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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 22: Idea to Story

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 22: Idea to Story


Key Points: To turn an idea into a story: Look for the points of conflict. Look for the boundaries -- what kind of story is this? Consider plot, setting, characters. What is the ending? How will you resolve the story? Look for characters who are in pain. Check old ideas that didn't get used yet. Brainstorm interesting ideas -- set pieces, events, twists, interesting stuff.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by, a leading provider of spoken audio information and entertainment. Listen to audio books whenever and wherever you want. Go to

[Brandon] The origin of this podcast came from a comment someone made on one of our threads on our website where they said, "How do you take an idea and turn it into a story?" We thought, well, let's give it a try. What we're going to do is, I have come up with an idea... it's not a particularly good idea, but it is an idea. Howard and Dan have no idea... I'm saying that word too often.
[Dan] We have no idea about your idea.
[Brandon] What my idea is. I'm going to throw it at them. We're going to watch and see how we turn this into a story. The idea is insects have suddenly become resilient to all forms of pesticide and it is making them so that they are actually poisonous to their predators and we're having lots of trouble suddenly with growing food. All right. Dan. Where do you go from there?
[Dan] When I start looking at an idea to turn it into a story, I look for points of conflict. Where do the story elements kind of come against each other to create interesting stories? In an idea like this, you look at, like you said, it is very difficult for us to grow and produce food. So starvation becomes a conflict. Farmers that cannot sell anything, they now become destitute and homeless, that could be an interesting conflict. It could be an interesting character to go with. The scientists who are trying to solve this problem now have a conflict. There's interesting little bits like that, that instantly let you say, ah, that's a jumping off point.
[Howard] I would look... I like points of conflict, but the other thing that I would do is look at the driving force behind this technology or whatever it is... behind this scientific principle.
[Brandon] The why.
[Howard] The why. I'd ask myself, how far does it extend? Because right now, most of the poisons we use against insects are designed to destroy insect metabolisms without hurting human metabolisms, but some of them do. But if you pour hydrochloric acid on an insect, it still dies. Now the question is, in this environment, does that still work or doesn't it? That's...
[Brandon] You have complete freedom to decide that.
[Howard] Exactly. What I'm suggesting is, if the hydrochloric acid still works, we're telling a science fiction tale with molecular biology at its core. If the hydrochloric acid has stopped working, we are telling an urban fantasy in which the insects have developed magic.
[Brandon] [laughter]
[Dan] OK. No, you're right.
[Howard] That's where we take the idea and crank it up a notch.

[Brandon] Let me define this for our listeners. Dan is going to the conflict. You're going to the boundaries. You're saying, what are the boundaries of the story, what type of story am I telling? If you step backward, where this idea originated from was me reading an article online where they were... scientists were afraid that a certain type of insect was becoming immune to a certain type of pesticide. Which I'm sure you've read and heard about these things before...
[Howard] Oh, yeah. Very common.
[Brandon] People are worried about superbugs and this sort of thing. That was just one of those little ideas that lodged in my brain. Now we go through it. My first step would be to start a book guide. If I assume I'm going to write a novel out of this, which is what I do with pretty much everything... I would open up a book guide, where I would say, OK I've got... this feels like a setting idea for me. Maybe it's a little bit of a plot idea because the conflict was already set in there. To balance out my book guide, I've got plot, setting, character. I would immediately start looking for characters.
[Howard] You need characters.
[Brandon] I would need to decide... this is a little bit partially boundaries like you've talked about and a little bit conflict like you've talked about, because for my characters, I'll need to know, am I telling a deeply personal story about a couple of people caught up in this? The scientists that were mentioned or the farmers that were mentioned? Or is this a more sweeping thing, or is it a Michael Crichton style story where we're going to have a team of specialists who are going to be working on this? Is it adventure fiction or is it more literary? What kind of story is it? I guess the boundaries are important.

