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Do You Have a Story Concept, or Just a Cool Idea?

Photo by Theo Crazzolara.

I do a lot of brainstorming with writing clients. (At the risk of sounding immodest, I am a champion brainstormer. If there were an Olympic event, I would medal. I adore brainstorming.)

Let’s say I have two clients, who have both emailed me that they want help with their next projects.

The first says:

“My next book is going to be about a girl who was cloned from a holy relic.”

The other client says:

“My next book is going to be about a woman who contacts her college ex, who is now a powerful attorney, for his help because she’s being framed for murder… only he’s starting to think she might somehow be involved, and that she’s developed this Count of Monte Cristo plan to get revenge on him.”

Now, if you look at both of these statements, you’ll see that there’s a fatal flaw in the first one. It’s not a story premise. It’s just a cool idea.

People pop up with cool ideas constantly. (If you’ve ever been approached by a non-writer at a party or family function, they often say: “I have this cool idea for a book – you write it, and we’ll split the profits!” As the idea spews forth, we usually realize that one, it’s not a cool idea – and it’s really not a story. And two, there’s no way in hell you’re going to write this.)

But a cool idea is just a wisp of a concept. It’s not even the seed of a story. It can involve an intriguing character: a hitman who quits and becomes a KonMari Organizer.  It can involve a compelling setting:  an ensemble story about people who all live in a farm cult in Wyoming who believe in UFOs.  It can involve a twist: a woman who discovers our mirror reflections are actually real and different people. 

These all may have interesting elements. (Personally, I want to find out about a hitman who helps people “spark joy” and whose experience with cleaners probably has a different context.)  But they’re not actual story ideas.  They don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s like saying you want to build a house, and when pressed for a blueprint, you say “it will have stained glass windows!”  That’s a nice detail. Love me some stained glass. But what is holding the house up?

The first statement tells us about an interesting character or set up: a girl cloned from a holy relic. But it doesn’t give us pertinent details about her. We don’t know what is happening in the story, or why we should care.  The interesting bit is the cloning and the holy relic.  The girl is cardboard: she could be anybody.

The second statement talks about two characters: a woman framed for murder, and the college ex she’s asking for help. There are obvious goals: they’re trying to prevent the woman from going to jail for murder. The stakes are obviously high – going to jail for murder is hardly something you can brush off.  But the conflict is the college ex can’t trust her, and suspects that she might have something more nefarious planned.

There are obviously things missing. We need to know why the college ex can’t simply walk away from the case.  We need to know why the woman might be setting this guy up (and why she’s being framed for murder.)  But the second statement is much closer to being a story concept than a cool idea.

What does it take to create a story concept?

Basically, a story concept (for genre fiction) has three elements:

  1. At least one character that is actively pursuing a goal.  The first statement, the cloned girl, has a character, but we don’t know what the goal is.  She’s a clone. So what?  Is the child trying to find her maker? Is she trying to harness mystical gifts or something? Is she trying to “be normal?” (Note: that’s a squishy goal. What’s “normal” anyway? How can you judge when it’s accomplished? A strong goal is one where you can tick a box saying it’s clearly been taken care of.)
  2. Urgent motivation for said goal. Taking the cloned girl again – let’s say she’s just turned thirteen and she’s suddenly got a stigmata and is able to walk across her swimming pool. (That would be the inciting incident, for those of you keeping score, plot-wise.) There’s a shadowy organization that’s trying to kidnap her.  If her goal was to find her maker, the motivation could be to stop the shadowy organization before they dissect her. Fairly decent stakes.
  3. Obvious and escalating conflict for the goal. If it was easy for the cloned girl to find her maker – surprise, he lives right next door and he automatically protects her – then that would be a poor goal.  It wouldn’t be much of a story, either.

Once you have those three elements, you’ve got the foundation to build a story upon.  Rather than a cool idea, you’ve got something with substance.

What if you’ve just got a cool idea?

We all start with little nodules of story.  Very few writers come up with a story concept fully formed right from the jump. You can always let the cool ideas percolate until you’ve got more details. If you’re short on time or really stuck, then you can brainstorm with the previous three elements in mind: who is this story about, what do they want (and why do they want it), and what’s in the way?

For non-plotting types, exploratory draft is usually the best way to dig out these three elements, but I have found it’s easier to keep them in mind as you’re trying to ferret your way to the heart of the story. And if you find yourself flailing around in tens of thousands of words of draft, without those three elements, then you might want to reevaluate whether you’re still just playing with a cool idea, or building a solid story.

Interested in playing a little?  Try taking one of the cool ideas – KonMari Hitman, UFO cult, or mirror people – and brainstorm the three elements that might make it a solid story concept.  Or you can talk about your own story concept. Let’s see what we can come up with!

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]