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.