The Process of Creation – Concepts – Themes

The last foundation for a “concept” novel is the Theme.

Now, this is going to encompass a larger discussion, because theme isn’t just about how a story starts. It’s an important, if not integral, aspect of virtually every story written.

But let’s address the main point of these articles, theme as the genesis point for a story.

This type of story is all about a message. It could be as simple as “I want to write a book about good versus evil and how good always wins through perseverance.” On the other hand, it might be as obscure as, “I’m going to write a story about how it’s important to have a balanced diet.”

In the end, what is most important to the author starting this way is that their message is conveyed and in the light they want. I mean, it’s a pretty epic failure if the author wants to tell how good triumphs over evil and all the readers walk away thinking they should join the dark side.

I have to say, I think this is the hardest way to start a story. I mean, we were all challenged to write a short story this way in school (well, maybe not everyone, but I was) and it was painful! Why? Well, let’s look at where we’ve been previously;

The Character start gave us an engaging and interesting character to ask questions of and to find out about their story from.

The World Concept gave us a world to explore. I mean, there’s tons of stories in a whole world, it’s just finding them.

Even the Scene Concept gave us something. We had a smattering of character and world, so there was some foothold.

But this? Who do we talk to? I mean, do you notice how in every story start I get around to the point of us asking questions? Ages ago, I wrote a post here, and you know what I had discovered? The most important question is Why?

What do you ask a theme other than ‘what am I going to write’?

To my way of writing, there isn’t a strong enough anchor to really get started.

Yet I said earlier that theme was important, integral even.

Yes, yes I did.

See, when you meet a character, you try to get to know them. You interview them, have some coffee. You look for the part of their life that is an interesting story. Very often, the part of their life that gives you your story does so because there’s a theme or lesson in it. In the end, there’s a point.

Take a look at my articles on the Hero’s Journey. You could jam pack those full of themes, but the one that holds throughout every iteration of the Hero’s Journey is personal development. The Hero’s Journey, at its core, is about growth. Can we have a journey tale without the hero growing? I suppose you could try, but I promise you it will feel empty and will leave your audience feeling cold.

That’s why we gravitate toward the Hero’s Journey, because we all share the same theme. Every person grows and develops. Whether the hero is navigating the difficulties of high school or first romance, we’ve been there. Heck, even the hero fighting monsters to protect his family can be related to. Unless you don’t care about your family. Ummm, ok, awkward….

In many ways, theme is a naturally occurring entity in writing. Even if we don’t initially set out to tell one, it almost always finds its way in. The question is, and why this type of concept story exists, how much do you want to control your reader’s perception of the theme?

Maybe you just want to write an epic Hero’s Journey. Great, go for it. There will be a theme. But what if you want to put something else in there?

Let’s look at Harry Potter.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Harry follows a Hero’s Journey. When we meet him, he is in an ordinary world. He plunges into the other world and has to triumph over evil in order to free both the ordinary world and the other world that he has grown to love. We watch Harry grow and mature. We follow him through his awkward tween years to the point where at the end, we meet him as a man. We see his rebellion, his first attempts at love, his gain, loss, and gain of family and friends.

Harry Potter is a hero that exemplifies the theme of personal growth. But there’s so much else.

How does Harry win? Time and again, it’s because of his friends. So the themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty and so much more get packed in there.

Does JK Rowling want you to know she values the theme of friendship? I’d have to say yes. I mean, it’s all over the place. She has carefully crafted characters for Harry to be friends with. She’s made them integral to his life and success.

So as you write your story, or more so, when you edit your story, you need to think about what messages are coming across. Are they intentional? Are they the messages you want to deliver?

Theme, as far as I’m concerned, is a lousy way to start a story. But in the end, it will make or break your story. Tricky little devil.

The Process of Creation – Concepts – Scenes

In this, my third article about the genesis of stories, I’m talking about a Concept related start that links between the World Concept, and starting with Characters. That is the Scene Concept.

Ever had a dream that you couldn’t shake? One where you watched something unfold between one or more people you didn’t know, but felt oddly drawn to? Or maybe you were listening to some music and an image popped into your head? All of these flashes of inspiration are usual sources for Scene Concepts. It might even be something you overheard at another table in a restaurant.

