Story Part II: Where To Begin

The first step is finding stor(y)ies come from everywhere. Pieces of story elements pop into my mind in a variety of ways—song lyrics, magazine articles, newspaper or TV reports and features, movies or novels that trigger new ideas, interviews, friends and family’s experiences, observing others, and from my own experiences. And since I write Christian fiction, Bible verses often lead me to a theme that incites a story. You gather ideas from the same types of places.

Ideas usually strike my mind in pieces, and I tuck them in the niches in my head. Like magnets, pieces connect with pieces that fit that story like a jigsaw puzzle and finally I see the picture. I would think most people jot ideas on paper or type them into your computer. My ideas, for the most part, are lodged in my head.

Once you have the nugget of your story, then the work begins making decisions about plot, characters, setting, tone and theme. Story relationships form setting up possible conflict, setting stimulates ways to define character and create tension, and opposition and problems arouse emotion. The plot takes seed and tone come into play—serious, comedic, dramatic, suspenseful, or nostalgic. How will this story best reach the reader?

Once these ideas come together, the author focuses on purpose. Yes, a novel is to entertain, but a novel that lingers in the minds of readers also provides a message or a lesson, a theme that weaves through the story and leaves the reader with something to hang onto once the cover of the book is closed.

Themes are often the classics, such as: good vs. evil, positive vs. negative, love vs. hate, hope vs. despair, peace vs. chaos, life vs. death. Some themes are based on human values: gossip breeds contempt, the rich help the poor, love conquers all, kindness is a virtue, and you add a thousand more. Then we have the opposite human viewpoints: the rich devour the poor, love hurts, compassion redirects purpose, and many other alternate values of some people

A theme works when it is something that is part of human nature and understood by the reader, something that causes the reader to cheer on the character toward his goal. This happens when the goal:
• Can be reached
• Makes sense to the reader
• Relates to the reader’s experience or desired experience
• Motivated by something reasonable and understood
• Is important
• Not guaranteed, the character has a possibility of failure

The theme must be woven through the plot like a fine thread. It is not the story, but the story is a vehicle to give the theme or message momentum.

Understanding what story is and taking the first step in developing ideas that will create a story that will linger in the reader’s memory means the author is on the way to a successful novel.


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  1. seanthecyclist April 10, 2010 at 7:02 am #

    Hi Gail, you mention that ‘Pieces of story elements pop into your mind in a variety of ways’ ‘song lyrics’ in particular. I am constantly inspired to write short stories and/or novels (still haven’t actually done so yet though)based on songs. I like a lot of indie-folk music where the story-lines in the songs derive from folk-tales, sometimes literally but often built from a range of tales. This often results in whole, new folk tales but in song from only. What are your feelings about writing stories based on song tales, and do you know if there are copyright issues invloved should the writer choose to try publishing.



  2. Gail Gaymer Martin April 20, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Hi Sean – Story ideas can’t really be stolen, and if you’re writing a contemporary novel or short story, it would naturally be modernized so I wouldn’t worry about legalities on this one.

    I’ve been involved in novellas that used fairy tales. That was fun to do. I used Little Red Ridinghood. The story opens with a young woman wearing a red raincoat with a hood, heading for the bakery with a basket under her arm in Oberammergau, Germany. This is very typical there, and I’ve been in Oberammergau in the rain. The love interestin the book is a wood carver — rather than a woodsman and the bad guy was a man called Herr Wolfe.

    Amazing what can inspire us.

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