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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by I. W. Ferguson. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening song]
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. And with me today is Chris and Oren, and today we’re talking about just what happens when you’ve got that idea for a story, but you just really, aren’t quite sure where to go from there. And you’re like, this is a really good idea, but I need to do something with it. ‘Cause it’s just an idea and I need to develop it into a story.
Oren: I don’t know if me crying for half an hour is going to be good listening. Cause that’s usually what I do in that scenario.
Wes: If that’s therapeutic and it gets results, then go for it.
Chris: This is a surprisingly tough thing. Right? We don’t talk about it a lot. We just assume that somehow—Presto—it happens, but a lot of people really struggle at the very beginning stages when they’re just trying to figure out how to do story from what they already have and what they’re interested in.
Wes: It’s easy to just see why you’d be overwhelmed. It’s like, where do I go? And it also depends on what your story idea is. The idea you’re working with might be a cool worldbuilding element or an idea for a character, or just a plot. And you don’t have any idea what the world or the characters are even going to be like. And so where do you go? How do you do it? Help!
Oren: Well, this one is tough for me as a content editor, because this gets into process advice. Which is not something I normally do because process advice is very different for different people, but the rules of storytelling are nicely universal. And so I don’t have to tailor what the rules of storytelling are to each client, but with process advice, that’s something you kind of have to do sometimes. And that’s why I’m not a writing coach.
Wes: Being a writing coach is tough.
Oren: It is very hard.
Wes: I think a lot of the advice—and this is probably just my own kind of planning brain comes out—will frame a lot of what I want to offer in terms of more planning-oriented writers, but I sure would hope and believe that some of this advice could be taken by pantsers as well.
And I’m hoping that maybe just some of the questions that you could interrogate yourself with might serve a purpose, but then again, you pantsers out there are a beautiful mystery to me. So keep on doing what you’re doing.
Chris: I think it’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of people who are in between.
Oren: Well, my first piece of advice would be to read the article, How To Turn Your Concept Into A Story on Mythcreants.com written by one Chris Winkle. And that has some pretty good advice in it. I’d say that’s about 90% of my ideas came from that post.
Chris: Yeah, I gotta admit, I ripped that post off when making my show notes. Terrible. Huh?
Oren: We’re all just copying from that post.
Wes: You know, some people don’t want to read, they just want to listen. That’s fine. So, you’ve got an idea, maybe, you know, there’s lots of writing devices these days: your phone, a computer, maybe a pen and pencil (gasp). Maybe jot it down real quick, so you don’t forget it. Unless you just have an ironclad memory or you’re like me and you forget literally everything, and so your desk is just covered in paper and then you don’t organize it that well, and then you just suddenly have random papers that might inspire you later, but probably it’s a safe bet that if you do have a story idea, if you have an ability to make it real outside of your brain? That might be a good starting point to develop from.
Chris: I have a document that’s just my ‘story ideas’ document. Whenever I have inspiration I put things down there, and then I try to write down everything I’ve thought of, and if it gets long and becomes its own document then I know, okay, maybe I should go somewhere with this.
Wes: That’s kind of cool.
Oren: And see here we are at the intersection of process advice and, you know, humans, because even though normally I need to write everything down—this is one of the reasons why I do recommendations that are typed out instead of doing a phone interview or a Skype call for my client work—I’ve never found that writing down story ideas as I have them has ever helped me. I’ve done it for a long time. I religiously stuck to it for…I think a year.
And what I discovered was that if there was an idea that I was really passionate about it didn’t matter if I wrote it down or not. And an idea that I wasn’t really passionate about, I could write it down, and whatever, I wrote it down.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this. This is perfectly good advice. It is a very useful thing to try. I’m just pointing out that this is a case of very different people will have different reactions to different process strategies.
Chris: One thing that can be advantageous about writing it down—even if you’re really passionate about it and you might remember—is a lot of times you don’t realize how much stuff you have until you put it down. And you’re like, Oh wow, I made this way more elaborate than I thought it was.