The fact is, we are constantly surrounded by potential scenes or interesting moments. The question is, do we see them?

While I wish I could impart some kind of wisdom in regards to how to recognize these moments, for now take comfort that it’s probably best to just wait and stick with the ones that hit you in the gut.

I do highly recommend you keep writing utensils near your bed. I’ve had more than one idea come to me in dreams.

But I digress…

I said at the start the Scene Concept is a bridge between the World Concept and the Character inspired story. Why? Because a scene gives us bits of both things. A scene can suggest rules and a world, but not to the extent of a World Concept. It also gives some characters and maybe a little of who they are, but nowhere near the fully fleshed Characters that become the basis of a story on their own.

Has anyone even done this? Sure. One of the most famous examples is the author of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer. She stated that Twilight originated as a dream she had of Bella and Edward lying in a field. At the time, she didn’t know their names, she didn’t know he was a vampire, and she didn’t know why they were in the field. But the scene was so strong in her mind, she plotted out the entire first book based on what brought them to that scene and what happened afterward.

Even if this type of inspiration hasn’t driven you to start a story, chances are it has driven you to the keyboard while your story has been in progress.

I’ve never found a scene inspired an entire story with me, but while I’ve been working on a story a scene I’ve thought of helps to drive the story forward, or maybe changes the nature of the story I was telling. Scenes are the building blocks of tales, and it’s not overly surprising that they could inspire an entire story.

Pitfalls? Same as the previous two, but deadlier because it suffers from the potential of both problems; thin plot and thin characters.

In the same way that being inspired by a scene can give you samples of the previous two inspiration types, it doesn’t flesh either out as strong. So it’s possible that both your plot and characters will suffer.

How do you avoid that?

Well, you have a bit of work ahead of you. The author who has a character needs to get to know that character to try and find the story. The author who has a World concept needs to find their story in that world.

If your inspiration is a scene, you need to find out both. Who are the people in your scene? Why are they there? What kind of world is this? And so on.

While having an inspiration for a scene set in a world I’ve already created, with characters I already know, is an exciting event, having it as the sole thing to go on for a story feels thin.

What do you think? Every had a story born from a single scene?

The Process of Creation – Here’s a Concept

I’m looking at how stories begin. Where do they come from? What compels a person to dedicate so much of their time to put words in order, just to tell a story?

In my post on Starting with Characters, I talked about how some authors start with an interesting character.

Today, I’m going to discuss the type of inspiration that always drives me to the keyboard; Concepts.

To save you all from eye-strain, I’ll be breaking this into three separate posts because there’s three types of concepts that lead to a story. The three concept related topics are;

  1. The World Concept
  2. The Scene Concept
  3. The Thematic Concept

Concept vs. Idea

I had mentioned the notion of concept versus idea in my post on Writing Like it’s Chess. However, if you don’t feel like clicking on the link, here’s the quick version;

  • A Concept is a vague notion – ie. A world ruled by evil dragons.
  • An Idea is a definitive shape that sounds more like a short synopsis.

For the purpose of these articles, I’m talking strictly about Concepts. These vague notions that will only become a story after a great deal of poking and prodding (we’ll talk about poking & prodding later).

The World Concept

The World Concept is much like what I used for my example above. It usually comes from thinking of worlds that don’t exist, or about unique and interesting ways to view our own world.

Strip all the story out of Harry Potter, what do you have? Imagine a world where magic exists alongside of us, but normal people are ignorant of it. Cool idea. Not overly original, but cool nonetheless. But it’s not a story. Instead, it is the beginning of an interesting world where a story will take place.

However, that can often be enough to drive someone to the keyboard.

Be aware, I also lump the “People with amazing abilities” type of concept into the World Concept because, after all, the world they live in would be different.

Starting with a World Concept, in my opinion, is the fastest way to story (in terms of the Concept category). Because a world already begins to give rules, and because of the rules of that world, the nature of its people begins to become apparent as well.

