Friday, June 1, 2018

Story Ideas Versus Contest Entries

Tis the season for conferences and their contests again. Thus it is also the season for volunteering to judge for a few of those contests. This plugs neatly into this week's topic.

I will observe, as Marshall did - ideas are not the problem. At least not often. There IS a contest entry this year that is deeply, deeply problematic but none of the judges are sure whether it's an idea problem or an execution problem. The take away is that if this entry is meant as satire, the writer didn't have the chops to pull it off. But outside of that, none of us has yet run across an entry over years of this contest that has resembled any other entry we'd ever read. It doesn't matter how simple an idea is. What matters is the idea twisted through an author's unique perspective. That makes the story.

Where contest entries seem to run into problems is exactly where KAK pointed. Execution. You'd think you could come up with an idea for a book and then faithfully follow it from beginning to end. You'd think. Take a poll among authors. Find out how many of us end up losing sight of the ball and wandering in the weeds trying to recall what it was we were supposed to be looking for in the first place. The critique for most contest entries tends to be about lack of narrative drive - the author losing the through line and/or not giving the protagonist enough drive. The protagonist has to want something and want it badly enough to sustain 75-100k words. It's easy to say, tough to do.

I suspect this is why writing courses will never go out of business. It's easy to be convinced you need narrative drive. It's totally another to figure out how to execute that, assimilate the information, and then turn it into execution so effortless that it becomes a natural part of your voice. I get to say this because it's still a -- let's say -- development opportunity for me.

My as yet imperfect strategy for narrative drive is to ask character questions:
1. What does the protag want?
2. What does the protag need? (This may not be known to the protag - it often isn't at the beginning of a book.)

If I can answer those questions, I figure I might be on the right track. To somewhere.


  1. I forget which structure maven said that you need to know at the beginning, and make it super clear to the reader, the lie that the protagonist tells himself. Or herself, as the case may be. The whole story then becomes recognizing the truth. (Hague's journey from identity to essence.) But yes, goal-motivation-conflict = the bones!

    1. Oh. Man. I love that thought about the lie someone tells themselves. What lengths will the character go to protect that lie.