How Ideas Become Stories

Whatever some people might think, writers do not sit down at a computer with the whole story planned out in their heads. Stories, plot, characters, themes… these things take time to figure out. I prefer to figure these things out as a I go along, though I usually have a good idea of what I want from a story. Having finished one novel, edited it down nicely, and begun to market it, I decided it was time to work on something new.

This was a strange notion to me, considering I’ve spent the past two years working on Word Salad. Sure, I’ve written a few short stories, but I’ve invested most of my time perfecting one single story. So when the time came to write another novel, I said, “What?” I knew that I wanted to work on something new while trying to snag an agent for Word Salad– I still work on Word Salad, changing it all the time- but what?

I have a shoe box filled with notebooks of story ideas. It sits on my dresser, spilling with small scribbled sentences describing some person or tree or place. Or it will simply be an idea. The problem with ideas is, they’re not stories. I thought one of the notes was funny. I described an idea as thus: “A protein in a cell survives in a communist-like society under the control of the nucleus.” I thought it’d be funny, making a satire while simultaneously brandishing my knowledge about the organelles of the animal cell. But this was not really a story, just an idea. So I thought to myself, how can I make this into a story?

Well, although I don’t plan to write any such novel… the protein works in a Golgi Apparatus, but is dissatisfied with his life. He wants to know what secrets lie hidden within the barbed-wire membrane of the nucleus. And what lives beyond the cells? With the help of his best friend, a carrier protein (the border patrol officer of the cell), Mr. Protein breaks into the nucleus only to discover that life as he knows it is mainly insignificant. He’s part of a human liver, his community one of billions of a cells in a human body. Not only that, but the cell is programmed to lysis (erupt and destroy itself) in four days.) Mr. Protein must warn his friends and family, but who would take him seriously? And there might be someone from the nucleus who wants to stop him. CELL: The Inside Story! coming soon!

Well, personally, I think that’d make a freakin’ awesome book. If not, at least a serialized short novella. But do you see the difference? At first, the story is just an idea. An abstraction like “Mutant cats on the moon.” The question isn’t, “What’s the gimmick?” You need to figure out what you want the story to be about. Does an astronaut stumble upon the cats and adopt them all? Do two cats fall in love and try to escape into the moon craters from their passion-oppressive feline companions?

A surfer dude insomniac who moonlights as a drug mule is a good idea for a character, but not a story

As I brainstorm for a new idea, shuffling through dozens of crackpot ideas, I try to remember how Word Salad came about. I simply wanted to write a story about a serial killer and focus on the serial killer. At first, the story was hokey. It was boring, overdone. I needed something more. I needed obstacles. I needed other voices, other plots. I need MORE. So I added on and added on. I dissected short stories and incorporated them into the story. I meshed ideas together until the diorama looked cohesive.

Of course, this involves the final key to creating a story. Perseverance. When you create an idea, you dive into that idea. You grope around in the dark, surprised by what you find. You shape that idea, pound it into a shape with mallets. But then you have to stay with that structure for a very long time. Some writers spend merely three months writing the story. I wrote my first draft in about five months. It was a pile of steaming trash, though. It didn’t flow well or make a lot of sense, really. So I scrapped it all together and took it apart. I rewrote it, this time filling out the spaces where before there had been fluff. Now the story felt real. And then I started over again, for good measure. Each time, the writing got better. The story got wilder. The characters became more engaging. To me, at least. Hopefully, to other people too. All those complex plot turns you read in books don’t just happen. The author rarely begins writign with those in mind.

Surprise yourself, and you’re bound to surprise your audience.

And suddenly, your idea… it’s a story. Your story, it’s a book.

I enjoyed watching this video on collegehumor.com about a little girl who can’t seem to tell a story very well, instead describing the setting. (Here’s the link!: http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6521454/little-girl-tells-terrible-story)

Sure, your story could be set on a planet covered by sticky goo which turns out to be melted marshmellow! But you can’t spend the setup describing the planet. You need a story!

Wish me luck on coming up with a new story, something new to write on. It’s very disconcerting to be, for now, done with a piece of work, because I’m not working on anything new. Maybe that will change soon.

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About Derek Berry

Derek Berry is a novelist and spoken word poet. Derek is the author of Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA Publishing, 2016). He co-founded and organizes The Unspoken Word, a literary non-profit based out of Charleston, SC, which provides an intendent home for the poetic arts through regular readings, workshops, and community fundraisers. He is on the Executive Board of the Charleston Poetry Festival, the inaugural production of which will be Fall 2017. His work has appeared in The Southern Tablet, Cattywampus, Charleston Currents, Illuminations, RiverSedge, and other journals.He has performed in venues across the United States and Germany. He has worked as a photographer’s assistant, busboy, and bookseller. He currently works at a curation facility for Cold War History.

Posted on June 12, 2011, in Blogging, books, Cool Posts, novel, publishing, Word Salad, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I appreciate how you articulate the internal struggle with turning an idea into something tanglible enough for an audience other than yourself. You’ve captured the essense what what stops most writers from becoming authors. Great post! You given me something to think about.

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