5 Key Steps to Develop a Story from Scratch

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Shutterstock by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Shutterstock by Jordan Dane

 

A story has been niggling my brain for the past week. It tickles, in a good way. It started out as a vague melange of unconnected notions (like walking down a dark tunnel) until I started to define a premise and narrow the focus as if I had a light to guide me. Through online research of headline type tragedies, I searched for something with punch that would push me into the almost uncomfortable zone. I developed a loose character profile, playing with gender for the main character, but I needed more.

Over the last two days, I’ve refined my ideas about the story and “fleshed it out” in a way that excites me the most. I can’t share my book idea yet, but I’ve made notes of my process to share here at TKZ. Here are my steps going forward.

1.) Imagine basic ‘what ifs” about a potential character (a storyteller) and a problem–an unfathomable tragedy, an emotionally charged story concept, or a compelling situation–to create a list of “what if” scenarios. One story idea can have many “what ifs.” In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, another “what if” could center on Hannibal or Crawford who risks his career and reputation on an FBI trainee. Brainstorm a list before you narrow it down to the one you want to develop as the foundation starting point to your story.

2.) Next, whose story will it be? Let’s talk character. Who has the most to lose? Pick the best character(s) to tell the story. Then decide how you want to “punish” them to test their worthiness for a starring role in your book.

3.) What is the external conflict between the main players (villain or adversary included)? But a good story is not only about the obvious conflict. Flawed characters have double the challenges. How will their internal crutches (their inherent weaknesses) keep them from getting what they want & add to the stress of the conflict? Make the story a personal and intimate journey.

4.) What’s at stake & how will the stakes escalate and play out? Maximize the emotional impact by ramping up the conflict between two main players at odds with each other. Yes, they could be on the same side, but pit them against each other to make things progressively worse and see how they’ll make it through.

5.) Now draft your “pitch” or a premise. You have your basic story ideas – your cast of characters, the conflict, the escalating stakes and a general sense of how things will play out, so you’re ready to draft a “pitch” or develop a premise that best fits your story. Something that would make an agent, editor, or reader say, “Wow, I have to read that.”

Here’s a basic premise example for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS:

A young female FBI trainee must barter her intimate secrets with an infamous psychopath held in solitary confinement to gain his help in catching a serial killer who’s killing women for their skins.

Notice there’s a well-defined protagonist, a formidable antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a notion of how the action will play out. The protagonist is up against forces that seem much bigger than she is. The stakes are high. If she fails, more women die. A premise works best when it’s about a vulnerable character with a formidable problem that would seem compelling to the reader.

A good premise should:

  • Be concise
  • Be evocative
  • Be framed from a “what if” question
  • Be written in present tense with an easily understood sentence structure that makes the story seem familiar yet with a hook or difference to stand out from other books.
  • It should contain a character, a conflict, and a hook.
  • It should have universal appeal
  • Be limited in word count (maybe up to 35 words or less, or 2-3 concise sentences)
  • The core story should be centered on an idea that jumps out at anyone.

A word of caution:
Do not overload the story with too many focal points or subplots that take away or distract from the main character(s) plight. Keep a laser focus. If the premise is compelling enough, the story won’t need embellishment.

From this point forward: Now that I’ve developed a more focused idea for a new book, I will draft a general plot using a method that’s worked for me and one that I’ve blogged about before at TKZ: The Author’s Bucket List on Plotting Structure. Using the shape of a “W” to remind me, I’ll create the inciting incident, the point of no return, turning points, the black moment, and the twisty wrap up in 7 points that will get me started. A high level outline. Since I’m an impatient writer, I usually start to write the beginning to play with what will work best. If I’m writing on proposal, I will draft a 5-7 page synopsis to go along with the writing sample to a publisher. I like having a fuller synopsis, than merely my 7 point “W’ outline, to develop the story line in a way that guides me as I write. I can incorporate character motivation and ramp up the conflict in such a synopsis so I don’t forget any necessary plot points. At this point, I am on my way and writing in the zone.

Here is a visual idea of the “W” plotting I use: It a visual summary of my blog post.

SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612

 

DISCUSSION EXERCISE: Write a brief yet effective premise for any of these 5 well- known movies:
1.) Silence of the Lambs (Can you do one from Hannibal’s perspective?}
2.) Jaws
3.) It’s a Wonderful Life
4.) Hunger Games
5.) Wizard of Oz

tmp_4087-TheLastVictim_highres-1601584079The Last Victim coming Oct 30, 2015 in print and ebook. Available for ebook preorder through Amazon Kindle at a discounted price.

Enter Goodreads GIVEAWAY at this LINK. Win one of 15 signed print copies See rules and enter.

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What does your character want?

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By PJ Parrish

Many moons ago, when I was just starting out in this crime writing business, I wandered into a workshop at SleuthFest. That day, all I was looking for was a reason to not lurk alone in the lobby of the Deerfield Beach Hilton. Besides, I had two books under my belt that got some nice blurbs and some good reviews. So I thought that I had all the answers.

Man, was I wrong. And thank God I went into that workshop because it forever changed the way I wrote.

LesStandifordHeadShot

The workshop was conducted by Les Standiford and he was talking about creating memorable characters. Now, every writing conference has panels on this. Yada yada yada…don’t rely on stereotypes…blah blah blah…give them interesting backstories and dossiers…humanize your villain…make your hero fallible but likeable…same old same old.  And despite the fact Les Standiford had his own successful mystery series and was a celebrated fiction teacher, I didn’t think I was going to get anything new from his session. But then, as I sat in the back of room, half-dozing off the effects of last night’s cocktail party, Les said something that made the hairs on my neck stand up:

“Ask yourself one question of every character you create: What does he want?”

