How to Develop a Premise into a Story

How to Use Detail to Find Conflict in a Premise

Story: “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Megan McCarron, published at Tor.com

McCarron uses a classic ghost-story concept: Look into a mirror and see someone else’s face. It’s an easy way to move a ghost into a story. But once you have a ghost, what do you do with it? The answer depends on the sort of world the ghost has entered.

How to Use Context to Discover a Story’s Aboutness

Essay: “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free,” by Caili Widger, published in The New York Times Magazine “Lives” section

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you write a true story, one that’s been on your mind for a while, and then wonder, “What’s the point?” The answer often isn’t simple. A single story can be part of multiple arcs. The question is, which arc is the right one for this particular telling? One way to find out is with a short passage about context.

How to Write Ideas into Fiction

Story: “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard, published in Clarkesworld

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop at Kansas State University, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

How to Build a Story with Logistics

Story: “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia, published in Clarkesworld

What makes a good genre story? The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

How to Write Human Stories Amid Cosmic Conflict

Story: “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff, published at Prada Journal

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food.  It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

How to Skip Over Implausibility

Novel: Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris, published by Little, Brown

The plausibility of something in real life isn’t relevant to fiction. All that matters is that readers believe that something is plausible. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible. I’d further this notion: in fiction, anything is plausible and possible if the writer wants it to be.

How to Explain Away Implausibility

Novel: Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau, published by St. Martin’s

All superheroes have origin stories: Superman came from another planet, Spiderman got bitten by a radioactive spider, and Batman saw his parents murdered and so became a vigilante. Such character explanations are expected in comic books, but they are, in fact, part of almost every story with a fantastic plot.

How to Fast Forward to the Real Story

Novel: The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses, published by Little A

A smart guy named Aristotle once wrote that a dramatic structure (story) has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This sounds like common sense until you try to put it into action. Pretty quickly, you’ll realize that something as simple as a beginning is actually difficult to find. Where does a story begin? Unless the story starts with your character’s birth or conception or with the Big Bang, the first page won’t necessarily be connected to any chronological beginning. So, you must locate a moment somewhere in the character’s lifespan that makes sense as a place to start.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

Story: “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

Novel: Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right? The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

How to Use a Character’s Emotions to Hook the Reader

Story: “The Box” by Adam Soto

As a short story writer, one of the realities that you must accept is that your story is one of hundreds or thousands that a journal editor will read. Those editors are almost always unpaid, reading slush pile manuscripts out of a sincere devotion to short fiction—but also at night, after work, when they’re tired. When they turn to your story, they don’t rub their hands together and say, “Ah, finally, I’ve been longing to read this one.” In fact, just the opposite happens. Editors and their first readers begin to look for reasons to say no, to reject the story before finishing it because that will create time to read the many other stories in the pile. As a writer, this is the world your story enters, and so it’s a good idea to craft your opening so that it will catch a reader’s attention—so that it will make the reader forget about all the other stories that must be read. Perhaps the best way to do this is to immediately introduce conflict. But, not all conflict is created equal. The first line, “The vampires attacked,” works only if the editor’s never read a vampire story before. The sentence contains conflict but is generic. So what if the vampires attack? Big deal, a vampire-weary editor might think. The conflict needs to become personal, and the best way to make something personal is to attach emotion to it.

How to Hook a Reader with Cool Stuff

Novel: The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj

I recently read a picture book version of The Odyssey to my 4 and 6-year-old sons. We read, of course, about the Cyclops and how Odysseus’ men clung to the bottom of sheep as they trotted out of the blinded monster’s cave. And how Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead, sacrificed two sheep, and let their blood pool because the dead love to drink blood, and how he saw, among the blood-drinkers, the shade of his mother. And how, when Odysseus finally returned to his homeland, only his old, sick dog recognized him—and then the promptly died. My kids were rapt. I could hardly read certain parts without getting choked up. It’s tempting to forget amid the five-paragraph essays and multiple choice tests that we attach to literature that the reason certain stories stick around for years or millennia is because they’re freaking awesome. But their appeal isn’t based on “literary merit,” whatever that means. Odysseus watched a bunch of shades lap up ram’s blood so that he could get instructions from a dead, blind prophet—and his mother showed up, which meant she’d died in his absence. That’s great storytelling because of the emotion and because it involves dead people drinking blood. Without the latter part—and all the other crazy stuff in The Odyssey—Homer’s work likely doesn’t survive.

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