Take the example of the world ruled by evil dragons. Some rules have been established, such as, mythical creatures can exist in this world. If mythical creatures exist, it’s possible magic does too. Chances are the physics of this world are similar to our own, but it is likely at Medieval tech level at most (unlikely dragons would allow the scientific discoveries we’ve made). Humans in this world are probably of two types; those who cower in fear & serve and those who are filled with outrage and are always on the lookout for a way to rebel.

That took me 45 seconds to come up with. Sure, it’s not a story yet, but because the world and the people in it are taking shape, it’s not too hard to find the story. Will it be about those who are rebellious? Will it be about a character who currently cowers, but due to some event, rises to lead the rebellion? Or will it be about one of the dragons? This could go on for a while.

What’s the weakness here? In my experience, Characters.

Just like I cautioned that a strong & dominant character might overshadow their story, an overwhelming concept could cause characters to be shallow and act as nothing but standard archetypes.

Fact is, when you start with an amazing concept, it can blind you to the “human” side of the story. Who does a reader relate to? Who is the hero here? Is the author so preoccupied with their own concept that the story meanders and feels stagnant?

Been there, done that. Which is exactly why I throw it out there as something to look out for.

Just as in the Character inspired story where you need your story to meet your character, in the World Concept story you need characters who are just as interesting and compelling as the world they live in. Otherwise no one will care. Not to mention that the story will feel like a series of cliches.

Next article will focus on a closely related Concept, that of the Scene.

The Process of Creation – First Came the Character

How do you start a work of fiction? What is the initial spark that lights the fire?

In these series of articles, I’m going to be looking at what starts the ball rolling. This isn’t about the first line or paragraph, this is about what made you want to start writing your story in the first place. Today’s focus is on Character.

The lady with the big gun is named Black Rock Shooter. She was first an illustration that was posted by Japanese illustrator Huke on his website and the illustrator website Pixiv on December 26, 2007. At that time, she was nothing more than an image of a character.

Soon after, Ryo of JPop group Supercell caught a glimpse of the character and was so inspired that he wrote a song about her. The band had Huke do drawings & animations for the music video.

The video was released on the web and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. It was so popular that soon a 50 minute anime was produced, which of course spawned countless figures, posters, etc.

So what’s the point?

The point here is that a story, and an entire marketing franchise, launched because of one thing; a cool looking character.

JK Rowling has often said that the character of Harry Potter just popped right into her head. The kind of boy he was, the scar, the boy he would become, all of it, BAM, into her head like a lightening shot.

In these cases, and many more like them, an author had a character in mind but no story to use that character in. The story was eventually born from poking and prodding the character to learn more about them.

Some writers compare this to an interview process. In fact, some literally have interview questions that they write and fill out by asking their character.

From the answers that they receive, the author begins to build a story. From the character they learn who their friends are, what kind of family they have, what scares them, what makes them happy. If the character has some sort of defining physical trait, the author probes deeper into it. Like, gee Harry, why do you have that scar?

Admittedly, I’ve never written anything this way. I’m more a concept person.

The potential for strengths I see in this are probably clear. First of all, most readers are hooked by a compelling and fully fleshed out character. That’s likely to happen when the whole story has been crafted around a character so compelling that the author had to write their tale.

Is there a downside? I can only think of one; a thin plot.

Reading the synopsis of the Black Rock Shooter anime, it’s pretty clear that either it was meant as a tease for future projects, or the story was only half conceived (when I’ve actually watched it, I’ll let you know my full opinion).

What it all boils down to is the author’s intent. Is the story beautiful & wonderful because of its character, or is there an amazing story that has an equally awesome character? I mean, would anyone argue that Harry Potter’s plot was thin and lacked intricacy?

In the case of Harry, I think what truly saved him wasn’t just the world he revealed to his author, but that it was populated with characters just as interesting and compelling as Harry himself. And that’s where careful steps need to be taken. A story usually involves several characters. If only one is formed in your head, there’s probably going to be issues.

What do you guys think? Are there liabilities to writing based on a character as opposed to writing based on a concept that you then populate with characters (that approach will be post 2)?

Writing like it’s a game of Chess

In the writing community there is often a question of whether you are one of two types of writer; a Plotter or a Pantser.

