Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. Most of us say we get them from everywhere: newspapers, TV, real events, family dynamics, travel, and so on. Some story ideas seem to come full-blown. Others need to be pulled out of our imaginations. The same is true of characters. Some characters simply are. Oh, the writer may need to modify or dig deeper, but the basic personality/characteristics/strengths and weaknesses are there. We know this person as if she/he were a family member. They live with us (in our heads) and talk to us. And the more time we spend with these characters, the better we know them.
I love it when a character comes to me like that. Mary Harrington, in A Killer Past, was like that. I saw her and understood her, and as I wrote that book, I got to know her better and better. P.J. Benson, in my “Crow” books wasn’t quite as clear to me, but she could be a sister.
Many writers love writing series because they do know their characters so well. To stop writing about one of those characters is like abandoning a good friend. It may be a challenge to keep coming up with new situations to put these characters in, but once the plot line is decided, the writer knows it will be an opportunity to spend time with (and develop) the character.
A writer, however, who writes stand-alone stories must come up with a new set of characters for each book. In one way, this is fun. It’s like meeting new people and going new places. Who will be the protagonist? Who will be the antagonist? Why will these two be in conflict? (Because yes, a story needs conflict.) Who will be their friends, mentors, allies, and enemies.
There are dozens of questions the writer must answer before starting a story. At what point should the story start is an important one. (In Media Res is recommended — in the middle of things.) Will it be told in the present tense (which seems to be popular now) or past? First person or third? Multiple points-of-view or just one? And if multiple, how many?
The time period, both the year and the time of the year, may be important. The setting. What genre? Will this be a story that follows traditional patterns or one that stretches boundaries?
I often meet people who say, “One of these days I’m going to write a book.” Sadly, some of those people have great stories to tell, but never do get them written. They have various reasons why, but I’m sure one reason is they discover it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Oh, we can all put words on paper, and some people put words together in beautiful ways, but actually reaching that goal of having a story that holds the interest of others is work.
If you have written (completed) a short story, novel, or book, pat yourself on the back. If you’re writing your first book, accept that it may not be easy, but know that writing “The End” is worth the struggle. And having people tell you your story kept them up all night because they couldn’t put it down is wonderful.
I’m starting something new, so I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite “How-to” books.
A really good one is On Writing by Stephen King
And I always pick up an idea from Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
For character development I go to Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon
For plot, it’s Plot by Ansen Dibell
and How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
along with Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
A favorite of mine is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
And for grammar, punctuation, and other advice, it’s The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Lately I’ve heard about the snowflake method and I’m going to give it a try. Here’s an article about that.
The Snowflake Method
What book(s) would you recommend?