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.

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