Friday, August 5, 2011

How does a grand idea become a story?

So, the day I join a new indie comics website, I get a request from someone local to draw a comic book that will make us legends. Well, you can't fault his enthusiasm, and without that, the most skilled and cerebral of minds still doesn't get very far.

So, I ask, what is the story idea?

He insists on talking about it. Uh-oh. Writers, write. They talk, but they set down their fundamental ideas, and make a thing called a pitch that explains why you would care about what has been written.

So, he wants a writing partner. Okay.

I ask: who is the character, what does he care about, is he happy when he wakes up in the morning, who does he love, what does he fear, where does he live, what are his weaknesses, what are things he needs to improve in his life, and so on. What's he look like?

Nope. It's apparently not how this idea works.


So I ask for a pitch.

"I want to write about all the world's mythologies."

Okay, rich territory. So what's the first story? What's tying the concept together?

Then, I get a list, of a couple hundred world religions/ mythologies/ belief systems.


Here was my response, complete with the beginnings of story inspired by this idea, detached from high-concept to provide the missing ingredient to demonstrate it in an understandable way. Can't wait to see how that plays out! Hope it gives you some food for thought in an entertaining fashion.

That's a terrific basis for studying mythology. What is your first story? What is the first thing you want to tell that has a beginning and ending? Who is its main character? What is the problem? What changes?

I was trying to tell you it may well be next year before we can draw pages, because of the projects I detailed.

"Finite" is a more concise word than limited--- I mean, a set number, as in, a set number of characters. Most myths revolve around two to five characters---not the mythologies, but the individual stories. See if you don't find it's true. There's nothing wrong with high concept---if there is a deeper psychological or spiritual set of questions you want to explore, that's great. But you have to set loose characters with whom your readers can identify in some way.

Remember, each individual myth has a person or god---a character---at its center, who then interacts with a limited cast of supporting characters. For example: we love Samson because Delilah tempted him and he sacrifices his life in an amazing feat: we care about Samson. We are rooting for him because we have been with him on his hero's journey, when he fights the lion, when he battles using only the jaw bone of an ass. He begins as one type of character, and changes, and changes again because of what he's learned.

Most important : decide on an ending. Even if you want to continue someone's exploits, you have to know where your plot's going. If you want to make a huge book with a story that's a couple of pages long, you still want to know how your chapters end, for the sake of pacing.

What type of story do you want to tell to start off your series? What is its tone? What kind of elements does it have, what places is it set. These are the things a writer has to understand. it really starts, though, with which characters you throw together. Some idea links them. Sometimes the link and the cast come together as though at the same time. You uncover the character's motivations, one at a time. You have to make a story that you find believable in some way, with its own, consistent logic.

My partner's started her own story borrowing two mythological figures and mixing them with three of our own, and is creating a plot she began five minutes ago. Something's stolen, so there's a plot, moving the action, motivating the characters.

She began with the characters she made, who have distinct personalities. Only by setting them loose with the other three will she hear the voices of the other two---Thor, and Samson, in this case---and from there figure out how their relationships work as they undertake their journey. She hasn't decided who is going to change, if anyone---the point may be that the gods are unchanging in their ways and the faerie Teasberry is great.

She's decided on a light, child-like tone, with a mystery at its center, so the bounds of possibility are wide. It may be no more than that, but it's a demonstration of how you develop an idea for a story. Some are based on character development, and some have less sophisticated representations, like those for an all-ages audience. (Of course, that could change...)

She is using mystery---that is, there are things the characters don't know at the beginning. In this case, someone's stolen Thor's hammer. There's always someone with an agenda at work in each tale.

Now she's added some romance (perhaps, as part of the history between two characters) and the Lady of the Lake, and I've added my two cents as well about how Thor gains the ability to look for his hammer. But notice how Thor and his unknown antagonist are the main characters around which the rest revolves. The antagonist, in comic books, really moves the plot, because they are the ones who create the circumstances that engulf the hero. It is interesting to give the supporting cast their own set of concerns along the way, so they, too, have stories inside the story.

Remember your audience does not know all of these mythologies, but only explain them and illustrate them in ways that move the story. If they wanted a lecture, they'd sign up for You must be prepared to introduce and develop every major character in each story, and let characters say things, demonstrate things. The audience may look things up after they read a great story, but they most assuredly will not do homework just to read a story. If they realize you are teaching them, they will run.

One other resource:

As editor in chief, Shooter helped hone the trade of many excellent professionals and learned from and worked with the best, himself. His advice has become at least half of what I tell when answering creative questions.

Most of all, be prepared to commit to your craft for many years. Sometimes you will work on characters and ideas for years before you can introduce them, fully-realized. I suggest, since you are in school with this idea, at least a class or two, if not a minor, in anthropology, and write as much as possible, and as many stories as you can complete.

Good luck!

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