The worst advice you can take about writing is to write. Just write.
Now, before you think I’ve gone off the deep end hear me out. I’ve been on this quest to turn the novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo into something compelling. I’ve discovered that it’s a total myth that a compelling story will just pour out of your head if you just write, write, and write some more. You know why? Because your ideas aren’t organized and don’t really lead anywhere when you’ve got no plan.
I did have an outline for my novel before I began but that wasn’t even enough because the outline was a chronological listing of events for my main character’s life. It still wasn’t compelling. My protagonist wasn’t really doing anything other than living her life. Since my story is based on true events there is no underlying plot or driving force behind it.
I just wrote. I was hoping to write my way into a plot. Adding details about the setting, realistic dialogue, and even situational conflict to boost my story did nothing to add that “wow factor” to the story. It still went nowhere. What I needed was a plan, a structure…a concept.
What is a concept?
A concept is a promise you make to your readers. You promise that your story is about a character with a goal, a problem, or a situation that he or she must face and do something about. You promise that the story will show who the character is at the beginning and will reveal how he or she changes while trying to attain the goal, fix the problem, or deal with the situation to be transformed somehow in the end from the process. The problem with the advice to just write is when you do that, it often goes nowhere. Your characters never do anything or they end up running around in circles trying to figure out what to do.
How does a concept help define a plan?
When you know what your character must do, then you can make a plan for the story that will show him or her doing it. It is the basis of everything that you build your story upon. Let’s take my novel and look at how it went from a chronological listing of life events to a concept.
Here’s my original idea:
A young girl is born into an abusive home. She is molested by her father and shunned by her cold mother. She goes on to suffer may losses in her life until she becomes pregnant at 19 out of wedlock. She discovers an unwavering resilience that has always been there.
It’s okay. But okay is not good enough to get published. The feedback I got was, “So what? I’m sure it’s a heart-breaking story but there is nothing compelling about it.”
Here’s how I elevated it to a conceptual level:
Laurel Lee Page wants a family like she sees on Father Knows Best, one where she doesn’t get she doesn’t get slammed into a wall by her father for tossing a loaf of bread to her brother or slapped for telling her mother she wants to do her own hair. She accepts her role as victim for most of her life until at 18, she finally leaves her abusive home and finds a kind young man who could give her the life she’s always wanted but she meets a sophisticated older man who gets her pregnant. Laurel must decide if she will choose the life laid out for her by her mother or a life with a man who challenges her to own the strength she’s always had inside.
Now you can see that this young girl wants something and she has a goal. She wants a normal, loving family but it’s not what she’s been born into. She also has a problem and she has to solve it. How she solves it will transform her from this meek, victim that the reader meets in the beginning to a resilient and strong woman.
Try it Yourself
Instead of writing your way into oblivion, try these simple exercises to discover your concept. First, begin with a question: What If?
What if a young girl is born into a horrificly abusive home? What if she wanted out of that situation so badly that she was willing to marry the first person who seemed interested? What if she was so desparate for love she also sabotaged that opportunity by sleeping with a stranger? What if she got pregnant after that? What if her mother had planned a huge wedding, paid a bunch of money, and was living vicariously through her daughter’s wedding so the daughter felt obligated, even though she was pregnant with another man’s baby?
You can see how this simple exercise helps you dig deep into your story to reveal the concept. I can thank Story Engineering by Larry Brooks for this tool and illuminating to me the NEED FOR A CONCEPT. It’s is by far the best book I’ve ever read about writing a novel. Period.
Another exercise is to write out this sentence: (Character) wants (goal) because (motivation), but (conflict). Here’s mine: Laurel Lee Page wants a family because her’s is so abusive, but her picture-perfect life is threatened when she sleeps with a stranger and becomes pregnant right before her wedding. Thank you to Jennifer Blanchard, creator of the Draft to Story Intensive Workshop, for this exercise.
If you try these exercises, let me know how it went for you. Tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!