Jon posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
My question concerns how to pick a story topic or story line. I never feel like any of my one sentence summaries are worth expanding to a story. I think this frustration is the biggest thing holding me back from trying to write. I don’t have any confidence in my story ideas. I feel like they are either too boring or too similar to novels/movies/TV show that have already been done. Any advice?
Randy sez: Yikes, that’s a tough one. I think it’s a mistake to write a novel about a story you don’t care about. But it’s also a mistake to have your standards set so high that you never work on anything because it’s not original enough.
Without knowing you, Jon, I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the problem. One thing to bear in mind is that there are very, very few truly original story ideas. Most stories are similar in some way to stories that have already been told. So why tell them? That’s simple: because those stories have never been told by YOU. If you’re a real writer with something to say, then telling ANY story will automatically make it original.
A group of my novelist friends did an experiment a few years ago. They all agreed to write a short story based on the same idea. The story had to have a number of elements all the same. Everybody wrote a story from that same starting point. Every story was different. The result was a book titled WHAT THE WIND PICKED UP. The subtitle is “Proof that a single idea can launch a thousand stories.”
Jon, I’d suggest you just pick the idea you like best and see if maybe it’ll grow into something unique and original and interesting as you work on it. The mark of a good writer is that he or she can turn an ordinary thing into an extraordinary story.
What do you all think, O loyal blog readers? What’s your advice for Jon? Post a comment telling him what you’d do.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Tim Greene says
I would suggest something that he likes, lets say Jon you like Highlander… Why not try taking that basic idea and make it your own. I am doing that with a few projects. I love the idea of immortals battling it out, but think Highlander is too scattered out and undefined what certain things were. I am going to make it my own, and nothing like Highlander… Just my suggest find something you enjoy.. As for your own one sentence plotlines take the one you enjoy the most but if you are still unsure, try rewriting the sentence. Spend sometime possibly outlining ideas.
I can relate to you, Jon. There are times when I worry that my story is boring. What helps me is to follow what Randy says on his “Your Roadmap: The Four Stages” lecture on “What to Do if You’re a Freshman” which is “write, write, write!” This helps me get all my ideas out. Pick the creative ones, and toss or set aside the unnecessary ones out.
I also have changed my storyline as a result of this. “Write, write, write!” has helped me improve my storyline, too.
Hope this helps to start with. Best wishes.
Senior Reader, Freshman Writer says
Most of my favourite books aren’t that original in premise. It’s the memorable characters or turns of phrase by the authors that get me excited. If you’ve got a one sentence summary that’s not that unique, but when you think about your main character, you get excited and wish you could go out to coffee with him/her, I’d encourage you keep writing.
Adam Heine says
Just do it. You’ll never know until you try. And if it doesn’t work, your second one will be that much better.
Ken Marable says
Two things I would recommend are:
1) Like others have said, just give one a try. Sometimes the magic isn’t in that 1 sentence summary, but when you develop the idea further. It can suddenly sprout new ideas and directions to go in (and you can always trash and revise the summary when you have a better feel for the guts of the story).
2) Instead of trying to summarize the story, try thinking of a scene instead. Many story ideas I have did not start as a plot or characters or any “big picture” stuff, but as a single scene. From that initial snapshot, I would then explore why it was happening, who was there, what the outcome would be, etc. (Or even focus on an individual character, or character’s mannerism, or location, etc. Basically, rather than trying to come up with a great single sentence plot that inspires you, think of a very small piece that can be inspiring.)
Richard W says
I can only speak from my personal experience. My first one sentence story was pretty flat. No one would have given it a second thought. But, I kept pushing through Randy’s snowflake method on faith. By the time I had several characters well fleshed out with their own motivations / goals and a one page rough of the story’s bare bones, I went back to the one sentence that started it all. The amazing part is that the sentence didn’t do justice to the idea that eventually developed – so it was rewritten (several times, in fact). For me, the process itself got me excited, despite a less than stellar beginning.
Advice #1: Keep writing until it becomes exciting. You always have the option to go back and edit later on – it doesn’t need to be perfect on the first time through.
Advice #2: Never start giving advice. =D
OOOOoo let me play psych… 🙂
perhaps its the fear demon telling you not to even bother trying…
Punch that demon in the face Jon! Sit down and write a tiny little story, then save it on your computer and don’t look at it again for a month. If you don’t know how, use Randy’s snow flake method (i secretly think you haven’t even ‘really’ tried it to be feeling the way you are) I bet you’ll be surprised at what you really sound like in words.
