Story Ideas, Part 2: Bananas and Lima beans

So, we were talking story ideas and how to get them.

Sometimes it’s no easy task. You can try all you like to force a great plot and great characters to come together yet, like mixing lima beans with bananas, sometimes you just can’t make it work. In my last installment I described how the idea for my first book started way back in the 8th grade, simmered over a few DECADES then burst upon the unsuspecting literary world as The Lost Revolution. But really, it doesn’t have to take that long.

In the summer of 2013 I was riding a tour bus with my wife through the picturesque countryside of Prince Edward Island in Canada when I started my second book. That’s right, while everyone was wasting time enjoying the scenery, I had my notebook computer perched on my scrunched knees typing away. It’s a good way to let life just pass you by but hey, I had an idea and I couldn’t let it get away. Besides most of the sites from PEI you can get on a good picture calendar. (Being facetious here - I actually enjoyed the trip a lot and didn’t really spend that much time on the book.) Anyway, the story idea was: Art, Murder and the Psychology of Genius. Sounds a little dry, right? So, mix in some good characters, some mysterious paintings, a dark secret, a love triangle and voilà - out comes The Caruso Collection. Gestation period, 2 years. Still too long but quite an improvement from the decades taken by my first book.

The point here is that the idea for the book probably won’t just flash into your head fully formed. All right, the very basic rough idea might, but where do you go from there? A good story needs to develop and evolve and it needs to include both good plot and good characters. I think most of us struggling writers get bogged down trying to conceive the best, most original, convoluted, sexy, action packed thriller that’s sure to become a best seller. We want to take the love triangle to new heights (maybe a love pentagon?) We spin our wheels trying to astound, impress, hornyize (new word) and baffle the reader when all we really need to do is draw the reader into the story. I know, easier said than done. But there are ways…

Think of your number one favorite book or movie. Ten to one, the basic conflict (plot) is very simple or at least starts out that way. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King makes reference to the three R’s: Rebellion, Ruin and Redemption. It’s amazing how many good stories have been crafted around that basic formula. Use that formula to look closely at your favorite book or movie. Deconstruct it, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, so you can see the underlying structure. What formula did that writer use? How did that writer make you CARE about their characters? Can you or should you adopt that same formula and technique in your writing? Maybe, maybe not. But, in any case, this exercise should give you a better understanding of what does work and why.

There’s a lot of secret sauce in good writing, and every writer has their own brand. But with all the variations, there are similarities among the best. Those similarities have to do with style, form and structure and most importantly, a good understanding of the emotions at play. A good writer lives the story as she/he writes it. In that way, their emotions become the emotions of the characters which, in turn, become the emotions of the reader causing them to live the story too. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it better: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”

So, un-noted authority that I am, I’ll tell you what works for me. I start with a simple plot and simple characters and I try to know them well. These are my basic ingredients and they need to simmer until they produce just the right aroma. (Something you won’t get with bananas and Lima beans no matter how hard you try.) Then I throw in a twist here and a turn there, maybe a mild aphrodisiac so that all the ingredients mesh (I hope) in an interesting way. At this point, it’s just a matter of persistence, dedication and time available to see the work through to its completion. Hopefully it won’t take you decades but, especially if you write part time, it could take a couple of years. A good part of that time spent in the editing and re-write process. Be sure to take your time with it. It’s your work you’ll be putting out there for all to see. Make it your best!

Please chime in with any comments or observations of your own and tune in for Part 3 on book 3, next time. After that (maybe) we’ll be on to character development.