Wes: That’s a good bit too, because you might just have your passing idea that you jot down in one sentence, but I like Chris’s point there about how the blend with the planning and pantsing. You might just start writing and that’s great. Like, Hey, 500 words down. Great. Okay. Let’s go with that from there. But, Oren, in those, did you just find it not valuable for the stories you were more passionate about? You just started writing, or started outlining, instead of—?
Oren: The ones that I actually went on to write about were ones that just kind of stuck with me for awhile. I have a short novel that is currently waiting for me to make some fairly minor edits—so it will probably be waiting approximately a million years—I never wrote that down. The idea for that story was in my head for months. And that was just how it worked out. By then I had given up on the idea of writing down every story idea I had, because it was kind of depressing to me because it gave me this list of stories I was never going to write.
And again, that’s just me, I’m not saying don’t do this. It’s just, that’s how it worked out for me. It’s the same with my short stories, right? The ideas that I had for my short stories, they all kind of formed over a few days and it didn’t really seem to matter if I wrote them down or not.
I just, you know, I had an idea and I don’t know, maybe I was running it in a background process who knows, give me a task manager installed and I’ll point to you where it’s being run.
Wes: I think if we move beyond writing it down, like a good step here to maybe address is maybe you’ve written it down or maybe you’re just, you’ve identified it in your brain. And you’re able to keep it there and focus on it, which is awesome—If you can do that. But I think maybe a good step if you’re dealing with an idea bank—or you’re mulling over an idea—is to maybe just ask yourself why this interests you. I think that that could be a fruitful activity, especially if you do end up having a list of story ideas and you go through and you’re asking yourself what interests you about that idea?
And then suddenly you can’t even remember, maybe just get it off your list and off your plate. So it’s less overwhelming. But I think that’s an important thing to consider is like, ‘I’m interested in this.’ Can I explain why I’m interested in this? Maybe not today, but maybe tomorrow I can or share it with a friend or something like that, but you’re interested in it for a reason. Can you articulate it?
Chris: Yeah. I’m now calling this, ‘finding your darling.’
Wes: I love that Chris. That’s so nice.
Chris: So we talked about the process of centering your darling and you can’t center your darling if you don’t know what it is. And this is to avoid the very common problem that happens in these early stages, where somebody thinks about an idea they really love. And they know that it’s not a story yet because it doesn’t have a conflict, it doesn’t have an arc to it. And then to try to make it into a story, they just graft something on that resembles a story. But it’s not really about the thing that they love.
And then what happens is they continue going forward. And then they, for instance, come to us for content editing and we find that there’s a split in the story where all the parts that are working are the parts that they don’t like, and the parts that they do like feel extraneous. And that’s when it comes time to kill your darling. And it’s too bad because it’s not just making the process less fun for the writer, it’s also lowering the quality of the final work because people do better work when they’re passionate about something.
So the whole first step then is, ‘what is your darling?’ And I think a lot of times in these early stages, just asking questions, sometimes talking to somebody else and having them ask questions about what you like or don’t like about the story can be really helpful.
I talked about, if you write it down, then you can see just how much you’ve developed. And I think a lot of times there is a tendency to accept an idea just because you happened to think of that idea first. Whereas if you find your darling, you can really hone down on what is your darling, and then try to let a lot of that stuff go, because it is so much harder to write a story when you’ve already created all of these details that are limiting your options for making good choices. Whereas if you’re willing to let it go before you become super attached to it, hopefully, then you can focus on that core idea.
Oren: The next thing that I would say, if you are able to find your darling, whatever your darling happens to be, the important thing to do is to create conflict that allows you to center that darling. And sometimes the darling is a conflict. And in that case, you can kind of skip this step. If your darling is a pirate war, that’s already a conflict.
