Back in the days before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak to ninety sixth graders about writing. They’d been writing themselves, and the room in which we met had wonderful samples of their work posted on the walls. I wound up leading them through an exercise on how to turn an idea into a plot.
I started with the idea I had for my only middle grade book Finders Keepers. The idea came to me freakily in a way I’d never experienced before or since. I was working a jigsaw puzzle and into my head popped the following: “I’m not a thief. Not really. The thing I steal doesn’t belong to the people I steal it from. Of course, it doesn’t belong the people I steal it for either.”
I showed them that. Then jointly we went through it phrase by phrase trying to figure out what kind of story it could generate. As I think back on that session, it taught me two things I’ve continued to use as I develop stories of my own.
Breaking down an idea
Here’s the breakdown of my original idea that we worked with.
- Who is this person? A boy or a girl? What else can you guess about them?
- What is this person stealing?
- What do they mean when they say it doesn’t belong to the people they steal it from? How can that be true?
- Who are they stealing it for? Why are they doing that?
Particularly for the last three questions, they always suggested multiple possible answers. For instance, for question 3, they said maybe the person who had the thing stole it first. Or maybe the thing belonged to the speaker in the first place. Or the thing doesn’t belong to anyone but rather is public property. Or it’s sacred and no one should own it.
At each point, I praised every suggestion they made and then asked what else could it be? What other answer can you think of? They were amazing. They kept generating possibilities.
Don’t stop too early
As I said, in retrospect, two interesting things stood out for me.
First, the longer we kicked ideas around, the less obvious they became. The first answer was likely to be one they’d seen before or one several of them had thought of. But as they pressed on, they dredged up novel ideas, some of them better than what I had settled on when I wrote Finders Keepers.
Second, we could have generated dozens of different stories by mixing and matching their answers. Many of those stories had the potential to be good. An idea doesn’t necessarily determine the direction of the story. The possibilities are wide.
I try to remember these two things when I’m generating a story. Don’t quit with the first idea that comes to mind. Keep pressing. Find as many possibilities as I can. Maybe I’ll come back to the first one after all, but at least I’ll have choices.
The blog will be on summer hiatus for July and August. Everybody have (fully-vaccinated) fun.
The paperback of Deep as a Tomb is on deep discount at Amazon right now. Ordinarily $17.95, it’s now listed at $6.46.
Sixteen-year-old Myla feels the land in her blood and bones. Royal heir Beran wants revenge for murder. Forest native Kaven wants to protect Myla from every danger.
Like her people, the Westreachers, Myla’s tied to the green world through tombs the forest made when it made the people. So when she finds she can open tombs long thought sealed, she’s thrilled – until her father demands she use her power to help him rebel against the king. Myla would rather mix herbal remedies and spend time with Kaven, whose family is hip deep in debt and secrets.
Prince Beran is sent to impress the people of Westreach so the council will confirm him as King’s Heir. He’s to use his power to forward the king’s goals, but on his first day, an anonymous forester murdered the guard he loved like a father. Stone royal duty, because Beran wants revenge… he’s willing to make enemies everywhere to find the killer.
Thrown together as fosterlings in the same household, Myla, Beran, and Kaven must each decide how far they’re willing to use personal and political power to get what they want.