The first step in any writing project is to select something to actually write about. After all, if there is nothing to write about, what is the point of writing in the first place? Even a lowly blog post must have a topic of some kind, or at least some sort of purpose. While that purpose need not be particularly clever or relevant, it nevertheless must exist.
Writing a novel (or short story or poem or novella or any other kind of creative writing) needs an idea. Without an idea, there is nothing to hang the story on. The idea is what determines who your characters are and what your setting is. It may even determine what themes you lace into your masterful storytelling.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the initial idea for a story is that it needs to be original. Sure, an original idea is wonderful and if you manage to come up with one that you like, run with it. However, there are plenty of good stories that started with a plain old bog normal idea that has been done many thousands of times before. Do not let the fact that your idea is not original cause you to fall into the trap of thinking that an unoriginal idea must necessarily lead to an unoriginal story. And even if it does, that does not mean it will be a clone of every other story using that idea or that it will not be a worthwhile undertaking.
Also, it is important to note that an idea does not usually appear fully formed any more than the story itself does. In fact, defining the idea behind the story is a major function of the planning stage. As we will see in upcoming installments of this chronicle, there is a certain amount of feedback between the rest of the writing process and the refinement of the initial idea.
Let us consider the initial process leading to the idea behind my novel project. I started with the premise that there would be a prison planet where violent or otherwise inconvenient prisoners are sent. That, of course, is not a story idea; it’s a setting idea. It is also not complete. To turn it into a story idea, a number of questions must be asked. Some of these questions are as follows.
- Who runs the prison planet and why?
- Who pays the costs of transporting the prisoners to the planet?
- Why are local jails not used for prisoners? Or, for that matter, why not execution instead of life imprisonment?
- Are the prisoners guarded?
- Is the planet itself guarded?
- What if a prisoner manages to escape the planet?
- Is the planet Earth-like enough for human survival? If so, how did it get that way? If not, what are the conditions like?
- How are prisoners deposited on the planet? Do they arrive with supplies? Are they all dropped in the same place or spread out over the surface?
There are, of course, many more questions that can be asked and answered, including questions that arise from the answers to other questions. The more of these questions you can answer, the better your idea will end up being. However, it is also important to avoid getting lost in the details for down that path be dragons ready to eat you.
The astute among you will realize that so far I have been concerned with setting more than what will actually happen in the story. While there are great stories that are nothing more than elaborate tours of steam grommet factories, most successful stories have a deeper structure.
Depending on the setting, the plot line may be obvious. It may provide many options or just a few. In this case, there are many stories that could be told. The question is which one do I want to tell? Some options are as follows.
- A chronicle of the early prisoners and the conditions they face attempting to survive a passively hostile planet.
- An ambitious tale of the eventual emergence of a nation against the odds and against the desires of the rest of the galaxy.
- The tale of an innocent man sent to the prison planet and the terrible or wonderful things he must do to survive and eventually obtain (or not) revenge.
- The rise of a hero who rattles around the planet slaying random beasts and otherwise helping the helpless.
- A multi-generational tale of the emergence of a unique culture and economy despite the constant influx of murderers, thieves, and other unsavory types.
There are, of course, a great many other possible tales. Some are small in scope while others are sweeping tales of complex history. The question I had to ask myself was whether I wanted to tell an ambitious tale or a simpler one. When I settled on a simpler one, it became obvious that I should pick an important event in the evolution of this prison planet and tell that tale. So I eventually settled on the events that led to the planet attaining independence in the eyes of the greater galaxy.
I should note that while I started with a setting and picked the overall plot from that, it can also be done the other way. I could have picked a story and designed a setting around it. I could even have picked a character and then asked what would happen if that character was dropped into a particular circumstance. There is no correct approach and in the end, any approach may lead to a good story and, in fact, multiple approaches could ultimately lead to the same story in the end.
Tune in next time for a riveting discussion of character development.