A story can’t just be about a cool idea. It has to be about the implications of the cool idea — what does it mean, who does it affect, and how? Many writers talk about how ideas are cheap — ideas are the easy part. (Though a talent for coming up with truly wacky, out-there ideas that no one has ever seen before is a treasure. A person with this talent must still find ways to express such ideas in a way that interests other people.) I think this is true. I have notebooks filled with ideas — scrawled notes, a paragraph or two of description, a character sketch that must have seemed marvelous when I wrote it down. But without a story to hang the idea on? It stays in the notebook.
How to do that? How to take that strange, funny idea, big or small — What if my dog could talk? What if everyone under the age of ten suddenly vanished? — and turn it into a story? Not just a story, but a story that other people want to read? (I’ve started telling myself that writing is easy. It’s writing things that other people want to read that’s the hard part. It’s the difference between being a hobbyist and being a professional. If I want to be a professional, I can’t forget about my audience.)
When I’m turning an idea into a story, I try to find the character: who would be most affected by this story? In the idea above — what if everyone under the age of ten vanished — the obvious choice is the mother of one of these vanished children. But what if I didn’t take the obvious route? What if I chose a father as my main character? Or the childless local police detective who’s set on the case? Oh, doesn’t that feel fraught? And that’s how the story grows. I start with a limitless number of paths leading away from the idea, and I travel down the one that rings a little crystal bell in my brain that says this is the one, this is the story I want to tell.
The story is about that childless police detective who suddenly finds herself living in a childless world. Of course she must discover what happened to the children, and as the writer I must make decisions about what happened to the children, how they return, or if they return. And there’s another crystal bell: maybe the children don’t return. The story takes place ten years later, and the mystery has never been solved. New children have been born, but there’s an entire generation — now aged ten to twenty — missing. Junior high and high schools lay silent. Colleges are faced with a decade of empty dorm rooms. What will Texas do without high school football? And so on. Maybe that’s the story: have people picked up and moved on? Is the detective still working on the case? How does she move through this world with no teenagers? Now my story isn’t about the idea, it’s about my character: what does she want? How does she grow and change? What conflict is she dealing with? How does that conflict resolve? Maybe she solves the mystery of the lost children — but it doesn’t resolve her personal conflicts the way she thought it would. Maybe she doesn’t solve the mystery, but finds an unexpected peace despite this. I’ll probably need another plot twist — someone from a federal agency she’s been working with or against, an external disaster that prompts my character to action.
At this point, I start to encounter what the story is really about: coping with loss, with an unsolved mystery, with survivor’s guilt, with failure. I need to start thinking of the scenes that will best show all this, and draw the reader into this rather horrifying world. Maybe the original story starts to change — maybe it’s only children five and younger who vanish. Maybe that would best illustrate the story I want to tell. Or maybe I should make it worse — children under fifteen. Maybe I need two main characters — one who lost a child and one who didn’t — to best illustrate themes I want to portray.
In the course of writing, I’ll circle back to the idea again and again. Both the story and the idea will evolve. By the time I’m done, the original idea that started the whole thing will most likely be invisible, because the heart of the story — my characters and how they deal with loss and a changed world — will be the real reason people want to read it.