Finding The Story

We’ve all heard the old chestnut about the guy who finds a pile of manure and starts digging through it frantically to find a pony. Because with that much manure, there must be a pony in there.

This is kind of like what writers do, only our work is inside our heads and somewhat less odoriferous.

It’s been a long time since I talked about this, but I remembered the day before yesterday when someone left a comment on my blog saying “I have this splendid idea, but I can’t write it.”  And what he/she (I honestly don’t remember, because I suck with names) related was not a story, but a concept.

You can’t write a story from a concept any more than you can ride a pile of manure.  A good story has a concept.  It might or might not have a message.  Mind you it can have a message too, and still be a punch in the gut.  In fact, short stories are more capable of carrying message and still being a good story than novels.  The medium is more suited to the enforcement of simple ideas.  It’s amazing how many people manage to overwhelm short stories with messages considering that that length is almost MEANT to carry a message.

I think this happens because they never fully come out of the concept stage of the idea, and also because they forgot — or never knew — that the primary function of fiction is to be a vehicle not for idea but for emotion.  Unless that message is well wrapped up in “why this matters” and emotion and a character people can root for, all we’ll taste is the message, which is like tasting what went in to making the sausage.

Many beginning writers get stuck between concept and story.  There is no shame in that.  I have my share of stories that are something like “It was a beautiful planet but they practiced human sacrifice.”  And then the story stops.  Dead.  Because.

I’m talking mostly of short stories here, because they are more concept intensive, but some of these concepts can lead to novels.  In fact, many of the concepts, as you start digging prove not to be a pony but a wild tiger.  You have to be prepared for that and not try to cram everything into a short story.  For instance, Darkship Thieves started as “forbidding cloning is stupid, because people will just do it illegally and it will lead to all sorts of truly spectacularly awful things, done under the cover of ‘there is no cloning’ and—  Oooooooooooh”  Could I do a short story for it?  Sure.  But then I started figuring out what kind of regime/people would do that and if they have cloning and surgery that advanced, what else can they do, and… well… novel.

I’m going to use some simple concepts here, some of which I used before, because I don’t actually want to be forced to write these stories, but I hope it illustrates the principle.

So, say your concept is: flying cars that are easily controllable/avoid accidents are invented, and the roads turn back to nature, and people can leave much further away and isn’t it great?

A beginner will start by showing us the roads going back to nature or something.

The story, if you can call it that will die.


Start with the person this hurts most.  No, seriously, nine times out of ten going “to the pain” will find you the story.

So flying cars are all the thing.  Whom does this hurt most?  I assume the car plants are now turning out flyers.  The long distance truckers have retrained.  Oooh.  Road workers.  Sure there’s other stuff they can do, like maybe gardeners and stuff.  But this guy is a romantic, who loves the smell of freshly poured asphalt.  Most of his friends were in the road crew and they’re now dispersed.  He really loved his job, and it’s now gone.

Open with him getting a call from a friend who wants him to come and work in some public garden thing where a major interstate used to be.  He doesn’t want to.  He hates the idea of never again doing road work and they’re breaking up HIS road to make it a garden.  Meanwhile it’s snowing softly, so he wouldn’t be able to start till next month, anyway.  And his wife is pregnant.

His wife goes into labor.  He can’t take her to the hospital, even though his road is still okay, because his car spins out.  He can’t do anything, it’s all going wrong.  A Flying ambulance arrives, with a doctor, etc.

He sits there, in the hospital afterwards shaking and thinks yeah, maybe there’s something good to this new world.  Maybe he’ll go work that garden project.

Or take a concept I DID make into a short story (published in Year 3000 antho from DAW.)

We have managed to go to space,some sort of portal thing, so we can go to distant planets.  But women can’t go.  Or at least not women who want to have children.  (Yes, I know, biology might or might not be with me.  At the time it seemed to be.)  The cumulative damage to the eggs means that women who stay in space can’t have healthy children.

I confess I made it women, not men, not to piss off feminists (I was much nicer pre-menopause and the sheer mess of the last four or five years) but because the opposite has been done so often: all women societies as a sort of golden future.

So, I went to whom this hurts most.  A woman, of course.  You see, women on Earth are baby-farms and … and the sterile ones can make a good living touring planets and doing sexy shows.

So this woman goes out and isn’t getting the reaction she expects, and she thinks it’s because she’s getting old.  But little hints seem wrong.  There are too many kids in this world.  Sure this world is rich off some found alien biological tech, but seriously, how can they afford these many kids.  And sure, guys pair up, we know this from prisons and other all male environments, but… something is subtly off.

And then she realizes that guys have figured out a way to use that biological tech to have kids without women (I presume artificial wombs, but I don’t go into it.)  She’s obsolete.  Womanhood is obsolete.

