Ciao, SEers. Last time it was my turn, I wrote about the first step in writing your masterpiece—idea generation. Some would argue that’s the most important part. Without that initial spark of creativity, wherever it comes from, there’s no story. But is it the most crucial part? That’s hard to say. If the spark can’t be developed past its initial interesting premise, it’s no more than a compelling tidbit. It may eventually inspire something larger or become a scene in a fully fleshed-out work, but on its own, it’s useless. By all means, save it in your inspiration file, but don’t waste your time trying to turn it into something it can never be.
Easier said than done, I know. If you liked it enough to write it down, you won’t want to give up on it. So, how can you tell if it’s worth working on?
Let me explain with a well-known literary example—Superman.
I can’t tell you how Siegel and Shuster developed the character and his origin story, but for illustrative purposes, I’ll show you how it might have gone so you can extrapolate the process for your own works.
Let’s pretend the creative team was brainstorming and inspiration struck. They used the “what if” technique and came up with this:
What if one scientist knew the planet was about to die?
Okay. That’s an interesting idea. What can you do with it? A million things. Or nothing at all. There’s no conflict here. It’s just a fact. Sure, it has the potential for emotional impact and incredibly high stakes, but it’s not a story concept. It’s barely a scene concept. Keep going.
What if the scientist had a son?
Again, ramping up the emotional quotient, but it’s still not a story idea. Continue.
What if the scientist could save his son by sending him to another planet?
Better. There are a lot of emotions here. A whole planet is dying and a child is not only being orphaned, he’s losing his home and entire race and is being sent who-knows-where. Will he survive the trip? Will good people find him? Will he be able to live on this alternate world? Now, we’re getting somewhere. It still isn’t a story, though. So, we press on.
What if we don’t have to invent a whole world and a whole set of rules?
Let’s let the dying planet be not our world, but an alien world, so the child will be sent to Earth. We know how people behave here, that will make less work for us and make the story more relatable to the readers.
What if our biological rules don’t apply to him and he has superpowers? And maybe even a super weakness?
We’re getting there. We’ve now got a kid who audiences will empathize with. One who is orphaned on our world and has a bunch of super powers. This idea has the potential for a lot of emotion and very high stakes. But we’re still missing that core tension that will elevate this idea into a full-blown story concept.
But we have to make a decision first.
Is this character a villain? If so, we’ll need an Everyman to rise above the odds and defeat this extraordinary foe. If this character is a hero, we’ll need an elite, brilliant, megalomaniac to oppose him. Both options present interesting opportunities, but the world could use a little optimism and hope, so let’s make our character a hero. A superhero. The quintessential hero. Decision made, we continue.
What if our hero is sent from his dying world to ours, where he discovers he has super-human abilities?
He chooses to use his powers for good but must face an evil genius bent on world domination. That’s not a fair fight. No conflict there.
But what if the villain hates aliens and has discovered our hero’s one weakness?
Now, we’re talking! We’ve gone from a lone survivor of a dying planet to a superhero with an Achilles heel battling Earth’s greatest mastermind for the fate of humanity.
In other words, you’ve just witnessed the inception of a groundbreaking story from the most basic of ideas.
Will all of your ideas go from infancy to inception? No. Will the ones that make the cut become as iconic as the origin story of Superman? No. I wish I could give all of us that formula, but it doesn’t exist.
What does exist is hard work and due diligence. Both of those are your best chances of developing your ideas into a workable framework for a story. Choosing to ignore them is an author’s kryptonite (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. 😁)
Let’s talk about how you take your initial ideas to the story-inception stage. Or how you decide one will never make the cut.