for if everyone could, we’d all be best sellers.

    Interesting stuff…


  11. @Ron: I don’t think one can say dystopian or post-apocolyptic are dead. They may not be hot, but genres never die. If they did, Larry wouldn’t be published. Nor would there be a zillion Nurse Jane books still being published. Nor would there have been 6 (six!) Fast and Furious movies. Just because somebody wrote something super successful in a genre doesn’t kill it. I think what Larry is getting at is don’t get into the “me too” syndrome. If you’re suddenly inspired to write about big government oppressing the people, that’s fine. If you’re suddenly inspired to write about mopey teenage girls who are handy with a bow and can’t figure out which boy to choose while fighting off the federal government, you really need to ask yourself why.

  12. @ Mike — well said. L.