And to be the hard arsed psych – if you can’t or wont make your self just try and write anyway, let it go. Try something else that will make you happy. As awesome human thinking machines the options for happiness are endless 🙂
Get to work Jon!
The two most common reasons I find myself thinking that a story is “not worth writing about,” are:
1) I didn’t sit down and do the “work” to find out if the story was the one I wanted to tell.
It’s hard to know exactly where your story is going to go, from start to finish, right from the start. It helps to do some preliminary exploration (and by this I mean a minimum of fifteen pages double spaced). No offense to Randy, but not everyone comes to the table with a fully fractaled snowflake. Try writing your way toward the story and see if it responds by giving you something back; a certain satisfaction or a curious excitement. Then you’ll know there’s potential there.
2) I’m actually in the process of finding the story I need to write, but I don’t know it yet
I’ve had this happen to me: I come up with one plot line after another, each one seeming to be “it” for a time, until the next one comes along and knocks it over. This can go on for quite a long time, if I let it. But I’ve learned to recognize that, for me anyway, this signifies that I haven’t been honest about what I really want to write about. In effect, I have been batting ideas around as if that’s all it takes to write a great story; just a great idea. But the truth is, that idea must come with emotional underpinnings that link it directly to my deepest cares and concerns, making it the story that only I can tell.
With luck, some preliminary writing work, and a bit of dedicated soul-searching, you will find the story you need to tell, Jon. And people will line up around the block to get their hands on it!
I suppose that the only advice I can give is for you to write a story YOU like. Don’t try to focus on an audience. Then, when your book is finished, you might as well see if you can sell it, and I’m sure there are people out there who have the same taste in books as you do.
Kim Miller says
There are two areas where Jon struggles. Firstly, he doesn’t get inspired by his one sentence summaries. Secondly, he easily sees mirrors in other places, novels/movies/TV etc.
The issue, it seems to me, is that Jon isn’t going deeply enough into understanding stories. Many people say that every story is a retelling of some deeper theme. Where people vary is the number of themes. Booker said there are seven basic plots, Tobias said there are twenty master plots, other people have other numbers. But these people have something to teach us.
Whatever the number, it is important to recognize that stories are the telling of “themes that matter”. If Jon was to take one of his single sentence summaries and relate it to a recognized theme, perhaps he would find some more inspiration.
And if he was to have an understanding of basic themes, such as Overcoming the Monster, or The Quest, or Rags to Riches, etc, then he might be not so discouraged by what he sees in novels, movies and TV. Indeed, with some understanding of the themes of what he reads and watches he might be very encouraged to do better.
Phoebe Wilcox says
What’s great about writing is that you can do it if you’re bored, inspired, or experiencing a crisis. You can do it anytime and use is for any purpose! Since all stories need conflict, your own inner conflict can be a good starting point. Write for your own enjoyment. When I started my novel I had no idea what the plot would be. It was like building with blocks. One little interesting section would spur the next little interesting section. Then I had the idea of interweaving a couple little stories. It just snowballed. And believe me, I think I’m a good writer, but as a friend once told me after readinig something I gave her to read, “even good writers sometimes write crap!” And I STILL sort of like that story, damnit!
Never give up. I’ve discovered that as I continue writint, the story starts to tell itself to me – as crazy as that sounds. (The key in that sentence is, ‘I’ve discovered’.) As you write you learn, discover, create.
When God made Eve she was very similar to Adam, yet different in astounding ways. Same basic pattern – like the framework Randy mentioned.
You can do it. Surprise yourself.
Ric Gerace says
Write a practice novel. Use your hobby or something that interests you as a starting point. Forget about the novel being interesting. It’s practice. It’s for you. Snowflake it, write it, and then move on to the next one, the real one. You might find out you love writing novels. You might find out you can’t stand writing novels. Guaranteed you’ll find something out you didn’t know before.
Sheila Deeth says
My advice would be to start small – join an online writing site or a local writing group and write short stories to a prompt. Soon you’ll find that you’re able to take a shared idea and run in unique and interesting directions. Then it feels more worthwhile putting the effort into extending your idea into a novel.
Check out the book The Anatomy of Story by John Truby:
about how to get a story premise that you care to invest all that time/energy into. Only write things that will change lives (even if that life is yours).
Donald Maass sez something similar, make a list of the people who changed your life and see who they are and how they changed your life.