When Does an Idea Become a Story? Author of The Death of Tarpons, Les Edgerton, tells all…


I’m borrowing this idea and term from the wonderful series of three books on screenwriting by Blake Snider, the Save the Cat series.

I’m convinced this is at the heart of many unfinished novels and short stories.

What does the term mean? It’s that germ of an idea for a story triggered by any number of stimuli. It can be a glimpse of something—the “smell of the rain on the road at dawn” for instance. Driving home from a night of partying, hung over, you turn onto a country blacktop and see a man hitchhiking in Army fatigues in the fine mist that’s falling. Aha! There’s a story about this guy, you think. You begin to imagine a character who’s passing through town—and you kind of visualize a story about him. If you’re David Morrell, you end up with a story titled, First Blood.

Or, you hear a story about a man whose mother has just died and the police came to inform him and they’re put off by his seeming lack of emotion about the tragedy and become suspicious. If you’re Albert Camus, perhaps you write a story based on that anecdote you’ll title, The Stranger.

All of us as writers get ideas triggered like this and any number of other ways. Thinking about the scene or idea makes us feel that there’s a story there. Usually, when we see or conceive of a story idea that way, it elicits a powerful emotion from us. The guy in our vision, standing on the road at dawn in a drizzle, wearing fatigues, triggers a feeling of sadness, say. We have an urge to write this guy’s story so that the reader will feel this same intense feeling of sadness as we do.

And so, we break out the Bic, turn on the ‘puter, put a piece of white paper in the Underwood and begin to write. And it fizzles out.

Why? As Blake Snyder says, we’ve simply fallen in love with an inspiration. That’s all it is. There’s no story there yet mostly because we haven’t yet come up with a story. All we’ve got is a guy standing in the rain on a blacktop and a feeling that this is a story. It’s gossamer. It’s not a story because we haven’t taken the time to think beyond this image very much.

I’ve got a student in a class I’m teaching at present who I think is at this stage. He’s an extremely gifted writer, but the story he’s worked on for a long time now isn’t working. I suspect it’s because he hasn’t yet thought out a story. He has an idea for a story, but ideas aren’t stories. There are infinite numbers of story ideas floating around and most of them will never become stories because they never progress beyond that stage. That image of that road.

His image of THE SMELL OF THE RAIN ON THE ROAD AT DAWN is of a young man, who upon the occasion of his twenty-first birthday discovers he’s been adopted. I don’t know if this is upon the occasion of his twenty-first birthday discovers he’s been adopted. I don’t know if this is an image he’s gained from a real-life event or just one he’s imagined, but it doesn’t matter.

A powerful image. One that lends itself to all kinds of dramatic possibilities. However, I don’t believe our writer has thought much beyond how that will translate into a story. Is there a story there? Well, sure. I just don’t think he’s thought what that story will be. He’s been inspired by a

glimpse at a dramatic moment in a life and senses there’s a story there. The problem is, he needs to find 300 pages of material to tell this story in, and I don’t think he has more than ten pages at most at this point. He hasn’t thought much beyond the guy finding out about the lie his adoptive parents have told him all of his life and his first reaction—getting drunk and/or getting into a fight. I suspect he hasn’t gone much beyond that in his mind, other than some vague idea of going through some kind of murky struggle to resolve his problem. In fact, when he began this story in class, he admitted this was the case, when he told me it “was a work in progress and changes on a daily basis” and that he’d “only started this a few weeks ago” and “was still trying to write his way into it, if that makes sense.” As I told him; no, it doesn’t make sense. He’s posing himself an almost impossible task to try to fill the 250-400 pages a novel requires with no more than this.

This is a story doomed to failure, I’m afraid. And, I think it’s a very apt illustration of what happens to most of us when we begin a story with only “The smell of the rain…” image in our minds. The story peters out. We think up one, maybe two things that our protagonist will go through, and then our imaginations dry up. What usually happens is that at this point, another story idea presents itself and in much the same way as this one did, and we’re off in pursuit of that one, planning someday to return to the original one.

I suspect many of us who write are looking for easy answers. Secrets. Here’s a writing secret: There are no secrets. It’s hard work. If it was easy to write well, subsidy and vanity presses wouldn’t have any business. That’s the only easy way there is to achieve print. All it takes is a checkbook… and no pride. Or a misguided sense of what constitutes quality writing.

This is what I suggest for those who get that “Smell of the rain…” kind of image and inspiration for a novel. Sit on it for awhile. Think about it. Kick the tires. See if it has legs. See if you can see any depth in it. If something else comes up and diverts your attention away from it, that probably means the idea really wasn’t novel-worthy to begin with. But… the idea that won’t go away, that begs to be told, that begins to unfold in your imagination over a period of time of at least a month or two and hopefully even longer—that’s probably an idea that has legs and one you can run that marathon with.

Addendum: I wrote this several years ago and have a wonderful follow-up to it. The young writer I was speaking of is an Irishman named Gerald O’Connor and I am delighted to report that he did just what I asked of him—sat on his idea for several months and really thought it through and then sat down to write it. He finished his novel in our class over a period of a couple of years and a couple of months ago it came out as “The Origins of Benjamin Hackett” and is an absolutely wonderful novel.

Click here to purchase Les Edgerton’s stunning literary tale The Death of Tarpons…

One Comment

  1. Les, you make some tremendously good points about story here. I’m about halfway through a college Short Story class, and the authors of Writing Fiction make the same point. Story asks “And then?” Plot asks, “Why,” and without plot, we’ve just got a list of events.

    I’m working on the 2nd and 3rd books in The Sad Girl series, but I keep getting ideas for my next series. The trick I use is to write down as much as I get of an idea, then let it germinate while I’m working on something else. You can always come back to those ideas as more thoughts come to you. Pretty soon, you’ve got enough to start writing.

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