I called the story Go Tell The Spartans.  It’s one of my most depressing stories, and I had a hell of a time selling it, bu that was the pony under the pile.

As should be obvious from the above, there isn’t necessarily only one pony under the pile.  My particular quirks and mood at the time led me to one.  I’m sure you’d get others from the same concept.

However, remember: Whom does it hurt?  Go to that person.  And then from there follow “how does their personal arc work?”  “How is the pain resolved, or becomes crushing?”  “How can this person solve his/her/its/dragon problem?”

Follow those threads, and you’ll find the pony in the pile.  You can’t fail.

Good digging.


  1. Chris Nuttall had this idea that he wasn’t able to “turn into a story”.

    First he had the idea of “what if humans could easily interbreed with aliens (and all aliens could easily interbreed with other aliens)”.

    Then he had to figure out “how was this possible”.

    Even the “ancient aliens started life on all other worlds” idea didn’t really explain how all of the intelligent life could easily interbreed.

    After all, humans can’t interbreed with chimps.

    Well, he worked out that “somebody was meddling in evolution on all these worlds”.

    Chris (in story) showed that the Meddlers were active in historical times.

    Well, I knew about his idea but I asked him why he hadn’t continued the novel.

    As I said above, he wasn’t sure about “making it into a story”. 😉

    1. Now, see where I would go with that is to make a species that had the ability to crossbreed with just about anything organic because they have an organ that functions as an internal gene splicing lab. This species is amazingly advanced technologically and is prepared to welcome the human race into the Galactic Hemogeny of Planets or whatever.

      However, first they need to breed an ambassador. That is how they establish diplomatic relations with a new species–they create a child that has a melding of DNA from both species who will be able to function as a cultural bridge between them.

      This is how it has been done for a million years, and it’s the only way in which they will begin any kind of communication. And forget artificial insemination or sending a tissue sample–that’s an insult and would probably result in war. A human being must breed with a member of the alien species or no golden ticket to the universe.

      And so some poor schmuck is located who has a load of really weird hentai on his computer and is told that Earth needs him for a very special mission…

      1. And so some poor schmuck is located who has a load of really weird hentai on his computer and is told that Earth needs him for a very special mission…

        I like the premise, but am I the only one who thinks this sounds like a high-brow synopsis of a Chuck Tingle book?

      2. Well, Chris was going with any alien race can easily interbreed with any other alien race.

        IE a Vulcan can have a child with a Klingon, a Klingon can have a child with a Carrdasian (sp?), a Carrdasian can have a child with a Bajorian, a Bajorian can have a child with a human, etc. 😉

        1. Aargh! Think of the poor mixed-breed children! Nobody remembers to think of the children bred to be a special thing, and condemned to never fit in anywhere or find a mate like them who understands them.

            1. Sorry! I always look at things to see if there are missing viewpoints – and sometimes can’t stop myself glomming on to them (poor underrepresented veiwpoints).

              It is said that when two Greeks get together and argue politics, there are (at least) three political parties represented.

              Wouldn’t want to leave someone out in the col – as long as they can be civil about it.

              All these questions wouldn’t still be around if they had answers.

            1. Clearly, there needs to be a whole passel of them. The one might be annoying or disinterested in his or her role. This way they can compete for the role and/or fall in love.

              Then, just to make things better, other people can be afraid of them. It’s all good.

          1. Aargh! Think of the poor mixed-breed children! Nobody remembers to think of the children bred to be a special thing, and condemned to never fit in anywhere or find a mate like them who understands them.

            Now add a twist… the ancient precursor race that started this whole thing and seeded all the races knew it was on the verge of extinction when it did so, so it sent out a portion of its biology in each of the seed races. A child of significantly mixed mutt heritage might be sufficiently like the founders to activate a time capsule full of really nifty precursor technology only usable by sufficient mutts like themselves. The mixed-breeds instantly go from ‘objects of scorn’ to ‘galactic powerhouse’.

            I am one of those people that likes to spend time with ideas, and I do better with ‘how do I refine someone else’s rough concept’ than I do when I create my own.

  2. I have a file of “Bits-n-pieces” that includes vague ideas in search of a plot, scenes in need of a surrounding, and random “bit that might be a story idea but ain’t yet.” Some have been useful years later, some are still interesting but too vague for anything at the moment.

    Aaaand, some stuff I was looking at earlier just gave me an idea. BRB.

          1. I find that most tabletop RPG players (and some sufficiently tabletop-like CRPG players) have a stable of characters, some played and retired, some orphaned when their campaign fizzled, and some merely interesting concepts. While limited to the RPG world they are created for, I often find my RPG character personalities are more refined for having to interact with characters not under my control.

