How to write a story – any story Part One: The Concept

Ever since I’ve started on this path towards writing my first novel, I can honestly and am somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve spent more time researching and studying the craft of storytelling than actually writing. I know this is strange, but I see writing not as a purely creative endeavor, but also somewhat scientific. My goal is to write stories that are compelling and entertaining to both write and read, so I think my best chances include efforts to understand what makes great stories and the best way to go about creating them. You can argue science or psychology has nothing to do with it, but I’d have to argue that it does. Anything that has established history and data out there can be studied at least qualitatively, and better understood. This is the result of brillaint work by many authors out there, from Joseph Campbell to Syd Field, Stephen King to Nai Gaiman.

The current process I use to build my story is something I came up with over time. I have not proven its usefulness yet for writing an entire novel, but I have written short stories based on its basic steps. The beauty of this system is that you can apply this as easily to short stories, screenplays, as well as full manuscripts. The things that make stories memorable are all universal, only differentiated by scale, depth, and scope.

Below, I’ll go over the first step: The Conceptual Design Phase. It is arguably what defines the soul and premise of your story. For high concept stories, this is where you will nail that high concept before even starting to worry about plot or structure.

  1. Conceptual design of your story (covered in this post)
  2. Build the pieces of your story (characters, places, things, time)
  3. Put everything together on a very loose timeline
  4. Apply story structure (hero’s journey, three act, Freytag’s pyramid, Save the cat, etc.)
  5. Map out the major sequences, followed by scenes.
  6. Scene design – stub out the most important scenes
  7. Start writing scenes!

What is the conceptual design of your story? Is it a traditional genre story? (Contemporary action, sci-fi, modern thriller, romance, etc.) This is where you take the initial idea of the story and expand on the aspects about that idea that fascinates you or interests you. Maybe you have an unexplainable nostalgic obsession with “game nights” amongs a group of friends and want to explore it as a story. A lot of things can be done with this idea. What genre is it? Comedy or horror? Maybe a who-dun-it? You have to think about what you want to write about. Start making a list of ideas and concepts that might be included in you story to bring your vision to life.

For example, I want to write about the “game night” concept because it’s something I did when I was a kid with my friends and it brings back a lot of fun memories. That in itself isn’t a good story, but it’s something we can explore.

One concept I’d like to include is how game night was the mechanism by which people who wouldn’t otherwise socialize with each other would get to know each other better, and build relationships. This has been done through other mechanisms in other books or film, such as “The Breakfast Club”, or “Lost”. When you have some compelling reason why a bunch of people without much in common are brought together, you’re bound to have some interesting situations or conflict come out of it.

Another concept (or trope) that I want to include is somehow, something that starts as fun and playful (e.g. a board game?) will somehow spiral out of control, beyond the safety of someone’s home or some meeting room, into a more hostile open world where the same people who were brought together may need to work together to survive a situation that continues to escalate. Think “Jumanji”, but less kid-friendly, and more “do or die”.

Lastly, I want to raise the stakes a bit from a friendly game night to something more competitive and serious. It would be more interesting and allow more possibilities in the plot towards a thriller or horror story. Why not turn the game night into a tournament that opens the door for people of differing backgrounds to come together and interact with each other? The higher stakes and also mean more desperate actions by characters, which would work well with our darker mood.

I’m just winging it here, but with just three “ideas”, you can already see what type of story we’re going to have. Obviously, going from a board game to a hostile outside world likely implies a science fiction or some sort of urban supernatural setting. The fact that the players must survive leans towards either some sort of action thriller or horror. Other ideas we have for the story may push it in any other direction.

Eventually, you will want to spend a good amount of time letting yourself be creative, patient, and collect a large number of ideas that excite you about writing the story. These ideas or “tropes” (original or not) will be a big part of what makes your story unique and original. For a typical adult novel, it would be reasonable to literally have hundreds of these small ideas to inject into your scenes or plot. I cannot overstate how important this creative first step is. This is the process by which your story will be original, innovative, and full of entertaining concepts. To explain the flipside, if you don’t have a huge collective of cohesive good ideas, your story will read like a lifeless, boilerplate template of some genre or story type you’ve chosen, with no fresh originality that explores new ideas. Sure, you can come up with ideas later as well, but you can probably understand why its better to come up with the ideas before you define the overarching narrative.

Once you have collected all your ideas into something that makes sense as a cohesive concept, you can start working on defining the overarching narrative. This could be treated as a one page summary of your story plot. The key here is that all of your ideas work together to describe a compelling story that you will enjoy writing, and hopefully your audience will enjoy reading. Building something coherent is key here, so you will need to throw out ideas that do not fit. In our case, we won’t write a romance, so any deep romantic ideas like first date scenes or some sort of deeply connecting dialogue scenes won’t make much sense either. Remember, people were playing a boardgame, then things get crazy and they are somehow transported to an outside, hostile environment. I don’t see an opportunity for two of the characters to have a first date in there.

Your one page summary can sound something like:

“The protagonist is really into a popular new board game that <enter concept here>. They enter a tournament of sorts for this board game, held by the creators of the game at a small vintage hotel in the city. The characters meet one another, from different cultural and social backgrounds. As the tournament progresses, players are eliminated, and during one of the breaks, the protagonist notices that the eliminated players have gone missing. He joins up with a few of the players he’s recently met as they suspect something strange is going on and investigate…”

and so on…

You would probably write this multiple times as you either evolve your concept. This will become your “pitch”, or “one-pager” that encapsulates the story concept. There are other tools that you can try as well, such as the famous “Foolscap” worksheet.

Next we’ll start taking inventory of all the tangible elements of our story, such as the cast of characters, locations, items, chronology, etc.