He had hit a nerve in my writer’s subconsciousness. Because although I had been writing about my cop hero Louis Kincaid for a while, I had never really thought hard about what Les was talking about. So as I sat there in that hot crowded room, I asked myself:

What did Louis want?

Well, he wanted to solve the case! He wanted to find the men in the small Mississippi town who, thirty years ago, had lynched a black man and left his bones in a shallow grave in a swamp.

{{{{Loud sound of buzzer going off}}}}}

Okay then, Louis was a rookie who really needed a job and wanted to impress his new boss, the sheriff.

{{{{Buzzer}}}}

Well, dammit, Louis felt compelled to find the identity of the lynching victim and bring him peace.

{{{Close but no cigar}}}}

Okay, okay. Let me think hard about this. Wait…Louis is biracial. He was born in Mississippi but was fostered out to a white family in Michigan. He walks, uneasily, in two worlds. Could this be about him finding his “black” past, forgiving his mother for abandoning him and coming to terms with the white father who deserted him?

{{{You’re the writer. What do you think?}}}

I think that what Louis wants is to find himself. Twelve books later, both he and I are still looking. But way back when, I thought I had all the answers. That day I walked into Les Standiford’s class, I didn’t even have the right questions.

What does your character want?

It sounds like an easy question. But if you’re doing this novel writing this right, the answer isn’t so easy. Kurt  Vonnegut famously said, “Every­one wants some­thing on every page, even if it’s only a glass of water.“  That is true even of minor characters, but when you’re talking about your lead role players, I think you have get to the very bottom of that water glass.

Dead Poets

Are we talking about character motivation here? Well, yes, I suppose so. Les Standiford, Vonnegut and all great writers and teachers tells us we must plumb the depths of our character’s hearts and heads to find out what makes them tick. But it’s more than that. I think why Les’s question made an impact on me was because it forced me to come at the old question from a different angle. It’s sort of like when Robin William’s character John Keating in Dead Poets Society climbs atop his desk and tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

The first step of character development is figuring out what passions, fears, regrets, or desires consume your character. Then, all you have to do is show him interacting with his setting and other characters in a manner consistent with those possible “motives.”

What Les was asking us to do was to go beyond the surface, to dig deep and deeper to find out what was the one essential consuming need of each character. Think of character motivation as having levels. Yes, you can get published by going no deeper than defcon 1 or 2 in character development. But what happens if you push yourself to take just a couple more steps down into the darkness?

Speaking of going into creepy basements, let’s go to a simple example: Silence of the Lambs. If you’ve read Thomas Harris’s book, you know how effective the author was at descending into the lowest rungs of every character’s motivations. But even the movie did a pretty good job at this. Let’s dissect our heroine:

What does Clarise Starling want?

Level 1: She wants to solve the case. She wants to find Buffalo Bill. (basic thriller plot)

Level 2: She wants to prove she can hang with the big boys of the FBI. (basic thriller with feminist theme)

Level 3: She wants to escape her suffocating southern small-town roots and the FBI was a ticket out of hicksville. Remember how impressed one of the victim’s girlfriends was with Clarise’s job? (Basic thriller with feminist theme and rich backstory.)

Level 4: She wants to impress her boss-mentor Jack Crawford. (basic thriller with feminist theme, good backstory and father-figure character interplay.)

Level 5: She wants to validate herself as being worthy of her father’s legacy because he was a cop killed in action. She gets approval by proxy via Crawford, who tells her at the end that her father would have been proud of her.  (Now this is getting interesting!)

Level 6: She wants to make the lambs stop screaming. Cool…But what does this mean psychologically? Clarise is haunted by a childhood memory of hearing lambs being slaughtered. I have always read this as her attempt to exorcise her demons of abandonment, her human need to deal with existential loneliness, her way of pushing back against the black void. “I thought if I could only save just one,” she tells Lector. She’s talking about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims, but isn’t she really talking about herself?

(While we are at it, has anyone else noticed how eerily similar Silence of the Lambs and Jodie Foster’s other movie Contact are in character themes? Both are smart, emotionally fragile women raised by fathers then orphaned, both manipulated by brilliant outcast men. And both women are staring into the vast blackness and hoping they are not alone.)

Let’s go to another example. What does Captain Ahab want in Moby-Dick?

Level 1: He wants to catch the whale that maimed him. (Simple story of revenge).

Level 2: He wants to prove to his crew and himself that even though he’s got one leg, he is still a man. (He even smuggles his own crew onboard just in case.)

Level 2: He wants to strike out against the pacificism of his Quaker religion. Not so simple theme that’s right here in this passage:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

Level 3: He wants to vanquish evil, what he calls “the inscrutable thing.” And he’s not sure God is on his side or even exists. He’s like Hamlet, looking for some metaphysical truth in all the madness. And I am sure Peter Benchley had Ahab in mind when he created Quint the shark hunter in Jaws.  Both men are nuts but sort of magnificent. Which is why they had to die.

So here’s what I’d like to leave you with. The next time you think about your characters’s motivations, go deeper. Think hard and long, applying great gobs of elbow-grease of the mind. Don’t be content with staying on the top levels. Don’t skim the surfaces.

MSDSIOF EC076

Don’t be afraid to descend to the very bottom rung and enter that dank dark basement of the human soul. That’s where you find the good stuff.

 

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