Last time, I talked about story sparks—those small ideas writers use to jump start their novels. Those little epiphanies can come at any time, from anywhere–while you sleep, in a dream–even when walking your dog!
To make sure those story sparks have staying power, many authors then use the “What if” technique to test their idea. Is it strong, compelling, and emotionally-charged?
Some “What if” examples include:
What if…teenagers were dropped into a world where the only escape is through a gigantic maze filled with robotic killing machines? (The Maze Runner)
What if…a seemingly happily married woman disappears on the morning of her fifth anniversary, leaving behind a diary that implicates her husband in her murder? (Gone Girl)
Both The Maze Runner and Gone Girl boast fantastic “What if” questions. But today, let’s talk about your story spark. Whether you have three ideas or 300, how do you cull the magical ideas from the not so magnificent?
Choosing the strongest, most viable story spark will help you avoid slogging through 50 pages of manuscript before you realize there is no way you can finish the last 250. Believe me. I’ve done it.
So, first, ask yourself, “Has this story been done before?”
Creative coach Mark McGuiness (and many others) say that “experienced storytellers will tell you there are no new stories, just endless variations on old tales.” I believe there is much truth to that. Case in point, the thousands of romance novels written every year in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl = happily ever after.
The lesson is this: if you’ve decided that you must write about vampires that sparkle, give your story a fresh, new angle. Is it told in the future? Is the story set on Venus? Do the characters die after 28 days? You see where I’m going with this. Don’t write someone else’s story. Write yours.
Then, use these 7 ways to test your story spark:
“What if” – Use the “What if” question. It works. You should be able to write down your concept in one sentence.
The Big Problem – What challenge is your character is facing? Is it meaningful and life altering? If your main character doesn’t solve the problem, what terrible thing will happen? For example, if Katniss loses the Hunger Games, she will die.
The Journey – Will the problem send your character on a journey, either physically, psychologically, or both? If not, ramp up the challenge.
Staying Power – Does the story spark really stick in your brain? Can you picture the characters? Do you already know the ending? If the answer’s yes, chances are, you’re got something good!
The Lesson – What lesson does the main character learn over the course of the story, and how does it change him/her? (The character arc is required of most novels, with the exception of Thrillers, in which characters spend most of their time trying not to die).
Commitment – If you’re aiming to write a novel, do you adore your story spark enough to stick with it through 300 pages or approximately 80,000 words? Think hard about this one!
Ask Around – Run your “What if” question by a few trusted friends (not including your mom—sorry!). Better yet, ask friends who read a lot—those friends glued to Kindles and Nooks.
If you’d like one extra method of checking your concept, listen to what author, blogger, and story structure master Larry Brooks has to say about making sure your idea is “high-concept.”
Brooks says, “High concept suggests a dramatic scenario or device—be it clever, unexpected, unseen, terrifying or just plain brilliant—that becomes the landscape upon which characters reveal themselves.”
He uses Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones as one high-concept “What if” example:
What if…a murder victim can’t rest in heaven because her crime remains unsolved, and chooses to get involved to help her loved ones gain closure?
If you haven’t read The Lovely Bones, it’s a hauntingly terrific novel that’s sold more than 10 million copies.
If you have suggestions about how to test your story idea, I’d love to hear them! Remember, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
Amen to that!