Thursday, April 9, 2015

How to turn an IDEA into a novel

Another PRACTICAL post this week about what to do if you have an idea, but can't turn it into a storyline. This dilema faces all writers at some point. 
Okay, we have a potential source of ideas – everything! Reading outside our comfort zones helps stimulate our minds and you could easily find apparently disconnected seeds growing together to form a huge tree. 

But, what if you can’t see how to turn that idea into a story? What then?

As I’ve mentioned a few thousand times, I have been professionally trained in problem-solving. There a particular technique that I’ve often applied to my writing, which I am going to share with you now. This trick is not just for turning a germ of an idea into a potential storyline, it also works wonders when you are ‘stuck’ at a particular point in your tale and can’t see the way forward. When I was taught this, I was told it was called the ‘Word Analysis’ technique – call it whatever you will – labels are unimportant as long as something works. Remember my Sensei? “Use what is useful, throw the rest away". 

The guy who taught me this particular technique used to say that 90% of all solutions resides in the correct definition of the problem. The way it works is this: take a blank sheet of paper and describe you problem. Let’s work through an example to make this crystal clear – it does sound complex at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it and find yourself applying the technique in your head while driving the kids to school, walking the dog, snail-wrangling in Peru...

Definition of problem: X is allowed to walk free from a courtroom after having murdered someone, been caught, tried before a Judge, and found guilty. [This is our idea - if you have read 'Outsourced' you may recognize where the opening chapter originated.]

Sounds like a good premise for a John Grisham-type novel, right? Only problem, you can’t figure out how to turn the idea into a novel.

Before continuing, spend five minutes thinking about the idea – note down what you can come up with, then carry on reading. Some visual food for thought on the left.


 Now let’s apply the technique:

Step one: Question your basic assumptions

Did X really murder the victim? How was X caught? What evidence was available? How was X convicted? What would make a Judge release a convicted murderer? Would the Police agree to the release? And the Prosecuting Counsel? Is X the only person being allowed to walk? Is this something the Judge has done before?

Already you will notice two things – none of the questions are ‘What if?’ and your mind is already filling in some of the answers.

Step two: Go back to the definition and read the language you used. Consider the key words themselves and come up with alternatives, if these exist.

Key words here could be walk, courtroom, free, allowed, murdered, caught, trial (tried) and judge.

We said ‘walk free from the courtroom’ – nicely dramatic, would make a good opening scene perhaps. But how ‘free’ is X? Is he (I’ll use ‘he’ just to make reading this easier) on a leash of some sort? Is he free as long as he does something else – for the police, the Prosecutor or the Judge? Or is it bigger? Does he have to do something for the country or Mankind?

Now we have much more grist for the mill. The genre we have chosen to use will also suggest options. Suppose it’s Sci-fi, then X’s penance for freedom could have something to do with defeating an invading population of aliens by becoming infected with a deadly virus strain and transporting himself to their home planet.

Maybe it’s just straight thriller material: could X’s accomplices have the Judge’s family under wraps? Are the cops in on this too? Does the Judge secretly want someone else killed and by freeing this person, someone he knows is a killer, on a technicality, he can subsequently use X against his own target.

And so on…

By using alternative words for our key words, even more options emerge:

Walk – alternatives: carried, flee, kidnapped, escape.

Step three: Look for connection in the key words

Was this the Judge who convicted X or was it someone else and this is the appeal? What could happen to nullify the evidence against X? Was the trial and subsequent conviction legitimate, or is this Judge running their own private courtroom because they are a vigilante of sorts?

Step four: Now ask WHY?

This will highlight motivation and provide a solid basis for the story to evolve.

You see just how quickly we have progressed from having a problem to having a surfeit of possible solutions?

It’s a technique that usually works…

Until it doesn’t.

Sometimes you may need something else to get you jump-started, so the following should also prove useful:

Ask the Why question 7 times.

Why was X freed?
Why did the cops allow this?
Why did the Prosecuting Counsel allow this?
Why did X leave the courtroom and not the prison?
Why did…

You may not find 7 Why’s but it will get you thinking.


Look for humor in the situation.

Don’t worry about the genre you wish to use for now; is this in any way funny? Has X eaten the evidence in the courtroom, for example? Yes, I know it’s outlandish, but it will get you thinking.


Look at the situation from different viewpoints.

When you wrote the definition, there was an implied ‘this is X’s story’ feel to it. So, how would the cops, Prosecutor, Judge, Defense Counsel, Press, courtroom security guard, public, etc. react? This could be their story.


Best-case/Worst-case scenarios

What is the best and worst that could happen to X, the Judge, the cops, the Prosecutor, the Defense Counsel, the public etc. as a result of this decision? More ideas, right?

Ask someone else.

Not the dog (cat). You may find that a friend, spouse, child, the local barman, whatever, has a fresh opinion that stimulates your thoughts into a new direction. In the case cited, I’d try to find a Police Officer and ask them – they just might have experienced something similar, you never know.


A last word:

When trying to kick-start a novel idea, you need to always assume you have a GOOD idea to start with – only after tearing into it for a few days and not getting anywhere, should you leave it annotated in your notebook for some future time. You will know when your idea is beginning to take shape when you start to see the motivation behind your characters’ actions.




The above was extracted from the chapter on Turning Ideas into Stories in 'How NOT to be an ASPIRING Writer' by yours truly. It's aimed at anyone who's new to this writing business and, using a witty, chatty style, I will walk you through the minefield that is the new publishing paradigm; from how to generate an idea to using Social Media and all the interesting stuff in between.

If you want to lose that 'aspiring' word or simply become better at writing fiction (any genre) then this is for you.
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