[Dan] I think it's also important to look at the end. I've learned that in my own writing, I have to start looking at the ending very early so that I can write toward it. At this point, I would look at it and say, well, where do I want this to end? Do I want someone to solve this problem by reversing it? Or do I want this to be... is the problem solved by humanity finding an alternative food source? Or is the problem solved in a completely different way? Let's figure out what the resolution is going to be, and then work backwards from there.
[Brandon] Or you have to learn dark, black bug magic [inaudible] killing the bug wizards. I like that idea. That's got to be our writing prompt, bugs discover magic.
[Howard] I like it. One of the reasons I like it is that the idea that you've described is very similar to Frank Herbert's The Green Brain in which we have a few countries where pesticides aren't working and everywhere else or a lot of other places, the only bugs are bugs that are completely controlled by people... the populations and everything [clatter] That was Jordo dropping his zune. The crops in those places have failed. The big reveal in Frank Herbert's The Green Brain... I'm sorry, the statute of limitations has passed, it was written in the 80s... the big reveal there is that the bugs have a hive intelligence that extends beyond their species and they are actually trying to save the planet because we keep killing them and we don't understand the ecosystem as well as they do.
[Brandon] I think this gets us back to what type of story do we want to tell. Our end, our goal, is going to have a lot to influence that.
[Howard] For me, then, it's... well, I read The Green Brain. I don't want to...
[Brandon] Do the Green Brain.
[Howard] I don't want to do that again. Because that was Frank Herbert. I'm not Frank Herbert and I'm not Kevin J. Anderson. So bugs and magic is where I...
[Dan] Let's take that and move on.

[Brandon] Let's all take that and roll with it. We've got bugs have discovered magic which makes them immune to pesticides. What is our next step? Where do you go from there? You've decided you're writing an urban fantasy sort of thing. We're going to assume it's set on this world, our time, but bugs have discovered magic. Now what? Dan?
[Dan] For me, the thing is, let's take this even further. If bugs have discovered this kind of defensive magic, how long before they discover some kind of offensive magic? What... how much further will this idea progress by the time the story is done? I start looking at interesting ideas. Well, what would a bug do with offensive magic? Would they just make it easier for them to eat plants? Would they suddenly become much more hostile to humans than they are? If we're talking about locusts, they are hostile primarily because they eat all our food, not because they come and kill us in our sleep. Figuring out where this is going to go next is what I would do.
[Howard] Orc army ants. With little tiny swords...
[Dan] Is this the Zurg?
[Howard] and little white handprints on their noggins.
[Dan] Nice.
[Brandon] My first inclination at this point would be to start saying what has been done before and how can I make it something new? That's very important to me when writing science fiction and fantasy. You bringing up the Zurg makes me worry about this. Also the concept of the bug aliens as a whole genre... I don't want to go there.
[Howard] I don't want to go there either. Those are all big bugs.
[Brandon] Right. I want to remain little bugs. I don't think we want bugs that are sentient. I think that we've got bugs who have simply evolved to the point that they are tapping on some sort of magical source and it's just they are still bugs, but somehow they are managing to use this magic. Howard, where are you... how are you... let's get to the nuts and bolts. How are you actually developing this now?

[Howard] Developing the magic system or the plot or... because at this point, I need a character who is in pain.
[Brandon] You need a character who's in pain. That's because... like we said, we're unbalanced. We have a lot of conflict, we've got a lot of plot, we don't have a lot of character.
[Howard] I think taking the plucky farmer's daughter who doesn't want to be on the farm anymore and is moving to the city. This happens, and the cityfolk she's hanging out with, maybe at school or whatever, just completely don't understand. Don't see how serious this is. But she's plugged in and does understand how serious this is, but she doesn't want to go back on the farm. She's not studying agriculture, she's studying... I don't know...
[Brandon] Music.
[Dan] Marine biology.
[Brandon] Marine biology. No... yeah, that's good.
[Dan] And music. She sings with whales.
[Brandon] I'm going to go ahead and add to this as we are shaping this out. I feel that we need something in the past that will work with us, so I'm going to nudge toward magic realism. I'm going to say there is among whichever nationality her parents were -- they're immigrants -- there is an understanding of a folk magic that involves this sort of thing. At this point, I would start digging into folk magic. I'd start doing the research and I'd say OK, which culture do I want to use, what country do I want to go to? How am I going to use that to relate to this magic? Something that's... I'd probably go look at Asian, East Asian... say, let's look at some of these magics that involve nature and how we can actually apply this. But the point here is not to show you how good or how lame we are at coming up with stories off the cuff. The point here is to actually dig into it and say this is how we do it.
[Howard] We want to look at the process.
[Brandon] We want to look at the process. We're going to pause right now for a break and when we come back, we will dig into process.
[Howard] Can we break for a pause instead?

