How To Test A Story Idea

Ifyou're like most of the writers I've run into, you have more story ideas than you know what to do with. They're popping into your mind faster than you can jot them down in your handy bedside notebook.

And how could it be otherwise? Things have been happening to you, and to everybody you know, all your life. You've been reading, and absorbing stories, almost that long. The newspapers and the evening news offer conflicts galore, and memorable people, events of apparent importance. Once you've been writing awhile, people will start forcing stories on you, claiming that they were always going to write them themselves but somehow never got the time. They'll insist the stories arejust the thing for your next fiction, and you may even agree with them.

There is no shortage of story ideas that might even become stories in the right hands.

Truman Capote took a news account of a brutal and apparently senseless multiple murder and developed it into the non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was reportedly based on an alarmingly vivid dream. I took a speculation on the nature of emotion, combined it with some unpleasant childhood memories, and found in the mix the basis for a five-book science fiction series.

Story ideas are everywhere. Finding ideas isn't the problem.

Your problem is every writer's problem: figuring out which, of this barrage of fragmentary ideas, is a potential story; and, even more difficult, a story you care about and can tell well.

There are four basic questions you should ask of any new story idea you come up with to decide whether or not it's ready to be developed, or whether it needs to mature awhile longer in your notebook.

1. Is It Your Story to Tell?

All ideas can't become stories for you. I could no more write a story about magic than I could sprout wings, or roots. I've realized that, on some fundamental level, I don't believe in magic. Although I heartily enjoy reading stories about witches and oc cult happenings, I can't really imagine magic and don't take it seriously, not with the fundamental seriousness needed to write convincingly.

I'm interested, I'm willing to play that game with another writer for awhile; but I don't really care. Not about magic, anyway.

And most of the ideas that come to you, from whatever source, are going to be like that. They won't be things of profound importance to you. And if they're not, how are you going to persuade a reader to care about them? It will all be forced, mechanical, intellectualized, unconvincing. That's even more true if they are things you uncomfortably think you ought to care about, like cruel parents, faithless lovers, The Bomb, World Hunger, or the Heartbreak of Psoriasis.

I think that's what the traditional advice to "write what you know" really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.

I've never been aboard a spaceship, but I've lived in cramped quarters, and I can project an experience I've known on one I've only imagined. So I can honestly say that I know what it could be like to be the sole crew of a one-man scout ship traveling on a long haul between the stars. And I care how it would feel: it seems worth trying to imagine myself into. I've never been a serious sculptor, but I know something of the way any artist can get lost in his work—perfectly normal, experienced from the inside, but often laughably odd, observed from the outside. So I was able to write, with conviction, a story about a sculptor who carves bas-relief horses out of botched tombstones she calls "meat" and who loses track of the hours and even the days.

I'm not saying that these were the most wonderful story ideas ever concocted, just that they were my stories to tell. They had a special resonance. I could imagine my way into them, from things I've known about, first-hand. And they had a dynamic: they seemed to be going somewhere from the first moment they came into my head. They felt as if they had little hooks built in that refused to let go until I had the whole puzzle solved, the thing written in the form it seemed to want to go into.

Most often these valid, dynamic story ideas won't be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations, not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they'll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Explorations, not explanations.

That's the first criterion: Is this something I really care about, something I partly understand, something that seems to want working out?

2. Is It Too Personal for Readers to Become Involved With?

The second criterion has to do with the purpose of writing. Partly, it's self-expression. But partly—and increasingly, the more and the longer you write—it's communication. You want what you say to reach, and move, a reader. You want to share the exploration. You want to have fun writing your story so that readers can have fun reading it. Maybe you even want it to sell, and to help you become famous. Those are valid reasons too, provided they're not the main or the only ones. (If the results are more important to you than the process, if you don't want to write but only to have written, you're in trouble.)

So the second thing you need to ask yourself, about any story idea, is whether it's something that's too personal, something that's very important to you but wouldjustifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.

Some experience is too close to us. We feel deep emotion about it, but haven't digested it yet and aren't able to put it in perspective for somebody else to view. Or maybe it's too exotic, like a specialist on the intimate habits of the Amazonian tree snail assuming the subject is going to be fascinating to vast numbers of people.

Personal blind spots.

It's understandable, if mildly tedious, from people waving around pictures of their kids or wanting us to pore through snapshots from their vacations or sit through their home movies of the family washing the dog. From a writer, it's unforgivable— and probably unpublishable.

For such highly personal subjects, the context that would make them meaningful would just take too much explaining for somebody else to understand.

That's a particular problem, by the way, with autobiographical or fact-based fiction. You have to be able to distance it. You not only have to care about it but care just the right way, ruthlessly cutting this incident, changing this character, altering this reaction in the interests of good fiction, regardless of what really happened. You have to be, in some meaningful sense, free of it before you're ready to write about it. You have to be willing to look at it through a stranger's eyes—the eyes of your potential readers.

But don't underestimate your own experiences as a source of story ideas, either. Tiny, vivid impressions—the feel of new sneakers, sunlight through a colored window, getting up in the middle of the night when it's dark and scary, being the only pedestrian on an empty street—have been the basis of wonderful, imaginative short stories by Ray Bradbury. Coveting an overcoat was the basis of a classic story by Gogol. A chickenwire costume can be life-saving armor. Small things can have immense impact, if you give them a context that brings out their importance.

Your own experience is an inexhaustible mine of fiction ideas, provided only that you can make readers see the experience as important and applicable to their own lives.

