The first step is the hardest. Every writer I know is buzzing with ideas. Even the ones that haven’t written anything yet. Of all the writing difficulties I’ve ever heard aired, I don’t think ‘I haven’t got any ideas’ once. What I have heard a lot, from people trying to start their first story to accomplished writers, is the difficulty of making the leap from a beautiful idea to a great story. I put my hand up to sharing the problem.
It’s the hardest part of my process to describe because the ideas themselves take many shapes or forms. I might read about a historical character who I want to use as the basis for a fictional character. I might notice a trend in the media. I might visit a place that begs to have a story set in it. I may be struck by something in a TED talk. Something may leap out of my subconscious without giving me any clue where it came from. All of these are ideas. None is a story.
The way forward is to gather up three ideas and weld them into a story tripod. I need one idea that relates to the character, one that relates to the central plot problem and one that relates to the setting. At least one of those ideas should be original. The others should be vivid, but it’s not necessary for all three legs of the tripod to break new ground. In fact, it’s probably a bad idea because an original idea often stands out more on a familiar background. When I was developing The Endocrine Tyranny, I started with the concept of a medical procedure to remove emotion. It seemed very science fiction so I got stalled for ages by trying to come up with a vision of the future in which it would make sense for people to do that. It was only when I realised the concept would stand out better against a familiar, contemporary setting that I was able to move forward with it.
The three legs of the tripod are rarely equal. The process usually starts with one of the three ideas, and I bring the other two in to support it. If the starting point is a character, he needs a plot problem that will demonstrate the character trait of interest. When I wrote Steel in the Morning, my starting idea came from what I’d just read about Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de St George, a brilliant fencer of eighteenth century France. I wanted to base a character around him, but I needed something for him to do. Boulogne was a great fencer, so my character could fight a duel. That meant he needed something to fight about. I wanted him to be a man of integrity, so I found a wrong for him to right. I had the second leg of the tripod. Then I needed a setting. I don’t have the knowledge to write eighteenth century France, so I moved him to Regency London, which I am comfortable with and had more wrongs in it than even Boulogne could have got round to. I had my tripod.
With The Endocrine Tyranny, it was the concept of medically removing emotions that came first, so I needed to work out who would do that and why. The answer was a person whose emotions caused her distress. Someone who was chronically depressed. Mary Bellard was born.
The story tripod should be enough to provide a basic framework for the story, at least in as much as it gives an idea of who is going to do what, where and why. That’s as complicated as it needs to be at this point. We’re still a few steps from having a story, but we have a starting point.
1/ Invent a character. They could be from history. They could be someone you’ve seen described in the media, as long as it’s someone who has actually done something rather than just a celebrity. They could be a minor character in another story. If you’re feeling brave, they could be someone you know. They could be entirely your own invention.
Give them a problem to solve that plays to their key trait and a setting for them to do it in. If you derived the original character from somewhere else, make sure that either the problem or the setting pulls them out of that context.
2/ Invent a problem that will plague someone. It could be a political conundrum made personal. It could be a personal problem you’ve experienced or heard of someone else experiencing. It could be a philosophical aphorism. It could be part of growing up. It could even be a plague.
Now invent a character who will be affected in a very personal way by the problem, and will be motivated to engage with it body and soul. Then find a place where they will wrestle with it.
3/ Come up with a place where you want to set a story. It could be somewhere you’ve been that made a particular impression on you. It could be a historical setting you’ve read about or seen on a documentary. It could be somewhere you’ve dreamed about. One word of warning: don’t make it anywhere comfortable or familiar unless you’re planning to do something really creepy and unsettling there.
Now work out what sort of problem might arise in that setting, and invent a character who will be personally affected enough to engage with it.