But if your darling is a moon base, it’s like, okay, I really like this moon base and I want to talk about the moon base and how its atmosphere recyclers work and how they keep the really gritty moon dust from getting everywhere. And the effects of being raised in low gravity. I’m really into the, all this stuff. It’s like, all right, I need a conflict that is focused on sabotaging the moon base so that my hero can go around fixing all these things, you know, something like that.
Wes: That’s solid. I mean, your idea is moon base. Great. Okay. Well, why are you attracted to it? Well, it’s, it’s a moon base. It’s cool. It’s on the moon. The gravity is not as strong. And then you get to decide, okay, what elements of my moon base setting do I want to center as a darling? And what elements of the setting would you need to deal with that might be troublesome and you’ve hit that on the head and then you could fill in the blanks of ‘okay, what type of character might inhabit that space? Right? What characters would be all about trying to prevent these catastrophes on the moon base and who might be moved there because they just liked the romantic idea of living on the moon and wanted to enjoy moon aerobics or or all kinds of cool stuff.
Chris: Just to compare a different conflict that probably isn’t as good at centering this moon base, is a space war versus earth. That would give you some opportunity to focus on the moon base? But then a lot of it would be space battles that were not taking place there. Whereas that conflict, the example Oren gave where there’s problems that take place in the moon base that focus on the parts of the moon base that you’re interested in. Right? So we’re not doing like gang warfare on the moon base, we’re talking about the moon base’s infrastructure, because that’s what you’re interested in.
Basically you can make a conflict about anything that you can create significant stakes for. You have to have a problem that matters, but as long as you can do that, Hey, I love the infrastructure of this moon base. Well, it would be a big problem if that infrastructure was breaking down, anything like that. If you can make it matter when there’s a problem, then you can focus your conflict around it.
Oren: And the same thing would work, for example, if you were really into the high court fashion of a specific era of the Austrian nobility. If you wanted to do that, then you would want a story that is about some kind of negotiation, or a mystery, in the Austrian high court in which what people wear is very important because it signifies different things. And that would allow you to focus on clothing in a way that is relevant to the plot so that it doesn’t feel to your audience that you’re just going on for a while about clothes.
Because whenever you pick something, no matter what it is, there will always be some audience who likes that thing as much as you do. And they’ll be along for the ride no matter what, because they really like moon bases or they really like Austrian high fashion, or they really like boats—it’s me, I like boats—but if you want to bring everyone else along for the ride, you have to tie those things into conflict. And then you use the human drama, and now suddenly the measurement of a waistline or the tuck of a collar can make a big difference.
Wes: Okay, so picking up on our moon base and Austro-Hungarian Empire fashion drama—
Oren: Excuse me. The Hungarian portion has not been added yet.
Wes: Oh, sorry.
Oren: This is the early 1800’s Austrian court. Pardon me, sir.
Wes: Pardon me, sir. Let me adjust my vestments properly to show my station.
Okay. So you’ve centered your darlings. You’ve asked yourself questions like, what is it that attracted you to the setting? What conflict would be best in that setting? Then you’re probably thinking about characters, you know, like, why is this character there? What is this character like? And What does this character want? That’s equally important.
And maybe your story idea from the start was about some character wanting to do a thing, but you know, whatever way you come at it, you cannot forget the fact that you’re going to need a main character eventually. And so you might as well consider your premise and decide, all right, Who’s my main character?
And whether you’re coming at that before a throughline or after, it’s still a step that you just are going to have to get to.
Chris: Well, if you already know what your external conflict is, then that gives you a big headstart on the main character, because you need a main character that has those problems. The problems of the conflict are that character’s problems: they’re in a position where it’s their responsibility, or those problems affect them so they have to solve them, and that they have the ability to actually affect the outcome of those problems. They have to be kind of centered in that plot arc.
And that’s a common mistake too, is choosing a character that’s like, ‘the problems are happening to somebody else.’ They’re not in the center of it.
