Translating an interesting idea into a good story starts with finding the story in the idea. It’s very easy to be excited by something and want to write about it. Inspiration is excellent! It also fills up files like a flood of exotic locations, artful pictures, character names, orphaned plot elements, etc. Sometimes these elements just thrown together don’t quite equal functional story concepts.
What does a story concept look like? People start in different places, and the only reason to suggest one concept type over another is to help identify which stories will “go the distance” in a novel or short story setting rather than as a flash-fiction or single scene. Length doesn’t make one bit of writing better than another (short work stands equal to novel in difficulty, if done right), so the real distinguishing criteria stands as follows:
- Is it a story?
- Is it interesting?
Interest has really risen in the ranks of reader criteria, asking that the story be more than just well-written narrative. The story’s concept has to draw attention in the wide mass of material for sale, and be viable enough to retain that audience appeal throughout the work. If you have a romance to write, what makes this one different from the others? If you’re writing an action adventure, what new threat are you confronting? Lately, work has to stand out.
Back to the practical, a story concept is a one or two sentence summary that gets right to the guts of the story. No, the concept is not the pitch. This doesn’t summarize the main conflicts, and it might not even mention the main character (especially not by name). The story concept identifies the soul of the story, the spark of interest, and the star-power.
Some people use story generators to sift through potential concepts and turn out stories. In the links at the bottom of the post are a whole mess of these great, click-button-read-concept functions that will turn out potential tales by the dozen. (Literally by the dozen in the case of the generator at Seventh Sanctum.) This might be too generic or mechanical for some writers, and that’s understandable. After all, we collect up story elements like shells on a beach, so it would be a shame to let them go to waste.
Whether you choose to throw together separate elements, or if you just want to test the viability of a forming story concept, the What-If game allows for quick evaluation of a story concept. This exercise is derived from Stephen King’s On Writing. He discusses planning and plot, focusing on the importance of isolating an initial situation and radiating his work out from that point.
“What if vampires invaded a small new England village? (Salem’s Lot)”
“What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)”
“What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)”
“What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)”
In his book, he discusses some of the moments in which he was hit by these concepts, recognizing there were real-life moments that brought these broad but striking sparks to life. What he did afterward, though, was simply deriving material from the potential in that one concept.
“I had located the fossil; the rest, I knew, would consist of careful excavation. … And none of the story’s details and incidents proceeded from plot; they were organic, each arising naturally from the initial situation, each an uncovered part of the fossil.” King, Stephen (2000-10-03). On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 167-169). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
This What-If method presents a simple way to rearrange essential elements to adjust potential in a story concept. Consider this example:
What if a woman in the future caught a disease?
Consider the difference that shows up with a few tweaks:
What if a young woman in the far future caught an extinct, contagious disease?
Alright, that’s a little bit more interesting. Now how about this one?
What if a little girl in the near future was deliberately infected and killed by an extinct, contagious disease?
This might not be a fully developed book, but there are enough questions here to lead to deeper development of content, character, theme, and setting.
Have fun with whatever generator works for you, whether it’s automatic or powered by your own mind. The goal is to get enough of a concept to grip on a story that has potential to grow and gain its own life. However you get it, write on!
Story Generators and Links:
- The party game version; a good generator of unique images/elements/mechanics
- Another “shuffler”; hands the elements over and lets the writer get on with play
- The good part about shufflers like this is the large database could hand you something completely new
- Here are a bunch of generator links
- Good stuff, play around, but not too long; you should be writing.
- Several links here, some really specific, others out of service, but play around
- Awfully fun plot generator; good for some short stories and exercises
- This one is spastic and generates a “full” story
- Very silly, but if silliness is your thing, play away!
- This one has some great interchangeable features so you can change whichever portion doesn’t seem to fit
- Excellent option for exercises; generates many options at once for quick scanning
- Others volunteer ideas too in the comments
- This one has more specifics; if you have some information already that you want to use, this one will allow you to enter it with personalized elements.