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How Ideas Become Stories

Light Bulb by Cecilie SonstebyOne of the most common questions an author will hear is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As if that was all you needed to write a successful book. Ideas are important, but they’re not some mystical spark from the divine, if you’re in the right mind-set you can probably come up with dozens before lunch. What’s more, they’re useless without all the scaffolding of the rest of the story elements that turn it into a proper novel. Many aspiring authors are set for ideas, what they struggle with is turning it into a coherent piece of fiction, something that has an interesting and well-structured plot, engaging characters and a good narrative flow. Some might be lucky enough to have all this come fully formed with the initial idea, but most of us have to work at it. Let’s look at the process of turning an idea into a story.

So you’ve got an idea, it’s a floating city whose people can perform magic, they rule over the rest of the world and trade with the people on the surface. It might spark the interest of a fantasy reader, but there’s no story yet. Stories need conflict, a disruption of the status quo, so something has to go wrong. What could go wrong with a floating city? It needs to fall of course, but how? Gravity works pretty damn quickly, so if you begin with a city plummeting through the air it’s not going to be a long story. You could write about the aftermath, the disruption that causes, but perhaps something more drawn out. A city that’s falling?

Floating City by Mehdi AnnassiNow you’ve got a premise, a magic floating city that rules the world has begun to fall, cue story. So with the premise next comes plot, plots are all about the how and the why, the details of events, reactions, consequences, and why they occurred. So how is a city falling? This will require some thought and detail about your world and the structures within it. Ask questions of yourself. What could cause the city to fall, start by how does it stay up in the first place? It’s fantasy so let’s say the city is powered by a huge magic crystal that keeps it in the sky. What could be the problem? Maybe it’s losing power, causing the city to dip or wobble? What if it’s getting worse? The answers to these questions will form the basis for the story, along with, “What do we do about it?”

So for the how, we’ve got the city crystal is losing power, causing it to fall. Now let’s look at the why. Because simple mechanical error misses out an opportunity for conflict we’ll assume it’s somebody’s fault. Motivation is key here, we might look at the potential players in the story and figure out why they would want something to go wrong with the city. Who would have something to gain? Earlier we mentioned the city trades with people on the surface as they rule over them. How peaceful is that situation? Could there be enemies on the surface who want the city to fall? And for what reason? Are the city and its magic users oppressive, do the surface people want to rule themselves, or does somebody just feel jealous?

An external threat is one possibility, but who else could have something to gain. Now it’s hard to imagine someone within the city wanting it to fall, but there could be potential there.

The Analog Queen by JunedaysSomebody’s got to run this city, perhaps someone else doesn’t agree on how it should be run and engineers a crisis in order to further their own goals? Maybe there is a peace between the surface and the city, but someone within thinks the city should have a more direct rule over the rest of the world, demanding tribute because of their superior power and magic abilities. They want to show the other leaders that the surface world is just waiting to strike, and create a seeming weakness to encourage this to prove their ideas. Even if there’s no such discontent, something could be arranged.

This works as a much more developed plot than just one enemy against the other, it opens up the scope for twists and turns in the story as information is revealed, misplaced blame on who is responsible and the chance for subterfuge and backstabbing. The potential effects of the story arc are catastrophic, leading to possible war, the oppression of the surface world, destruction of the city – high stakes for the people involved and a good source of action and drama. What’s better is that it all comes from human motivations, a desire for control, a character’s will to set the city on his path and maybe even a belief that what he’s doing is right. Now we’ve established the how and the why, the rest of the plot will focus on the consequences and reactions of people to events, which leads us nicely to characters.

Lightning Sword by javawombatWho’s going to experience this new plot of yours, whose point of view will the story be from and why? Ask who does this problem of a falling city affect, what characters would know about it first and have the potential to do something about it? The leaders of the city of course, but they might lack one thing a main character requires, agency, the ability to act freely within the world of the story. They’re probably stuck in an office looking out the window and surrounded by paperwork. But they need to do something, so they delegate, and we have a protagonist. Someone the leaders hire to find out what’s going on, an investigator? Excellent, they have free reign to travel over the city and find things out, provide information to the reader and move the story along. Who else would be involved? Perhaps a magical technician working in the crystal room, the first to notice anything amiss? They can get dragged into the investigation for assistance and magical knowledge. Now we’ve got a pair of main characters, a duo thrown together, a tough investigator and a shy scholar, they’ll bicker, they’ll fight, they’ll develop a grudging respect through shared hardship and save the day.

In addition to the main characters they’ll be the usual body of supporting figures, the leader who sets them on their task, various officials, criminals, surface dwellers, and let’s not forget the villainous saboteur. New characters will arise to suit the needs of the story but now you have enough to be getting on with.

So we have our premise, we have a problem, we know why it’s occurring and who’s going to stop it. The next part is the actual meat of the story, detailing how our heroes fix the problem and trying to make the narrative engaging to the reader. This can be the hardest part of crafting a story, but there are some tricks to help you piece together what happens next. To ensure a story flows well you’ll want to make the narrative as organic and natural seeming as possible, rather than looking like you’re following a set of plot points. To achieve this your plot must be reactive, and those responses will drive the story onward.

Capital by IshutaniSo the investigator has met the technician and begins a search to stop the falling city. The saboteur won’t like that. Now he could have them killed but that’s a bit extreme to start with. Perhaps upon finding out he lays a false trail to keep them off his back. The saboteur may plant evidence leading to the surface dwellers, taking the duo away from the city and out of his hair. As well as the chance to showcase the difference in life on the ground, the narrative can follow the investigation, ending in a possible confrontation with the dissidents the saboteur has stirred up. But after this skirmish is over the duo find out another lead that takes them back to the city, forcing the saboteur to react again.

This process can repeat within reason as the plot develops and more information about the mystery is revealed to the reader. While this is going on the author will want to evoke a sense of escalation and up the stakes of the story – you always want to make things worse. Now because the city is falling we are already on a clock, but what about other problems that can be added to the mix? Both the city folk and surface dwellers will start to notice something is wrong; this might cause a mass panic, or indeed incite those on the ground to rise up as the saboteur intended? Maybe some personal problems for the characters as well? We’ve established the people of the city have magical powers, perhaps they’re tied to the crystal as well, as it fails, so does their magic, making the two characters vulnerable just when they need their abilities most? A few subplots wouldn’t go amiss as well to flesh out the story. How about a running theme of class division between the city and the surface people, with different factions lobbying for change? Instead of a growing friendship between the main characters, why not add a romance aspect to the relationship?

Airship Battle by Unknown ArtistOnce a suitable amount of misdirection, fist fights, heroic acts and sexual tension has occurred the story will draw to the big reveal that the saboteur was one of the leaders of the city and the final confrontation will ensue. They’ll be chaos in the streets, grabs for power as the saboteur takes over the city’s magic to attack the surface world. It’ll have public accusations, rousing speeches and magical duels. The city will be saved by our plucky heroes and your story is complete.

Phew, at the start of the article all we had was a vague idea about a floating city, now we’ve got a good structure for a novel with a twisty plot driven by character motivations, a couple of heroes and an outline for how the story will progress, all from teasing out a few details of the idea and giving it a bit of thought. Now there’s endless ways this story could have gone and many more things an author could add, but hopefully this article shows how an idea can be developed into a workable story and how the necessary elements can arise from the core of the idea. With a few simple questions the possibilities branch and the novel takes on a shape, details are filled in and the narrative begins to flow. So whatever form your next idea takes, give it some thought, and learn to work its potential, because the idea is just the beginning.

Title image by Cecilie Sonsteby.

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