Oren: When it comes to a question of plot or character, you get a lot of people with some very hot takes about this. On Twitter, I swear after the Game of Thrones finale, everyone had a hot take about how this is what happens when you do your plot first. And you should always do characters first, because otherwise you’ll end up like Game of Thrones, season eight. And it’s like, no, that’s not—you guys…no.
Oren: Well, because there was this big wave of people who had very big brains, and after season eight of Game of Thrones were like, ‘you see, this is why plot is bad.’ Because what happened in Game of Thrones season eight, was that the writers had an end point they wanted, and did not care what they’d already established, and so had their characters act wildly out of character to get to that end point. And that was what happened, and it was bad writing. And we know why it happened is because they didn’t care. They told us they were checked out. They wanted to go work on Star Wars.
Chris: They didn’t have enough time. HBO wanted them to have more seasons. They didn’t want to. So they rushed the entire thing.
Oren: But anyway, this led to a bunch of people being like, Oh, well, babe, this is why plot is bad. But my point I was originally making was that when you’re thinking about plot first or character first, you can come at it from either direction. You can either have a plot and create characters that will make that plot work, or you can start with characters and alter them until they are the characters who will create a good plot. Those are both completely legitimate ways to do it. You might jump around a little bit, but the end result is the same either way is that you need a plot and characters that work together and you don’t want to go the extreme of like, well, I created some characters and now I’ll just like, throw them together like we’re doing an ad lib. And see what happens because they probably won’t create a satisfying story if you do that.
Chris: Yeah. And sometimes if you start with a character that has issues, you can build the plot around those issues. So for instance, if you are really into relationships, and you want a familial relationship, say between two sisters. And that’s really what you’re interested in. You can build an external conflict that depends on those two sisters resolving their differences. So that’s, you know, center there.
So a lot of times when people come with characters with the character has some sort of emotional issue. They had some past bad experience. Now they’re having trouble with confidence or in trusting others. Right? You can start there and be like, okay, so what external conflict will force them to face their trust issues or have them question their own worth, you know, what does it take to believe in yourself? that kind of thing. So there’s a lot of characters that are ready for those external conflicts. And you just need to think about if you like that character issue, how do you have an external conflict that really brings that out and makes it central to the story?
Oren: Right. And typically the reason why you do want an external conflict that brings out your character issues is that while there will always be some people who are really into your characters just for themselves, and just really care about that issue that your character has for its own sake. A lot of other people won’t.
But you can bring them along by tying that issue into an external conflict with some kind of important stakes. And you won’t lose anybody by doing that, unless you make the external conflict really dark. At which point you probably will start to lose some readers. And that’s a decision that you have to make if you want a really dark story. But if you don’t, then there’s no reason not to. It’s a win-win.
Chris: I should clarify that your external conflict doesn’t have to have life or death stakes. It doesn’t have to include fight scenes. It could be something as simple as the character in their career or something like that. Certainly it’s easier to get an audience to care about really high stakes.
Whereas if you have lower stakes, then it’s really important that you get them to like your main character. And oftentimes external conflict really helps because if you have nothing but internal and relationship conflicts, people have trouble keeping those going for—if you’re doing a whole novel—the full length of a novel, and sometimes the audience just needs to switch up and, you know, needs a little bit of back and forth. Whereas if you have a short story for instance, then it’s a lot easier to have the conflict much more internal and focus more on character issues.
Oren: Since we have talked about plotting and characters, I will briefly mention my favorite part of the story, which is the throughline, never get tired of talking about throughlines. That’s kind of my thing. And the throughline might not be obviously apparent, but in general, this is what you’re going to build your story around. And so it is very helpful to figure that out in advance. Because otherwise you end up with—and this is a problem that a lot of manuscripts I work on have—is that they don’t know what they’re about.
Like they’re hard to describe and you should hear me try to describe some of these to Chris and leaving her very confused because they aren’t about a single thing. They have a bunch of different elements, but those don’t cohese into a single story and thinking about how you can use your darling—as we’ve talked about finding your darling—how can you use your darling to make that through line, then that is going to help you quite a bit.
