“I had this idea once.”
How many times have you told someone you were a writer and, within nanoseconds, heard those four innocent little words balloon into what promises to be a story which, even if it stopped at three words, is WAY too long? We all have ideas. All of us. Imagination is the cheapest form of entertainment on Earth, cheaper than reality television, cheaper than drugs, cheaper than any form of media you can get your hands on. People have ideas all the time; that’s nothing new or unique. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
It’s what you do with them that matters.
I am a Saturday Night Live junkie. After reading half a dozen books about the show, watching nearly every broadcast episode, and going over the same skits again and again, I noticed something. Back in the day SNL used to have sketches. A sketch is a premise that is introduced with characters that clearly belong to the moment. The sketch is executed, hopefully with humor, and wraps up leaving a little room for applause.
When I watch SNL today I see a lot of premises. For example, consider this: “Justin Timberlake should dress up as an omelet and sing.” And other writers go. “That sounds funny,” and then write it.
If I was in the room I would ask, “Okay, he’s dressed as an omelet. Then what?”
Having Justin in a funny outfit singing is cute because he is cute, and it’s funny because the lyrics are amusing to a point, but it isn’t a sketch. The idea is funny because Justin Timberlake makes it funny, but the idea has no merit on its own. If anyone else was wearing the suit, it wouldn’t be funny. If Justin wasn’t as cute or as talented as he is, the idea wouldn’t be funny. The whole thing sits on his shoulders and if you aren’t a Justin Timberlake fan, I bet you don’t like the sketch I am talking about.
It’s one thing to play two stoners sitting in a basement pretending to do a local cable access show. It is another beast altogether to make those characters tell an actual story, which is why if you look at Wayne’s World, you’ll see that it starts with the sketch and then moves away from that sketch as fast as it possibly can.
An idea is not a story, it is just that: an idea. A story is a completely different thing.
Let’s start with an idea and see if we can track its course toward storydom.
Idea: Unicorns are actually horrible, bloodthirsty creatures. The whole magic and rainbow thing is just a cover up.
Okay, so it’s a silly idea but not as bad as, say, “Let’s make Hansel and Gretel witch hunters. And yeah, that really happened so don’t shake your head. Millions of dollars were spent trying to make people believe that the story about two kids who went wandering into the woods and found a candy house grew up to be badass witch hunters with a mission. Suddenly the unicorn thing isn’t so silly, is it?
No, it is. Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters is just SO stupid it defies logic.
So, we have an idea for evil unicorns. We want it be a horror type story, so we need to frame it as one. That means we either need a character whose history ties into the main plot. Maybe the main character’s mom was killed by a unicorn. Or we have someone who wanders into the mystery of the unicorns and tries to expose the truth. That could be a reporter, the police, or a wandering stranger. Whichever we choose, he wanders into a small town whose residents sacrifices innocents to the evil dread unicorn, and the hero wants nothing to do with it.
Let’s take the second plot, the wandering hero.
I picked the wanderer for two reasons. One, it is easier to make even innocent stuff look sinister if it is seen from an outsider’s point of view. So a nice, quiet, small town can end up looking like Children of the Corn, Part Fourteen if the traveler happened to stop for the night. This gives us some dramatic license to play with the readers and make them wonder whether the town is really that messed up, or is the main character crazy? The second reason is that if I end up liking this main character, I may use him in another wandering type story, maybe make him a reluctant monster hunter in the future, you never know.
Our idea has not moved, by the way.
It is still sitting there, evil unicorns, not moving, except now with the setting, we can add a few lines to it. In a small backwater town, a group of people worship and are controlled by an evil unicorn and are forced to sacrifice innocent people to it every X number of years. Our hero wanders in and finds himself hip deep in the middle of danger.
Our idea is now a premise, barely.
So, what are we working with here? What in our pile of ideas do we have that we can use to our advantage? Well, we are saying unicorns are evil and mean, which is completely opposite to the way almost everyone believes them to be. And just like that, we need to address why the unicorn lore and the unicorn fact are so far removed from each other. It sounds like some major league conspiracy to me. Maybe say that the good unicorn myth was created (along with pretty drawings) and told by a group of people who didn’t want the general populace not to be afraid of unicorns as a species.
It sounds far- fetched but since we are not into the story yet, we can run with the idea for a while. When I think of unicorns, I think of mystical connections, magical powers. In a stretch it might be considered Druidic?
Now here is one thing you have to watch out for when you are in this phase of planning. Let’s say you are a pagan or you know a pagan; that would mean you know that Druids actually have very little to do with unicorns and that they are rarely evil and murder people. That’s true. But vampires also didn’t sparkle until they made a hundred million dollars. Now they are like disco Barbie out there. Given that, what do we know about what is and is not real? Don’t limit yourself just because you know too much about a subject. We’re brainstorming and in the brainstorming phase, leave your left brain at home doing calculus problems and just free associate with your right brain for awhile.
