So– there it is. Your idea. You’re knee-deep in the stream, and the current’s moving fast. Suddenly, amid the pebbles and plants clinging relentlessly to the river bed, you see it. A nugget of gold nestled among the dirt. You reach into the biting cold water, gripping it in your palms. Now what?
Instead of putting that same gold nugget into a glass case, forever preserved for future generations to gawk at, we hold it over the flame. Melt it down into something even more valuable. Because, like it or not, you don’t find many gold bars in creeks. Your initial idea is likely to change and morph into another precious metal entirely, many times over.
So what process can we use to speed things up?
Narrowing the Premise
Most often, our initial idea takes the form of a premise. Premises are primarily concerned with plots, not characters. For example, say that I want to write a novel about pirates (this may be a running theme for many, many posts to come). It matters not where the idea came from. Either a serious movie or theme park ride will do. I have a single word to focus on and expand.
Although a single word may seem easy to parse out, the concept of “pirates” can be spread into multiple books. It’s vague as well– pirates when, and pirates where? Are we talking about Somali tanker thieves or Blackbeard boarding the next French galleon? Whether you use time, place, or other qualifiers, the premise can be narrowed.
So, now my premise is a little more approachable. I want to write about piracy in the 17th century Caribbean, pirates versus royal governments in particular. More than a little cliche, but we can solve that later. At least we have a frame of mind to get into. How can we turn this premise into a plot, one that can be stretched out into a full three-act structure or something similar?
Now is the time to turn to characters. Unless you want a completely omniscient narrator (which I would not recommend), you need to have an idea of viewpoints. We need to descend from the bird’s-eye view, and this narrows our premise considerably. So, pirates. I may be tempted to have multiple viewpoints, from pirates, royal sailors, and citizens caught in the middle, but for now I will focus on one pirate. For the moment, he is named Parker.
At once, a multitude of questions arises. Parker seems a rather English name. Why is he a pirate? Was he in the navy before and switched sides? Was he captured by the pirates and became one of them, hoping either to be accepted or to infiltrate them? If we change the name to a Spanish or French name, we can make our character a privateer, hoping to strip away any benefit England can get from its colonies.
Even if we don’t answer these questions right away, it hints at the major catalyst of any plot– motivations and goals. Because once we place a character, we have to explain. Why is he here? What’s his purpose in all this? Once we have a goal in mind, even a placeholder, we can thwart it and see what happens next. Say Parker is planning to betray his captain. Somehow, he’s given a message to an English captain about their future whereabouts. What happens if his plans are uncovered? Will he be marooned on a remote island, helpless to help the English– or worse?
So far, we’ve accomplished much. The gold is running liquid in the furnace. It’s almost ready to be re-formed. Parker is hanging out in the lion’s den, hoping to serve his country even if it costs his life. It almost makes me admire him.
That positive trait leads to the last step in forming the beginnings of plot– your character arcs. You may say, how is this different than motivations? And, yes, they are very similar, but arcs tie more into the essence of a character– who they are and who they’ll become, not just what they want.
Back to Parker. His motivation is to better England by betraying the pirates. This goal may be a little too selfless for its own good, but we can add complications later. Why does Parker want to do this? Will he receive something from the British in return? Does he simply want the satisfaction of defeating evil? How does all this relate to Parker as a person?
This last question leaks into backstory, but it’s necessary. How does your character’s motivations relate to who they were? Was Parker branded a coward growing up, and this is his way of redeeming himself? Does he want a future career in the navy that was earlier denied him, and he’s willing to do anything to advance himself? Most importantly, what elements of his past self will he have to defeat? His sense of lingering fear at facing danger? His self-preserving nature?
By now, we have more than enough to begin writing. We can move in and put tentative stakes on plot events, spacing them out where we will. Parker has a lot to learn before he can reach safety. Perhaps his motivations need changing entirely, or a different outlet to pursue them.
Either way, the beginning scenes are calling. To the page we fly.