And you know, if your name was George Lucas and you were working on a little thing called Star Wars, the thing that you might think is really cool is a space station that can blow up planets. It’s like, wow, that’s neat. Not everyone can do that. And then you might create an entire plot around that, or you might not, and it might just end up that way because of really good editors, one way or the other.
Wes: And then do it three more times.
Chris: So just to clarify, again, the throughline is that external conflict, that external problem that kind of encompasses the story. So we introduce it in the beginning and then we resolve it at the end and it sort of defines what is the story and what isn’t the story. And if you have a full novel, I don’t think that every single scene has to be focused on the external through line, but usually one scene away.
You can’t usually have characters that are like, Hey, let’s just go on a side quest—that has nothing to do with our through line—for an entire chapter. That’s going to get old. It’s usually like a kind of reaction, one scene break that lets the characters talk about their personal issues and some of those internal conflicts instead.
Wes: So you really want to make sure, as you’re developing your story idea, that those main events, that you’re kind of, if you’re outlining those main events, like your hook, the inciting incident, those main plot points to the climax and the resolution, those gotta stay grounded in your throughline. But you’re saying just between those checkpoints, right? Is when you can dally, go to an ice cream stand and buy some non-Euclidean soft serve.
Chris: It’s usually good to go back and forth between like we have a high stakes scene focused on the alien invasion and people could die. Right? And then we have a rest scene that’s like the characters are regrouping after the alien invasion and they’re talking to each other about their personal issues.
Kind of keeping it that varied because even though the alien invasion might be more exciting, if you continue to do nothing but alien invasion, it gets really exhausting. It gets tiring, it feels monotonous. You know, pacing has to be varied. And so, you know, sometimes not having instant alien invasion, although a lot of times what you’ll see in theory in a lot of movies—especially if the story is shorter and has to be kept tighter—is that even when the characters are having those personal scenes, they’ll be, for instance, planning what to do about the alien invasion and preparing for the next one. And then they’ll sort of, that will be a gateway towards talking about their relationship or something. So we’re staying in context.
Oren: This is the scene where they’re in the briefing room after having fought the aliens. And they’re like, okay, well, the next time the aliens attack, we have to move Delta wing over to point B and then someone will be like, ‘Hey, so I noticed that you, uh, froze your spaceship when someone mentioned your mom. You want to…you want to talk about that?’ They’ll be like, ‘God damn it, man. I don’t have time to talk about my mom. Let me tell you about my mom.’ Right? This is that scene, right?. That’s why that scene exists.
Wes: For a real book example, we covered The Light Brigade and I thought that that did these kind of downtime scenes really well because it was kind of just built into the army protocol, just how frequently the main character basically had to go into self quarantine for a little bit of time because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. And I thought that was kind of a really nice way to just like catch your breath between otherwise pretty wild action scenes and a lot of confusion, a lot of great confusion. It was a very good book.
Chris: The other thing that we should talk about is theming. Like world theming, we haven’t talked about setting that much. Sometimes there are calls to make about setting. Sometimes the concept…it just happens to involve magic, it happens to involve space. But sometimes you do have to kind of decide on what your world is going to be like. And a mistake that we often find with writers is—again, it gets down to focusing your story—sometimes they’re tempted to just include everything they think is cool in their world.
And then you just have a bunch of random things and the world doesn’t create a memorable impression. So strategically deciding what your setting is going to be like, in what feel, what aesthetic you want to have, and then making sure that everything you add to your setting strengthens that aesthetic so that when people think about your world, they think about, ‘Oh, wow, this was like a cool underworld setting where everybody transforms when they go to bed at night into a shell and then emerges from their shell in the morning.’ Right? Whatever it is. And then it’s like, ‘Okay, what other cool things can I add to my setting that focus on that underwater transformation aesthetic’, right? And maybe we won’t put alien robots in there because those don’t enhance the underwater aesthetic that I’m going for.