Now, we have this Druid tribe who worship the unicorn and don’t want people to be afraid of them – fearful, innocent people are hard to capture and feed to Unicorns, in general. The Druids tell these stories of these pure white steeds with silver horns and all the rest of the fairy crap.
Only one other piece of unicorn lore comes to mind when I’m looking for help, and it’s what some people call the hook to hang the story on.
Unicorns are supposed to only be approached and ridden by virgins.
You see it? Do you see what we did there? Unicorns like virgins—what do you need for an evil Druid cult? Virgin sacrifices? What if they were all tied together? What if the entire virgin mythos arose from the fact that these Druids needed virgins to do whatever magic the unicorns were supplying, and that is where the whole idea of virgins having power comes from?
See how we turned the whole thing backwards and retroactively made it make sense?
Well, some sense, but we are starting with a pretty weak idea, so stick with me.
Now you have these evil Druids who get their power from following these unicorns, who, in turn, want virgins for whatever. Premise accepted. Now, let’s go back to the set up. We have this guy wandering into a small town that’s run by these Druids, though no one can tell from the outside. Unless the traveler is a virgin, he won’t be messed with, but he needs to become involved so he can be a hero. Let’s give him some motivation. Let’s give him a young daughter, [maybe ten years old.] The man and his daughter drive into Stepford (the small town). Where are they coming from?
What is the mood we are trying to build here? The dad character is important since he is the hero of the piece. He needs to have an emotional story arc that results in him evolving and changing by the end of the story.
The whole backstory and myth so far centers on the loss of innocence (or innocents if you’re feeling a need for puns). Let’s say his arc is going to be loss of innocence and/or faith in humanity. He lost something in his life so significant that he can no longer see the good in everything.
So then let’s say he just lost his wife, who had been hit by a 90 year old man who shouldn’t have been driving in the first place and never noticed the cross walk before he slammed into her.
So he and his daughter, coming back from burying the wife, stop in the small town to rest before heading back to their empty house in Poughkeepsie and starting a life he never wanted to experience, a life where he has to raise his daughter alone. He has almost given up, the only bright part of his life is his daughter, and the burden of being responsible for her is weighing him down like lead, no matter how much he loves her. They pull into the town and get a room. His little girl tries to cheer him up, and he rallies enough to smile weakly. They go out to eat, get back to the room, she goes to bed, he gets drunk and passes out.
Wakes up in the middle of the night to his daughter being abducted by men in robes.
He tries to fight them, they knock the man out, they get away, when he wakes up his daughter is gone and there’s no trace of the guys in robes. He heads out, tries to get the police department to help. The sheriff and two deputies swear they don’t remember him coming in with a little girl. He tries to call out of town to the State Highway Patrol, but the phones in the area are down and there’s no cell connection. He tries to leave to get help, but his car doesn’t turn over and he realizes he’s trapped. One of the people in the town tells him that if he just accepts all of this, everything will be fine for him.
Which is when hero dad realizes that he still has someone he is willing to fight for.
So, yada, yada, he finds the Druid cult, kills them, gets back his kid, and gets the hell out of Dodge. The end.
And just like that we have…absolutely nothing.
More correctly, we have is an extended premise. It’s not a story, but it’s more than an idea.
There are still some rough parts we need to address, and they aren’t going to be easy. This, my friend, is when you can turn your left brain back on. Now, let’s load up all the information we have as readers and writers and human beings and look back at the story with some real intensity.
Are we saying there were never any good unicorns? That everything we know about them come from these evil Druids? That seems pretty bogus, I mean you’d think SOMETHING would have come out by now. Let’s assume there were once good unicorns, and then they turned bad for some reason. Why? What if we said that when magic faded from our world, the loss began to affect the unicorns? They are magical beings, and the loss of outside magic has left them hungry. The Druids taking care of them turned to feeding them something other than world magic.
Like eating power from virgins.
Okay, so now we have good and bad unicorns, which means we can have good and bad Druids, which means we are not saying that the Druids in our story are the Druids from lore, which means your Wiccan friends aren’t going to give you dirty looks if your book ever comes out.
So we have a group of Druids who were desperate to keep the unicorns alive, although there’s little magic left to feed them. They turned to sacrificing innocent virgins to keep the unicorns, which are the source of the Druids’ power, alive. The sacrifices corrupted them and turned the unicorns into blood hungry mirror beings of what they had been. The Druids have tried to keep them hidden from the world in general. However, in Europe, word of what the Druids had done spread; a group of them brought two unicorns to the New World to escape avenging mobs. They hid the unicorns in the middle of nowhere. Which is the small town the traveler has stumbled into, and where the daughter is now being held.
OK, so that seems a bit more legit. But we’re not there yet.
What comes next is what separates the drabbles from the stories.
Everything we have so far works, but at the end of the day what is the point of the story? What are we trying to actually say? What if we were to say we are trying to talk about innocence and the loss of it as we go through life? What if we said that innocence, faith in the world and magic, are all the same thing? Our main character has lost his faith in the world with the loss of his wife. The only bright hope he has left is his daughter, and he doesn’t know how to raise her without his wife to help. So see what we’re doing here? When the druids take his daughter, he loses the last part of his innocence. By saving his daughter he is forcing himself to find a reason to live again.