You can never know this for sure. You can only recognize the problem and do your best to strike a balance between the personal and the universal. After that, the story has to take its chances, as all stories must.

And always bring, to whatever you write, everything you've known, felt, experienced, imagined. Like Tolkien's Elves of Lorien, put something of what you love in everything you make. If you're cynical or want to escape sentimentality, put in something that you loathe, too. Such first-hand direct experience is the main and invaluable source of the kind of immediately convincing, personal, vivid details that flesh out a plot and make it seem real to a reader.

Dickens, in particular, was a master of this. Joseph Heller's

Catch-22 is another good source for precisely observed detail. Read some of these authors' work and learn the kind of specific detail you should be observing in daily life and jotting in your notebook for later use in fiction—a face, a phrase, a scene. Sometimes the simplest, most personal things are those that can speak direct to the heart.

And the job of distinguishing between the merely personal and the vividly personal is one nobody can do but you.

So your second criterion should be: Can I work with this idea in a caring but uncompromising way to make it meaningful to somebody else?

3. Is It Going Somewhere?

The third criterion has to do with the nature of the material itself. Supposing the first two criteria have been met, is this an idea with a dynamic? Has it got an engine, or could you put one into it? You could attach a motor to a tree, but it wouldn't go very far. A motor-powered bathtub is still a bathtub.

Does your idea divide itself into a vivid opening, one or more specific developments, and a solid ending? Can you block out in your mind a beginning scene, intermediate scenes, a final confrontation or resolution of some kind?

It doesn't matter if the actual scenes you end up writing are different from the ones you imagine at first. The important thing is that the subject you care about, the subject you think you can make immediate and important to readers, lends itself to being cast into scenes of any kind.

Make a poster and put it up where you write: PLOT IS A VERB.

If what you're writing is nounish or adjectival, a thing or a description, or if it's essentially a lecture or an essay, it's going to be static. It may still be a story, but a relatively formless one aimed at a narrow spectrum of readers. (Nonplot methods of storytelling will be discussed in Chapter 11.) If your story happens over a period of years, with nothing much happening in between, and ifyou can't see a way to compress the action into a sin gle compact tale, even one as long as a novel, you'll have to split out a smaller piece of it to be your story. If it involves a vast number of people or several major changes of locale, it may be a novel, but not a short story. If it's all beginning, a problem you can show but not resolve to give the story a conclusion (even an unhappy one), it's not going to work. If it's a sudden turn of events that nothing seems to lead into, like lightning in the middle of a bullfight, pure ending, it won't make satisfying reading.

Ask yourself, Can I dramatize this in a series ofscenes with a minimum of explanation? Does it have a plot, or can I create a plot for it?

Finally, ask yourself: Is there something quite specific and vital at stake—notjust to me, but to one or more of the characters involved? Ask yourself what the central conflict is, the struggle that's the basis of plot. Ask yourself how you can show, rather than tell, why this is so important to the character, make the reader understand, empathize, and care about what happens.

If you're writing experimental or literary fiction, you can allow yourself a little more latitude about what's at stake. It can be the impact of a memory of aesthetic ecstasy experienced in a time of artistic dryness, as in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. It can be the downward progress of a deteriorating, obsessive consciousness, as in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." That it's harder to make such things seem vital issues to the general reader doesn't mean they're not worth doing. But neither does it mean that you can ignore the issue andjust have meandering ruminations about Life and the World.

It's quite possible to make bread with something other than crushed grain and produce food that's tasty, nutritious, and solid enough so that you know you've eaten something. But whatever your fondness for carrot cake or corn muffins, it's plain old bread, plot, that's been part of human culture since the beginnings of things. We know plot when we meet it: it's in our bones. Maybe even in our genes. We say, "But what's it about?" and ex pect a reasonably concise answer. We want verb bread or we're sure we'll be hungry an hour later.

Any fiction, however literary, still has to possess some dynamic tension, even if it's one of irony, or a surprising contrast. Something has to be seen to matter, and to change—even in a mood piece. The story has to move. If you choose not to have traditional plot, you're going to have to work twice as hard to make your chosen alternate work as compellingly.

If, however, you're writing mainstream or genre fiction intended for a wide readership, it's absolutely crucial that you have and develop a plot and that something quite concrete and definite be at issue. It's what your story is going to be perceived to be "about." Your protagonist wants to gain possession of a ruby approximately the size of New Jersey, become a first-class hockey player, escape from an unsympathetic spouse, get one word of praise from a stern and disapproving parent, or rescue turtles from the zoo and set them free in the all-forgiving sea.

Ideally, you should be able to express the core plot in a sentence or two, in about the same space and style as program listings in TV Guide. In fact, it might help to study a few issues of TV Guide and one of the several paperback guides to movies on TV, and see how such capsule summaries are done. Practice writing a few about things you've read recently. ("The police chief of a New England vacation community, although terrified of the ocean, sets out to destroy a huge killer shark"—Jaws; "A group of British schoolboys, attempting to survive after their plane crashlands on a tropical island, begin reverting to savagery"— Lord of the Flies.)

See how brief and direct you can make your summaries. The basic plot of a story (unlike its meaning) ought to be directly expressible in very few words, though playing it out in scenes may take a dozen or a thousand pages.

If the summary of your own story turns out to be one you haven't already seen fifty times, so much the better. If not, don't worry: all the love stories haven't yet been written, nor anything close. And there will be growing-up stories as long as there are people. Some topics, handled in a fresh way, are inexhaustible.

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