Developing Ideas: Clarifying the Idea

[This is round two of the “Developing Ideas” series. The last round, as documented in the last few posts, dwindled and failed. Spoiler alert—this round does too. Yet there are a few tidbits of interest here, and I tried for a more “personal” tone, so I’m going to post it for posterity’s sake. But be warned: it doesn’t end well…]

“The idea” may come from anywhere—a single flash or multiple strands. It may come in the form of a story, a series of scenes, and require little development before it’s ready to write. Or it might be as vague and unhelpful as a single static image.

So the first step is to clarify the idea and find its central purpose.

My idea came from several strands that developed and intertwined over time—a throwaway line from a movie commentary, a world idea after a weekend Lord of the Rings marathon and a J.K. Rowling documentary, my answer to a logical gap in a show I was watching, and the influence of various works that I wanted to emulate or change.

If you have read really any of this blog, you’ll know that I have lots of ideas and nowhere to go with them. There is nothing telling me that this particular idea is better or more likely to succeed than the others; in fact, it’s pretty stupid and cliché and might completely suck. But it’s the idea that I think is most in line with what I actually want to write (and read), it might be ridiculously fun, and it isn’t a direct copy of anything that I know of, so I’m going with it.

Once I have a vague sense of the idea, I have to clarify it. I have a setting, an idea for a cool occupation, and a main character that I have worked with before and want to finally bring to life. But very little sense of any specific plot, and thus no sense of the story.

For a very long time, I thought successful ideas were all about various “meta” elements, like a cool setting, or wish fulfillment, or a good pitch. Those can all contribute to the success of an idea, but the more I read about writing and thought about what makes successful works really connect with an audience, I realized it was all about the characters and the story of those characters. Everything else is just the frills and bonuses.

Since I already have a main character in mind, with a background and a personality that would fit the idea, I just have to figure out what she wants—and how that will drive the story. A character’s goal and her agency in achieving that goal can tell the story for you… but too often I’ve made the mistake of having things happen to the protagonist beyond her control. That’s okay for an inciting incident to get things going, but depending on what the incident is, sometimes it leaves the character’s goal muddled.

For example, and this is a particular problem I’ve had over and over again, say you have a typical normal character and then you throw the magical world at them. Fun, right? And proven to be successful (perhaps a little too proven, in that everyone and their cousin have done it). But throwing the magical world at them means they aren’t going after it, since they don’t know about it, and thus their goal is about reacting to that—but how do you frame that reaction? A negative reaction, wishing to escape or get rid of whatever happened to them, is better for driving action but isn’t as fun and, for the fantasy fan, can feel disingenuous to how we would react to magic. A positive reaction, while more realistic in a sense (depending on what actually happens), is a dead-end for a story if what happened to them is over; once they’re transformed, they’re not going back. And I’ve tried having goals of “keeping” the transformation, but they still fall flat, usually because it’s an amorphous and not too concrete or active goal.

Usually, the way to solve this is to have a villain show up who threatens the main character in this new magical world, and then the goal is to survive. While it works as a logical goal, “survival” of a threat can often become passive, especially because the main character often doesn’t know enough about the magical world to do anything more than let other people protect them. And trying to motivate the main character to go after the villain requires giving them a reason to do so, because otherwise it feels forced to have them spring into action. This is where Harry Potter’s dead parents build seamlessly into the motivation of the story and avoid some of the problems I’m describing; however, the dead or mysterious parents trick has now been done to death (ha…).

These are problems I’ve faced numerous times before, and I still haven’t solved them. A better writer than me definitely could, but I can’t. So my current idea avoids this problem by having the main character already in the magical world. The problem is that she did come from the normal world in the backstory, which is fine except that it means she has no personal connections to others in the magical world to draw on for conflict. I have to work entirely with her present motivations.

But I’m grounding those present motivations in internal backstory, using her (normal) history to create personality “issues” that will drive her. Now, this gives me a very vague and emotion-based goal that won’t really create a story (for example, needing to “be loved” or “prove herself”), but once I give those vague goals a specific outlet (such as “accomplish this difficult mission and keep your job”), they will enhance the character’s connection to the goal and thus deepen her motivation. Otherwise, just giving her a goal of “do your job well” feels flat and empty. It also seems like something that won’t keep her motivated when things get rough; why wouldn’t she just walk away?

I’ll have to keep adding reasons in the story as to why she cares so much about this job and this present situation she’s in, since I can’t rely on backstory and personal connections (she hasn’t dreamed of this job since she was little, for example… or maybe… hmm). This can still be a really effective technique, and I turn to the master for an example—in Harry Potter, we fall in love with Hogwarts not just because Harry’s parents went there, but because we see how fun and amazing it is in the story itself, and so when it’s threatened, we feel it. Harry didn’t dream of Hogwarts from childhood, but we are totally in sync with him when he wants to be there and wants to defend it.

So I have my protagonist, and I have her internal goal, and now I need to figure out a way to manifest that goal into a specific story (or, another way to look at it, a more specific goal).

And that’s where we head next.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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