  3. I tend to start with a character, and then find a problem. And then I often have to start over with a different character, because the problem didn’t _deeply_ matter to the first one.

          1. Dan probably already knows. After all, Sarah’s wereform is a Straight White Mormon Male(with a great rack!).

  4. One of the things I use to know when I’ve got a story and not just a concept is the “Starting Line Up” from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer (and I can never thank you enough for turning me on to that book). It’s two sentences, a statement followed by a question. The statement presents the a character, a situation, and a goal. The second, a question, presents an opponent and a goal. (Example from the book: When humans suddenly begin to grow to twelve-foot height, John Storm tries to find out why. But can he defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?)

    That format serves two purposes. The first is to know what I need to look for to round out the story. I may have an interesting character in mind who may have a goal, but without opposition and a bad thing that can happen if the character fails (disaster), I don’t have a story. I can have all kind of bad things, but if I don’t have some goal it’s just wallowing in misery and not a story. And it all has to happen someplace (situation). And so on. The other is once I do have it, I can proceed with confidence. It may change along the way–this might turn out to be a secondary character and someone else take center stage or maybe the goal will shift as the situation is more fleshed out and whole new possibilities for trouble may arise. That’s all to the good. But whether something else comes up or not, with the starting line up I’ve got enough to make a story.

  5. This is my failing.I first encountered this in the aforementioned Techniques of the Selling Writer. I start with a concept, and get to how does this character deal with it, but emotion? I don’t think in those terms, and that’s what makes it difficult.

    Or am I missing something. It it to evoke a sense of emotion in the reader? If so, I need to stay with dark humor.

    1. Sometimes, lack of emotion expressed by the teller evokes more emotion in the reader. If you can talk about implications in a really involving way, for example.

      1. For example, there’s an old saying for actors that “The less you cry, the more they will.” In other words, the more you cry onstage as an actor, the less your audience will cry (because they are busy watching you emote). Whereas if you hold back tears, the audience will cry for your character, instead.

        I don’t know how this works in plays, but it works really well for singing sad ballads. You sort of paint a sad picture, and you work the vocal chords and get the right timing, but then you let the audience fill in the rest. It is hard to pull the audience’s heartstrings if you’re busy pulling your own, and really it’s selfish too. The audience wants you to let them feel things, not be told and shown exactly how to feel.

        1. To this end I stole one of the saddest couplets ever written in English as the final lines of the last book in my series. It’s one of the saddest because it is one of the most understated.

          My narrator has lost pretty much everything he spent four books building and has ended up where he started, as a loner and a drifter, avoiding human contact.

          The lines I used to end the book were from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Lament.”

          “Life must go on.
          I forget just why.”

        2. (Our heroes return from a mission into the past, in which they saved their universe at a terrible price.)

          Many such adventures are possible. Let me be your gateway.

          (Flipping open his communicator)
          Let’s get the hell out of here. Kirk to Enterprise…

      1. Or convey. In all seriously, when we found Up on TV Saturday, I paid close attention to the wordless summary of Charles and Ellie’s life and the wordless epilogue precisely because it evokes emotion. Trouble is, it was all image and music, so it’s not as applicable as Finding Nemo was to cliffhangers (I had to watch it enough that I started noticing that part).

        I have characters feel different emotions, but I don’t think about conveying it to the reader. I know this fits in with what Poe said about short stories, with every smidge working to one effect, but it was just something I never thought about. And I have a feeling that if I can’t do this, I’d best stick with non-fiction.

  6. I’m working on one now in which discovering the pain– and how personal it is to the protagonists– is in fact the underlying engine of the story.

  7. I almost always start with a character. Just about the only time I can think of that I began with an idea is a story that I wrote for a collection of SF/Horror stories called “Sins Of The Future”.

    I had recently read an article about self-driving cars, and I was working on explaining why I thought that they were a really bad idea and decided to expand one of the possible scenarios into a short story.

    So I wrote “In The Driving Lane” about a failure of the navigation network that controlled the cars–the cars didn’t fail, but they became unable to accept any destination and so just kept driving around and around the highway in a huge loop until they ran out of gas. My main character had just filled up his tank, so he ended up being stuck in the car all night long and eventually rear ending a stopped vehicle because there were so many stalled cars on the road that his anti-collision system was overwhelmed.

    Now, my main character is pretty much just “everyman”–in fact I would have to dig out the story to remember his name–because I was trying to show a situation that anyone who drives a car could relate to. I call it my “Dangerous Visions” story–I set out to make a point rather than to tell a story.

    But that’s not how I usually work.

  8. Hmm … I start with the situation, and the characters develop in response to the situation – easier for me, since my worldbuilding is all based on historical events.

