Several years ago, I had an idea for a novel. I thought it was a novel.
It was a dystopian tale about a society that no longer had any use for writers. The idea was this: If there are really only seven plots as some ‘experts’ say, then publishers asked why they should pay writers to just regurgitate the same stuff over and over? They could just recycle stuff like Pride and Prejudice, lose all the subplots and the historical setting, and bung another title on it. 100% profit for the publisher; no pesky writers to deal with. Unlike Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which the hero is a converted reader, my heroine was a would-be writer. In my scenario, books weren’t banned; they were just forgotten. Abandoned through indifference. The story would be a searing indictment of a world that did not appreciate the value of literature.
30,000 words later I discovered there was no story, just a lot of preaching. I had a scenario, but no plot and no characters. Ultimately, I had to send it to that great library in the sky where all stillborn stories go.
It was a bitter lesson to learn, and I’d love to say I learned it well. Alas, it’s not the only time I’ve had to abandon a tale several thousand words in.
How do you know when you have a story? More to the point, how do you know when you don’t?
When time is at a premium and you only have so many hours – or minutes – each day, you don’t want to waste your time on an idea that isn’t viable. On the other hand, if you spend all your time discounting potentially good ideas, you’ll never write anything.
It’s a puzzlement.
How do you know that your story is a story?
The truth is, you may not know for sure until you start writing. However, there are some questions you should ask yourself before you start. The answers can give you an idea if you’re on the right track. Or not.
IS THE STORY WORTH TELLING?
Now, I don’t want to get all artsy-fartsy on you, but I’m sure you’ve already figured out that some stories linger and others evaporate with the morning mist. Sure, you can have fun telling an ephemeral tale, one that will give a chuckle and nothing more, but are you certain it’s an actual story and not an anecdote?
If you’re wondering, an anecdote is what neighbours tell each other over the garden fence, or at a party. “You won’t believe what Dave did last week…” we begin, and we’re off.
Now, Dave’s shenanigans may well be worth turning into a real story, but you’re going to need more than a party nibble. Is there depth to the story? Does it reveal character? Does it have something to say about humanity?
Read your favourite short stories and ask yourself why they stay with you. How does your idea stack up? I’m not saying abandon the idea if it’s not comparable with James Joyce, but you do need to have some faith in the story’s ability to connect with other people. Perhaps even more importantly, it needs to connect with you. The problem with my story idea above is that I don’t like dystopian fiction. I seldom read it. I couldn’t connect with the tale, not because the idea didn’t have merit, but because I found it too depressing.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
There’s a certain artist who has made a killing painting huge pictures of big lines in a variety of muddy colours. Let’s call him Fawn Folly. These lines represent the human experience, he says. I saw him interviewed on RTE recently and at one point he leaned in and said with some urgency, “That is when I discovered… The Stripe!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of modern art. I can appreciate Pollock and his energetic dribbles on the canvas. I can enjoy Picasso and Braque with the best of them. But at some point you have to realise that someone is, you’ll forgive the expression, taking the piss.
The same applies to writing. There are literary Fawn Follys out there. People who spend eight pages writing about the cracks in the pavement. We, the readers, are supposed to extrapolate some deep philosophical relevance from this. The crack represents Truth (always with a capital letter), or man’s Fatal Flaws (also capitalised.) When we, the readers, look askance at this stuff we’re called plebeians who have no soul.
These sort of Post-Modern-Stories (PMS. Yes.) are all about The Word. There is no plot to speak of. Characters? Well, that’s for genre writing. I’m creating ART!
Such ‘artists’ remind me of a series of fast food adverts that were popular in the 1980s. A little old lady arrives at some restaurant and casts a critical eye on the burger. “Where’s the beef?” she cries. You tell ’em, grandma.
A story needs something you can chew on.
ARE YOU THE RIGHT PERSON TO TELL IT?
Listen, it’s OK. If you are a wizard at producing gentle love stories, you might not be the right person to write a gritty crime drama. Garrison Keeler couldn’t write Tom Clancy stuff, and Clancy would make a lousy Jane Austen. It’s good to stretch, to try out different things, but if you try something new only to discover you really don’t care enough about the structure or hierarchy of a nuclear submarine, then don’t force it. Maybe you can alter your plot and set it on a sailing ship in 1888. Or a quiet village in Meryton. Maybe you need to just let it go. My dystopian tale wasn’t a bad story idea; it was a bad story idea for me. I’d love to see what a Margaret Atwood could make of it. Or maybe one day I’ll go back to it. I know where the hazards lie now.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES?
If it’s a short story, you don’t need an elaborate plot. Actually, if it’s a short story you shouldn’t have an elaborate plot, but you do need more than a scenario. You need a character we can either love or hate and a situation we can identify with.
In the right hands, the most ordinary of events can be turned into a tale. Check out Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants (waiting for a train) or Joyce’s The Dead (a Christmas party) for example. Obviously, both stories are about far more than it seems on the surface.
Maybe you’re not ready to write a story like this yet. The premise is great, you are the right person to write it, but you don’t have the craft needed to do it justice. So set it aside. Work on something else for a while. Your idea isn’t going anywhere. When you’re ready, you’ll know.
IS THIS JUST ANOTHER OF THE SAME STORY IN DISGUISE?
I know someone who has written dozens of stories, all of them identical. The names of the characters change. Sometimes the story is in the city; sometimes in a country village, but all of them have to do with someone getting a windfall. The stories are fun, but she won’t develop her talent until she tries something new.
We all have tropes, and that’s okay. Certain scenarios resonate with us and we keep returning to them. Even the great Agatha Christie only had 5 plots, though she was a genius at disguising the fact. And there’s the lesson: it’s okay to have a limited range of ideas or cast of characters, but learn how to disguise the fact.
IS IT NEW?
If your story is about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, a zombie apocalypse, or a sassy young writer trying to make it in the big city, well, it’s been done. A lot.
This is one of the many, many reasons writers need to read. If you don’t, you’re liable to make yourself look foolish if you present a publisher with this brilliant idea you just had — so fresh! so new! — about a guy who goes back in time and… becomes his own great-grandfather!
Twist your tale so you’re not rehashing jaded plots. In the last example of time travel, think how Back to the Future dealt with that scenario. Marty McFly isn’t going to become his own dad; he’s trying to avoid that and stop his parents from breaking up before he’s even conceived.
AND IN THE END…
You can have the right answers to all those questions and still find yourself at a dead end. It’s frustrating and demoralising, I get that. Believe me. But I don’t think anything is ever really wasted. Set the story aside and let some time go by. Maybe one day you’ll come back to it and that tale will sing. Even if it doesn’t, you have practiced your craft and you’ve learned something about yourself and what doesn’t currently work for you.
Not all tales will succeed. But here’s a secret: we all of us who write have been there. Art isn’t about guaranteed success; it’s about not giving up.
In the meantime, find comfort in the words of the splendid Raymond Carver who once said,
“The story chooses us, the image comes and then the emotional frame. You don’t have a choice about writing the story. There’s a filter at work which says this is or is not a story… I think a story ideally comes to the writer; the writer shouldn’t be casting the net out, searching for something to write about.”