Great Idea, But Where’s the Story?

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Fully developed stories are much harder to come by. It would be nice to be capable of churning out short stories and novels at the rate of several a year, but my probably biased impression is that it would mean writing the kind of read/toss/forget stuff that’s meant strictly for entertainment. I can’t do that. I may not write for the ages, but I’d like to think that my stories leave something behind in readers’ minds, that they might even inspire a few readers to stop and think about something in a new way. Ridiculously idealistic, of course.

The ideas that I actually start writing usually wind up simmering for a good length of time before they become stories. What happens is that I write a couple of thousand words, make a lot of notes, and then come to a halt. I have some of the characters in mind. I know where I’d like the story to go, and maybe even how it will end. But all that stuff in the middle is missing. Characterization. Plot developments. Motivations.

An example is Disposable. I posted the opening on my website a while back. Here’s the summary I’ve worked out so far: Too many people. Too few jobs. Too little space. Drowning coasts are driving the population inland. Rising temperatures are driving them north. Casey and Jako  discover that the government internment camps that conspiracy nuts talked about, back 40 years or so, were real. At least they are now. Camp Midway, where the two men have just landed, is to be their permanent home. Or is it?

I’ve been working on it between other projects, and it’s already changed significantly. It’s over 3,000 words, a good beginning. But it isn’t ready to go any further. I hardly know anything about the central protagonist, certainly not enough to decide whether he’s going to be a hero or a martyr.

I haven’t figured out what the government plans to do with all those surplus people they’re piling up in internment camps. House and feed them until they die of old age? Wipe them out in some way that will seem natural and not murder? What part will the military guards play? Who are the subsidiary characters? What roles will they play? How deep do I want to get into the idea that there have always been disposable masses that governments have to deal with one way or another?

When someone says it took them X number of years to write a novel, that doesn’t necessarily mean what it sounds like. It may take me three or four years to complete a novel, but I’ve been working on other projects all along. I haven’t been agonizing over one story and waiting for it to reach perfection before I publish anything. That’s a popular theme, but I think it’s mostly a myth. I’m learning that working at multiple projects is more the norm for many writers.

There are advantages to this way of writing. For one thing, you’re constantly backing away from projects, and coming back to them with a fresh, more objective eye. You’re picking up new ideas, maybe even inspired by one of the various in-progress stories. Problems that have blocked you have a chance to work themselves out in your subconscious. Maybe most important, when you’re stuck on one story, you still have somewhere else to go so that you don’t wind up frustrated and thinking you’re just not meant to be a writer.

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One thought on “Great Idea, But Where’s the Story?

  1. I’m with you, Catana, I think stories written one after the other for money are what I call ‘horizontal’ writing, and I suspect that what serious readers are looking for is ‘vertical’ writing, something that challenges, or leaves an impression with the reader. That’s just my take, people read for different reasons. But I agree with you that stories need to bake. Otherwise we risk taking the cake out of the oven too soon.

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