Both are self-explanatory.

  • The Plotter – Spends a significant amount of time planning before writing anything that can truly be considered “the story.” Instead, they lay groundwork first. Usually a Plotter will have a rough outline of every chapter, a character worksheet for every major character (as well as some less significant) and will know exactly what the themes of their story will be.
  • The Pantser – Is the antithesis of the Plotter. They start with the vaguest of ideas and run with it, hoping that as the story is written it will find it’s way to perfection.

If I had to assign myself a category, I would fall more into the Pantser vicinity. Truthfully though, that isn’t exactly how I write. What has worked for me is a combination of the two. We could call this a Balanced Approach or something, but the other day the truest analogy came to me – Chess.

First, I want to get something out of the way. That is my definition of Idea and Concept. I apologise if what I’m about to say differs from the rest of the world, but know that anytime I mention these two things on my blog, this is what I mean.

  • Idea – Is something tangible and sounds like the beginning of a synopsis ie. A boy and his dog go fishing. While they are fishing, the boy is kidnapped by robbers fleeing from authorities. The dog is instrumental in helping to track down his beloved master. We have a clear idea of our story and where it is going to go. There’s very little in the way of detail, but we have a launching point. At this time, we could even begin to infer the themes of the story – friendship, loyalty etc.
  • Concept – This is a simple notion that could lead to an idea. ie. A world populated by evil dragons. This is just a concept. There’s no story here. With a concept we need to ask more questions and prod deeper in order to turn the concept into an Idea.

Why define those off the hop? Because the Chess analogy (and process of writing) only works if you have an Idea. Sorry Pantsers, but a mere concept needs a touch more planning.

So let’s get to it. Chess? Yup.

When you sit down to a game of chess, you have an idea of what to do; you know the rules, the way each piece moves and you know the ultimate goals – protect your king while taking your opponent’s. What you don’t know at the start of the game is how it will proceed. Your opponent throws in an element of the unknown. Sure, you may have read books on classic chess openings and counters, but until the moves start playing out, you don’t know what you’re going to use and how.

Starting a book if you’re a chess writer (for fun I’m going to call them Chessters) is much the same. You have an Idea and you have some knowledge of how a story is structured. You also know that your ultimate goal is to type “The End.” In this way, you’re much like the Chess player. You have tools and some idea of where things are going to go, but there is still an element of the unknown. The chess player has his opponent, you have the story itself.

See, in the heat of a chess game, you start thinking a couple of moves ahead. You start to lay the groundwork for your success. However, you also remain flexible because your opponent may do something unexpected.

Writing as a Chesster is the same. You plan a couple scenes ahead, based on where you are. Not more than three or four. With each passing scene you write, you add another scene to your advance plan. This way, if you strike a chord while writing that will change everything you’ve planned ahead, you’re really only trashing a handful of scenes, not a whole book.

Now you might be thinking this still sounds kind of like you’re still flying by the seat of your pants. But that’s where you’re wrong. Writing this way still means some planning. It’s just that the planning takes place during, and in response to, the writing itself.

Another way to think of it is this;

  • A Planner takes a trip. They have a map with their entire route planned from point A-Z with rest stops clearly marked.
  • A Pantser takes a trip. They have no map, just a notion they want to go somewhere, and they hope there’ll be signs along the way and they’ll make those turns when they see the sign.
  • A Chesster takes a trip. They have an idea of where they want to go. But instead of planning the whole journey, they plan to their first rest stop. Once there, they crack out the map and consider where their next stop will be. But wait, they passed a Taco Bell on the way to this first stop and now that they’re hungry, they want Mexican. How can they get to a Mexican restaurant in the next leg of the trip. Once that’s figured out, they get into the car and get under way.

Writing this way allows me to be spontaneous and surprised by where my story takes me. On the other hand, because I’ve always planned a few steps ahead, I don’t feel like I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s a compromise, one I’ve come to find works very well for me.

This is how I write and because I plan too much to be a pantser but not enough to be a planner, this is the analogy I’ve come up with. Feel free to use it, or come up with your own.