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[Howard] And we're back.
[Brandon] And we're back. Let's try and look at process. Let's not extrapolate any further on this story because that's just going to get us into trouble. Let's look at what we actually would do. With me, I'm using the book guide. This is the process I use...
[Howard] When you say the book guide?
[Brandon] I've talked about it before on the podcast. But what it is, it's the file... that is split up... I use the Microsoft Word document map feature which allows me to build an outline. I put down plot, setting, character. Usually, it's actually reversed, it's character, setting, plot. I will start throwing ideas brainstorming wise under these three headings. Just lists and lists of ideas that apply to this, often in bullet points. Some of those will spawn other ideas that start making bigger ideas. My brainstorming session will eventually turn into the plot structure and the character... people call them dossiers. And all of these things will grow out of my brainstorming session, the actual file. As I'm discarding ideas, I actually throw them in a place at the bottom called the trash pit where all these ideas just get tossed. Some of those will eventually get pulled out and stuck into another file of just random good ideas. Some of them will... are just too bad to even consider.
[Howard] I call that area the boneyard. Because that way when I bring them back from the boneyard, they are like zombies, and if I decide to get rid of them, I'm just burying them. But I don't have to call any of my ideas trash.

[Brandon] The next process I would use would actually be to get out that file of old ideas that were cool but didn't fit into another story. I will look at them point by point and say do any of these apply to this story? What's going on here is something we've talked about on the podcast before, which is where I think that a novel particularly, any story needs more than one good idea.
[Howard] It needs more than one good idea. I go back and I look for characters that I've discarded. Character concepts where I thought... it would be fun to do a character who is a martial artist but will not... is religiously opposed to using weapons, and then put them in an environment where everybody else is using weapons. Just because that's silly. That hasn't shown up in Schlock yet because I haven't found the right place for it. But every time I bring up a new story, that character rears his or her head, and I look and I say this is not where you fit. I've got a set of those dossiers that keep coming up.
[Brandon] Those are all in my... it's actually called cool stuff that needs to be used sometime file. That's the entire name of it. Dan?

[Dan] I have a process similar to Brandon's, but I do a specific thing that I don't know if he does. I've talked about this before. I will start a file and fill it with ideas of cool set pieces. I think I got this, like most of my story idea processes, from a role-playing game. I would just take the idea that I'm working on and say what would be cool? What would be a cool set piece, what would be a cool event, what would be a cool twist, what would be really interesting? Then just brainstorm as many of those as I can.
[Brandon] What haven't I seen before and what fits with this idea?
[Dan] Exactly.

[Brandon] Another thing that I'm doing at this point is I'm getting very goal driven. Let's assume I've done all this brainstorming, I've looked at my other file, this is the point where really the goals need to happen because I cannot build the character and I cannot build the plot until I know where I'm going. With the setting, just lots of cool ideas can get thrown in there and stacked in there. Sure I want them to interweave and those sorts of things. I'll start to say OK, this character is going to be part of this cultural idea, this character is going to be intersecting this way, but I need those goals. I need an ending. Not everyone needs that. It sounds like everyone here at this podcast kind of does that. But, Howard, you sometimes just start writing?
[Howard] I start writing and noodling along, but as I'm doing that, I'm thinking OK, this character has some sort of purpose in mind. Hopefully, two or three strips from now, I'll have figured that out. When I do, I write that down so that I can call back to it in two weeks or a month or two months, and it looks like I've been planning it the whole time.
[Dan] When we were at Worldcon, Brandon and I were on a panel with Jay Lake where we talked about writing. We talked about our process and how Brandon and I both start with the ending and figure out how to get there. Jay absolutely disagreed. He said that would bore me to tears to write that way. He said that he just starts at the beginning, he goes from there, and the ending will be broadcast in the beginning. If it is a coherent story, there will be predictions and ominous warnings or whatever right from the... right off the bat of how it's going to end. He works that way. It's a similar idea to what we do, he just starts at the other end.
[Howard] He just does it in a straight line. That's very similar to what I'm doing in that as I write things, I look at them and say or ask myself, have I just made a promise to the reader? Have I promised... by saying this, that something dire is going to happen along these lines or something wonderful is going to happen along these lines or in some way closure has to happen with regard to this little punch line that I threw out three strips into the story? Those are the things that I muse on, and hopefully I fulfill all those promises when I get to the end.
[Brandon] What you're doing... because of the way you're having to do it... you are like a juggler who's tossing the balls really high up into the air as you're juggling the other ones, and you're just hoping that a hand will be free to grab that ball when it comes back down. You're really good at juggling, so most of the time you do.
[Howard] When I drop balls, I wink at the audience and say, "I meant to drop that one."

[Brandon] We're out of time. But let's go ahead and give you the writing prompt which is the same idea that we used at the beginning.
[Howard] Insects have in some way evolved defenses against all of the poisons that we use to kill them and many of the chemicals that would work to just kill anything because they have somehow developed magic.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: boundaries, brainstorming, characters, conflicts, ending, ideas, plot, process, setting, story

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