The other thing about setting is—again, depending on how long your story is—it’s really easy for the complexity of the setting to get out of hand. And we haven’t talked about this a lot. This is another really important thing about story ideas. Why I was talking about, write it down, see how much you have is when you know what it’s about, you can start to drop the things that you don’t need so that your story doesn’t end up overly complicated and that’s important. But with the setting, a short story doesn’t have time for a super complex setting. You’ll spend the entire short story in exposition. And that won’t be good.
Wes: The nice thing too about settings is like, I think that gives you a real good opportunity to drill into what we talked about earlier about like, ‘What about this setting interests me? What do I want to show off? And really focus in on that, because I’ve often found that less is more with settings because generally, like we have imaginations and, you know, a cool idea makes even just other normal things in that cool world cool.
At least to me, I dunno. It’s just because it represents the potential of the world. And maybe if you have the opportunity to like explore that world in further stories, great. But just little specific details that really show off your enthusiasm for that world will carry the rest of your setting and you don’t need to bombard it with other dead weight.
Oren: That’s true. Although you do have to think about how much burden you’re putting on your audience by including certain details. Like, for example, you might have a world that for the most part looks like a medieval fantasy setting. But in your mind, there is a much more technologically advanced society that lives, you know, a couple islands over and they aren’t really part of the story, but they’re part of the world. You think they’re cool.
In that case it might be easy for you to think that having a little detail, like showing someone in the street with a clockwork monkey on their shoulder, would be cool and immersive. But if most of your story looks like it’s a medieval fantasy, that’s going to be confusing. Your audience is going to be like, ‘Where did that come from?’ And then you’re going to have to decide, is it worth the extra attention burden to explain that there is an advanced clockwork city a few islands over, is that something your reader really needs to know? And if it is then make it part of the main story, because otherwise it’s just going to feel like a distraction.
Chris: The last thing I usually think about is what style of narration I want, depending on the type of story it is. Is this something where I want a sassy first person narrator? Or is this something where I want a more traditional-sounding third person, fairytale-esque feel and think about kind of, you know, and some people like they have a specific narration style that they like to use, and it can be tough to just, ‘Hey, I’m going to write in present this time instead of past tense.’ And then you accidentally write half of your sentences in past tense, and then you’ve got a mess on your hands, right?
So we all have constraints and styles that we’re more used to than others, but this can be a great time to think strategically about what kind of narration style would really bring out what you want to about this story. When in doubt though, wait, and just try writing a few pages of the story in different narration styles. Cause sometimes you can’t tell what’s the best until you actually write it and compare, and then you’ll see which one you like.
Wes: Before we close, we’ve gone over just a lot of ground today. So just to briefly recap it for everybody we talked about, ‘Hey, if you’ve got that idea and you’re looking to develop it, you know, you could write it down.’ Or you could not, whatever works for you. Maybe you write it down, maybe you don’t, but what you should do with that idea is take some time to identify your interest in that idea. Why are you interested in that? Think on that, write it down, just play it out and to really just hone in on what that is, because we discussed the importance of centering your darling, find your darling, bring them to the front so that you know exactly why you’re passionate about this idea.
From there, expand on the idea, talk about, think about the setting, the characters, and the plot and how those things work together, getting to know your main characters, identifying goals and motivations, and then considering how all those things work into the throughline and how the throughline is present at all the major moments in the story.
And don’t forget, you need your tension in there, or else nothing’s going to really keep people’s attention except that one reader that’s just along for the ride, because they love you.
Oren: Just really into the same thing you’re into.
Wes: Really into it. And, you know, focusing on developing your story ideas like this will get you farther, but I mean, you know, it’s a slog and it takes a lot of hard work, but hopefully some of these tips will get you a little further along.
Oren: All right. Well, I think that will be good place to end this podcast on. Thank you, everyone, for listening. If anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory and Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is a urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.