I’m excited to share a new video with you today!
As you may know, this past year I wrote a novel. I wanted to make a series of videos sharing the storytelling tips that helped me write the novel from beginning to end and not get overwhelmed by the process. I thought you might find them helpful as well.
In this first video, I go back to the very beginning and look at the four elements you need to turn an idea into a story.
I hope you enjoy the video! It would be awesome if you could give it a thumbs up and leave a comment because this encourages YouTube to show the video to more writers on the platform. Also make sure to subscribe if you haven’t already!
I’ve just started making YouTube videos and really appreciate your support. I hope the video inspires you with your writing. Thanks for watching!
In his book Creating Short Fiction, award winning sci-fi writer Damon Knight observes,
“Even when you begin with an abstract idea, you must follow it to a character, a setting, a situation, and an emotion before there can be a story.”
This fantastic quote gives us the four different categories that story ideas can fall into. Once you have all four of those categories, you have a solid foundation to begin telling a gripping story.
Do you have a story idea in your head right now? Let’s break it down and see which of the categories it fits into: character, setting, situation, or emotion.
First, for example, you might have an idea for a character. You’ve written down this character’s backstory. You know their family tree. You know their personality. Maybe you’ve even drawn a picture of them or found a photo on Google. Or maybe you’ve used one of the character development exercises in my article here.
But you don’t have a story yet. You just know this character really well, and you think that it would be a character that your readers would care about.
Second, you might have an idea for a setting. Maybe you are like J.R.R Tolkien, and you’ve come up with this really detailed fantasy world with different peoples and creatures and even languages. Maybe you have a Pinterest board of your story’s aesthetic. But that’s also not a story yet, even though it might be a captivating setting that readers would love to become immersed in.
Third, you might have an idea for a situation. This would be where you might think, “Oh, I’d like to write a story about somebody who finds a million dollars.” It’s an intriguing premise, but you still need to have a character and a setting. Your story would be very different if it was sci-fi, for example, versus historical fiction. (My short story “The Lost Diamond” was first inspired by an idea for a situation: “What would happen if someone lost a diamond ring?”)
Fourth, you could have an idea that is an emotion. Maybe you say, “I really want to write a story where the character feels revenge. I want to explore that emotion in my story.” The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, is a book all about a character seeking vengeance. Or maybe you want to explore jealousy or love. You say to yourself, “I really just want to write a love story.” You have a scene in your head of a character experiencing that emotion, but you don’t know who the protagonist is or the villain or the setting or the situation.
Essentially, when you only have one of these four elements, it’s like having one puzzle piece, but you can’t complete the puzzle until you have all four. Once you have all four, you can develop your idea into a fully fleshed out story.
So let’s see this in action.
Let’s say, for example, you came up with an idea that you wanted to write a story that was about an emotion. And the emotion is that the character is going to discover that their entire life is a lie. You want explore how this emotion changes them and their life, what they experience in their soul, and how they react. Of course, your story can take lots of different directions depending on what setting you choose, who you choose as your character, and what situation you choose.
It could end up being a drama if your character is a woman and finds out, for example, that her husband’s been cheating on her. She thought she had a wonderful life and now she sees it was actually a lie. But maybe you don’t want to write a drama.
You decide that you want to write a futuristic, dystopian story. You develop a sci-fi setting and have fun creating that world. Then you decide for your character you want to choose a computer hacker. For your situation, you write that your character finds out that he is living in a computer simulation. But whoops! You’ve just written the basic plot of The Matrix. You’ll have to tweak each element to make sure its unique and not just copying that story.
So you can see that this exercise is also helpful at showing you whether you’re just copying the plot of a popular book or movie. You’ll be able to go back and spend time on each of the four categories to make them unique for your story.
The exercise also helps you to see if you need to develop your character more or your setting. Or maybe you need to write a more compelling problem for your character to face in the situation.
Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into actually developing this idea further so you can turn it into a fleshed-out story, but this is the first step: to put all of these four different elements together.
At this point, it’s really helpful if you choose the genre of your story too. What kind of a story are you’re going to be writing: murder mystery, romance, fantasy? Think about the stories in those genres and what elements they usually include. For example, in a murder mystery, your detective might have a companion, like Sherlock Holmes’ Watson.
You can also decide whether you’re writing a short story or a novel. This will help you determine how long your story should be. A fantasy epic is going to be much longer than a middle grade novel.
But, of course, you don’t need to spend too much time thinking about all that just yet. You might decide to write a short story now, and it later turns into a novel.
What you really want to focus on first is making sure you have a character, a setting, a situation, and an emotion.
Once you have all those, you’re ready to begin plotting. Then you can check out my video on ‘The Hero’s Journey’, a super-easy way to begin plotting a story.