"So, you’re writing a story? What is it about?"

I’ve run into this problem before.  You run into someone at work or a store or a convention and you get the question:
“Hey, I hear you’re writing a story!  What is it about?”

What do you say?

If you’re anything like me, you’d pause, look up into the sky for inspiration and say “Well, it’s kind of about two guys…one of which is a scientist and the other is ex-CIA.  They don’t really like each other, but they’re forced to work together when suddenly they find……”

Yawn.  By that time, you’re getting polite nods and they don’t care anymore.  Well, it’s not that they don’t CARE, it’s just that you haven’t described to them what your story is ABOUT.  You were trying to tell them what HAPPENS, and that’s an answer to a different question.

I know, I know, lots of you ‘artists’ out there are saying “Why the heck do I care what he thinks?  I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.  It’s AAARRRRTTT!”

Yeah, well, turns out it is important, because at the very least, YOU should have a clear, shining definition for your story.  You see, if you don’t have a simple, short and dramatic description of what your story is about at it’s core, you run the risk of chasing side plots and running off the path of your story goal. 

In short, a short definition, or “storyline” keeps you from writing crap.

Let’s go back to the situation above.  You love your story.  You want to tell someone what it is about (be it your mother or a prospective agent or publisher) and have them say “Wow!  That sounds interesting!”  They could say “Yeah, well, I hate aliens.  Good luck, though.”  Which is a fine response too…it lets you know that particular person isn’t the audience you are looking for.  Either way, a clear “storyline” or short description gets the idea across.

A good place to get ideas of storylines is to look at the New York Times Best-seller list.  It often will contain a sentence or two that knocks out the basic premise of the book so you can make a decision on if that book is for you or not.  For example:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – “The murder of a curator at the Louvre leads to a trail of clues found in the work of Leonardo and to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society.”

So, lets see what we’ve got here.  There’s the word “murder” right up front, along with an exotic setting (Louvre) and “trail of clues”.  Obviously this is something that a mystery reader might enjoy.  Then we’ve got “Leonardo” and a “centuries-old secret society”.  Ooo!  History is in the mix as well, AND ancient secrets!  That’s an example of a short storyline that reveals some of what the book is about, but not enough to give away the ending.  You’ll notice that no mention was made of the main character…which is something that usually appears up front…because obviously this is a PLOT-centered story more than a CHARACTER-centered story.

Very interesting.

So, how do you start writing a storyline for your own story?  Well, according to Writing Fiction for Dummies, it should be:

  • Short.  Don’t expect anyone to wait five minutes for you to describe your story.
  • Emotive.  Stir their feelings and make them CARE about what happens in your story.  Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it?
  • Curious.  The sentence should raise a question about the story that needs an answer.  If there’s no question in the story, you may as well be writing a news article.

If you look back at Dan Brown’s book, you can see that the description pretty much fills all of those points. 

As a general rule, keep your sentence to 25 words or less.  Shorter is even better if it contains all three of those points above.
Try not to name characters….describe them.  Don’t say “Arnold Applegate”, say “a down-and-out scientist”.  You can add names if it is a famous person.
Use adjectives to bring in emotion…”young” or “fierce” or “titanic”.  A little goes a long way, here.
End with a twist.  Surprise the reader if you can.  Make him wonder what the story would be like.

When I tried to write a storyline for “Doc Monster: Shadow of the Skies”, I came up with:

“In 1954, a reformed Mr. Hyde struggles to stop an invasion of aliens from the center of the Earth!” 

This sentence is a work in progress, of course, but let’s look at it critically.  At 19 words, it does come in on the short side, and is pretty easily memorable, so I shouldn’t have to have cue cards.  “Mr. Hyde” is in there…does he mean THE Mr. Hyde?  What’s he doing in 1954?  There’s a mystery. 
Aliens are invading, which indicate a sci-fi angle and promises lots of destruction and action.  Good!
But wait…these aliens aren’t from outer space?  They’re from earth?  How is that possible?

So, you can see, it may not be a book for everyone, but that short sentence at least gives me a way to describe the general premise quickly…AND will keep me focused on the main story if I’m tempted to drift.

So that’s it for writing ideas for today.  If you haven’t heard it yet, a recording of some USAF personnel in England back in 1980 documents their encounter with a supposed UFO.  You should hear it.  It doesn’t prove anything, but it’s interesting to hear a group of military men in a situation obviously over their heads.

Take care,
Dave

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