    1. In what I’ve written recently, I’ve found it’s a cycle. Character drives setting drives plot drives theme drives character. You can start from any part and reorganize the elements as you see fit.

      “This character’s development suggests this theme, which suggests this interaction with this background setting organization, which would logically trigger this plot development… which suggests this further development for the character.”

      One small version of the cycle was I had an AI character, a bioroid, that could pass for human, and most of her development was then centered on a ‘what exactly is human?’ theme as she investigates what makes her like and unlike a human, especially psychologically. One of the quirks of the setting is that as an AI she thinks of herself as something like ‘corporate property’, but given her advanced fully sentient nature and that her owner/employers are basically good, she has legal rights. There are organizations in the setting that aren’t so good, who treat even some humans as effectively slaves. So it opened a new facet of character development in ‘what does the character think of slavery’, and I was able to get some decent plot mileage out of reactions to a character who thinks of herself as being in a ethically-gray ‘quasi-property’ state and is adamantly opposed to slavery.

  9. I agree with everything you said.

    I would add, though, that the more improbable the idea, the more details your short story will skip – and the longer the novel that fully fleshes the idea out will be. My go to book these days is Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction.’ His Chapter 6 – Making the Impossible Real, which I discovered AFTER I realized the same thing (but still love that chapter), discusses how much suspenseful, entertaining work the writer has to do – and some of the ways to do it – when the ‘impossible’ needs to be what happens, or there is no story. It’s going to take me a total of a half a million words to get everyone on board with my conclusion at the end of the PC trilogy.

    It’s that improbable in our society.

    It’s just work. I like this kind of work.

  10. Thanks for this. It makes it clear why some of my ideas are fully formed stories and others are stuck at the idea stage. I hadn’t realized the distinction.

  11. As to the issue of flying cars, I think that they will be largely limited to long, cross-country trips. In a city’s airspace, it would get too crowded, and there would be far too many multi-casualty accidents. Imagine what will happen when two cars collide and crash into someone’s house or an office building.

    1. Look at the uproar we have right now with little three pound camera drones. Now, scale up to four adults, and the guy driving is some middle aged near sighted shoe salesman.

      There will be no flying cars, unless someone invents a way that they -cannot- fall down.

      1. At least one of the ones in development seems to advertise with the idea that you won’t actually be driving it yourself, but the whole thing will be mostly automated. An advanced autopilot. At most you will point it in a direction. (Terrafugia. The concept looks a lot like I imagined Gay Deceiver. I want.)

        1. Aeromobil seems to be closest to getting into production, btw. It seems to have been classified as an ultralight aircraft in Slovak. So you’d need a flying permit?

  12. It was me! And I definitely appreciate this–will apply it to my backlog and see what shakes out.

    (I gotta admit that I’d kind of given up on writing because it kind of looked like I wasn’t very good at it. The idea that I needed a new approach literally hadn’t occurred to me.)

    1. Oh, thank heavens. You have NO idea how bad I am with names. I have members of extended family I know only by looks, and G-d forbid I have to ask mom about them. 😀

  13. That’s how my first novel had it’s origins: several horror-based concepts, at first envisioned as a few short stories, but then came the rub: what about the characters? Who is it I feed into this fictional meat grinder and how to make readers care about them? And that was a problem indeed, so fixated had I been on playing out these concepts.

    What eventually happened was that my characters began to push back and took on lives of their own outside of horror story fodder. Then I began connecting these characters to each other, and I got hints of an overarching story behind the individual tales and a goal beyond them.

    This also meant some of my characters had to survive, which ended up shifting the stories away from horror and into dark fantasy adventure. The stories were also getting longer, like novella length. So I put them in sequence and worked in a framing narrative to act as interludes.

    Now I’ve been working at a concept problem on and off for a couple of months now in between other projects. The thing is, I’ve got a story concept that’s eating at me to be played out, but my attempts at a protagonist have gone nowhere. The guy I’ve been trying to run the gauntlet’s just a blank slate with all the personality of a gamer avatar.

    One trick I’ve found is trying to do some research on the setting, looking into its history and what’s been going on at the time. That might give an idea of the sort of people who would be active and what they might be doing.

  14. > find the story

    I’ve read far too many books by experienced authors, agented, then examined, edited, and published in the old tradpub system… where somewhere along the way, nobody seemed to notice that there wasn’t any freakin’ STORY there.

    Stuff *happening*, yes, usually at warp speed, jumping all over the place, characters bounding about, and all that sort of thing… but I’d get to the end and think, “well, *that* didn’t ever go anywhere…”

    It’s sort of like when I ask someone what a movie was about, and all they can describe are the special effects. “But what was it *about*?” They shrug; some stuff happened, more stuff happened, and then the cleaning lights came on and they had to leave. But it was *great!*

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