The Hero’s Journey Part 10 – The Road Back

Our hero has crossed two major thresholds so far.  The first brought him to the other world.  The second delivered him to his ordeal.  Now, he needs to cross a third.

After the ordeal, our hero seized his reward and felt pretty good about himself.  He celebrated, became a man, found love, recounted his amazing tale to the delight of his companions and generally let himself forget that maybe, just perhaps, he wasn’t finished yet.  The third threshold that needs to be crossed here is rededicating oneself to the quest.  What our hero has endured might be believed by no one when he returns home, he might be called a liar or never have his accomplishments fully appreciated, but he set out on this course to accomplish something.  Perhaps the village is starving, or a magical illness is running its course.  The hero has the cure for what ailed his ordinary world, and now he must return with it.

So what makes this interesting?  How does this fill an entire third act of a film?  Well, if the road to hell is a downward slope, the road back is an upward climb.

Our hero’s decision to return to the ordinary world could be made for him by a vengeful force rising from the ashes of the ordeal.  Our hero might start on the road back at a healthy run, with evil in fast pursuit.

Much of what puts our hero on the road back is going to relate to a) Why he started the quest or b) How he obtained his treasure after the ordeal.

If the hero started his quest to save his ordinary world, he will take the road back because that is part of the quest.

If the hero had to steal his end goal (an elixir or treasure) chances are he needs to get back to the safety of his ordinary world to avoid the owner of said item.

Here’s some events that might kick off the road back stage.

  • The villain appears to avenge his main henchman
  • The villain was only faking death and reveals he is much stronger than thought
  • The “elixir” is stolen from the hero
  • The hero’s love interest (or loved one in general) is kidnapped
  • The owner of the “elixir” returns to take it from the hero
  • The hero receives word conditions in his ordinary world are worsening

If any single image sticks in your head about this stage, it should be of a chase.  The celebration after the ordeal has caused a lull in the action of our story and the road back hits the ground and throws evil at our backs so we get running.

Next, our hero receives a symbolic, or maybe literal, resurrection.

The Hero’s Journey Part 8 – The Ordeal

Our hero has been through a lot.  Now, he faces the greatest and darkest of moments, The Ordeal.

The ordeal is about change.  When this is over, our hero will never be the same.  Often, the ordeal results in a symbolic death for our hero who is then reborn. Once the rebirth has occurred, he will begin the long journey home.

The ordeal should not be confused with being the climax of the story.  Instead, it is the mid point.  All roads travelled thus far have lead to this point, and all roads away will be forever altered because of it.

Consider the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon.  The ordeal occurs when Hiccup first rides Toothless high into the sky and becomes separated from the dragon.  The two plummet toward the earth, their doom certain.  At the last moment, Hiccup grabs hold of Toothless and the two are in perfect sync, performing maneuvers impossible to this point.  The fireball Toothless shoots backfires and singes Hiccup.  This is symbolic of all his old fears and misconceptions being burned away.  After this point, he truly realises that the vikings are wrong about the dragons and he needs to show them.

Speaking of near midpoint ordeals, consider Harry Potter’s experiences at the end of Goblet of Fire.  He literally goes to a realm of death, is witness to the physical death of a classmate, and then conjures the spirits of the dead in order to flee.  From this point, Harry is changed.  So too are the books.  Both Harry and the audience know that nothing will ever be the same.  The horror of the possible consequences if Harry fails in his quest are far more clear.

The ordeal can take several forms as to the type of “death and rebirth”

  • The hero can face the main villain and nearly lose his life – the villain may live or die
  • The hero might face the main henchman of the villain, saving the villain for the final act
  • The hero might face a great fear and have to conquer it
  • The hero will have to face up to a parental figure
  • The hero will have to let some of his ego or pride go
  • The hero will have to learn how to work with others
  • The hero will give himself completely to a relationship

These are only a few permutations.  The simple fact is, the ordeal transforms the hero.  That transformation will inform every decision that he makes from this point forward.  Remember, while it seems we’ve come a long way, this isn’t the climax, we’re only halfway to the end.

Next, we finally cut our hero a break and he gets a Reward.  Have no fear, it’ll get sucky for him again before it’s all over!