Our story is about innocence and faith and what happens when someone loses both, and what a person will do to get them back.
Now we know what our story is about, which means we know how to end it.
After his daughter is taken, the man tries to find her, going to the local police who tell him that they don’t recall him coming into town with a child. He tries to call out of the town but the phones are dead, there is no cell signal, and his car won’t turn over now. He has no chance to find someone to come help him. Finally, he is ready to walk out of town to get help when a strange woman pulls him aside and tells him he needs to stay because his daughter will be dead by sunrise.
The woman is a Druid who has come to the town trying to find out what has happened to the lost unicorn. The woman serves two roles, the obvious one is exposition. One, she knows the lore about unicorns and the druid cult, so she can inform the reader of what is going on, and two, she gives the man someone to talk to so we aren’t locked into his internal thoughts for the rest of the book. Since time is running out, the Druid and the dad storm the remote farm where the dark Druids are holding the daughter. You can have the Druid use magic and the dad a weapon. They fight their way into the ritual where the black unicorn is in waiting for the Druids to sacrifice the daughter.
The Lead Druid shouts they are too late, a fight ensues—and here is where you have to make a choice. The more frequently traveled route is to have the dad win, grab the kid and have the Druid put the unicorn out of its misery. That is normal, totally okay, happily-ever-after.
I would do it differently. You have the dark Druids argue that the unicorn is one of the last pieces of magic in existence and that it is their duty to do anything to keep it alive. The good Druid argues against it when the daughter interrupts both of them, saying that she knows what has to be done.
And she impales herself on the unicorn’s horn.
The dad drops to his knees as his daughter slowly sinks to her death against the head of the unicorn. While everyone gapes at the scene, horrified, the dark Druid runs away. The man begs the good Druid to save her. She tells him without magic there is nothing she can do, and his daughter, and his faith in life, dies in front of him.
When her blood touches the unicorn, its blackness begins to fade and then slowly, the unicorn turns white. In front of them, the unicorn is restored to its former glory and bows its head, lowering the daughter to the ground. The man grieves, knowing he had been wrong; there had been so much to live for with his daughter, and now it is gone. Instinctively, the unicorn leans forward and touches the girl with its horn, and the dad and unicorn lock eyes for a moment.
There is a glow and the man understands, the unicorn is sacrificing itself, giving up the very magic that keeps it alive to bring the girl back. And in that second, in that eternal moment, the dad realizes the truth. Magic never went away, we went away from it. We stopped believing, and in doing so made the world a darker place. It is only through faith and through love that we will survive; it is only together that we can get through the darkness.
There is a flash of light, the unicorn is gone and the daughter wakes up.
And the man has his faith back.
Ok, so I know it isn’t that great a story. After all, it is based on a really crappy idea. But do you see how we went from a one concept idea to a full-fledged story? How the main character went through a progression, a transformation of sorts, and is changed by the end of the story? Do you see how you can tell a story about evil unicorns and not even be talking about unicorns at all?
A lot of stories out there are premises that sound clever on paper but never develop into actual stories because of a lack of effort on the writer’s part. And worse, the idea may have been really cool and the writing spot on, but the story itself has no structure in which to support it, and people will walk away still wishing it had been different.
What I would suggest is find stories that you think are perfect. I mean, those “five-star, oh my God I didn’t see that coming” kind of thing, and really look at how the author did it. What about the book made it so incredible for you? Was it the writing? The characters? The way the plot unfolded? Don’t feel shy about taking an established story and changing it for practice to see how plotting works. I’m not saying go copy someone’s story, I am saying take the story that blows you away and pull it into the garage. Take it apart and see what makes it tick.
Like Wizard of Oz? Think about it: what if Dorothy had ended up somewhere else instead? Let’s say she ended up in Asgard and she runs into three elemental companions on the way to find Odin. Does it still work? Why? Is it Dorothy? Is it the journey? Does it not work for you anymore? Does taking the fantastical fairy tale part of Oz out ruin it in your head?
See, no one can tell you how to write your book; you need to figure that out in your head. I am just trying to give you the tools to understand what is in your head to save you some time.
If you are drawn to certain stories and want to write, you need to be able to dissect those stories and see what parts actually draw you. And then be able to faithfully replicate the concept in your own words. I love the completely magical essence used in the Oz books, but I wasn’t too fond of Dorothy. She whined too much for my taste and was never really a willing participant. She was taken to Oz, she didn’t go willingly. So if you read my series Lords of Arcadia, you can see the Oz archetype in play, but in my story the main character very willfully makes the choice to enter that world. He may be completely ignorant of what that choice entails, but he makes it all on his own, which to me made the difference.
I hope this helped you some in fleshing out an idea to an actual story, and do apologize for the corny unicorn story. Which I suppose is the last lesson about ideas.
Some of them suck, and you have to be able to admit that when they do.