Welcome back to my series on Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering. Finally. Things got a little delayed because of the fire upriver. Things have stabilized, and I’m no longer concerned with suddenly needing to evacuate so I can go back to bumbling along.
There are 51 days until November 1. Until the start of NaNoWriMo. Until I spend a month losing my mind and typing like a madwoman. Fifty-one days to actually prepare.
Last week, I talked about ideas and concepts. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll say ideas are the initial spark while concepts are that spark fanned into a small flame (I might have fire on the brain here).
So, in the last post, I rambled on about where ideas come from and how they can be turned into a concept. I also chose an idea for my NaNo novel:
a story about a YouTube vlogger
I got the idea from my eleven-year-old daughter who is obsessed with YouTubers. The idea is character based as opposed to one of the other essential elements–concept, theme, structure–Brooks talks about. Just because the idea was sparked by a character doesn’t mean I have to start with character development first. I decided to work on the concept before I dug deeper into the characters.
Larry Brooks talks about how a concept can be summed up by a “what if?” question.
“[If] the concept is rich and compelling to any degree, phrasing it as a “what if?” question will not only be possible, it will be clarifying and empowering.
He uses The Da Vinci Code as an example. “What if Leonardo da Vinci implanted clues to his views on Christianity and the veracity of scripture within his painting of The Last Supper?” Well, I’m hooked. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie. I found the concept fascinating. See, already using terms without thinking.
Of course, you might not have that one ultimate “what if” right off the bat. And even if you do, you can still play the “what if game” as I call it because as Brooks says, “… when you pose one ‘what if?’ question, it immediately leads you to another.”
Well, that doesn’t seem so hard. Sounds like brainstorming to me. Only a little more organized and structured. Can’t hurt to try. Brooks says you can jump in anywhere, but as Freuline Maria said, “start at the beginning–it’s a very good place to start.” (I might be paraphrasing there.)
I decided to try out this “what if?” thing with my idea and realized I’d already set the first few up when I initially came up with the idea. I wanted to write a story about a vlogger. A vlogger that was tired with vlogging. A vlogger whose family won’t let him stop vlogging. Because they like the money he earns. So, let’s see where this goes.
- What if the vlogger doesn’t want to do his vlog anymore?
- What if his family doesn’t want him to quit because the vlog makes them a lot of money?
- What if he runs away?
- What if he finds a town that has little internet access?
- What if he meets a girl there?
- What if the girl helps her grandmother run a campground?
- What if the campground is failing?
- What if the vlogger decides to help so he can hide out?
- What if she decides making YouTube videos will help advertise the campground?
- What if he agrees to help only if he’s not in them?
- What if business picks up?
- What if the vlogger gets to know the other campers while filming?
- What if he starts to trust people again?
- What if he trusts the girl enough to tell her how he feels about her?
- What if the girl goes behind his back and puts him in a video?
- What if a fan recognizes him and spreads the video?
- What if a bunch of fans show up at the campground?
Well, that’s a start. It’s the basic plot–at least of the first two acts. Without even trying. I just kept asking questions based on the previous ones. Simple. Brooks mentions that you can jump in anywhere with a question. You can work forwards and back. Or to the side as questions advance the story or spawn tangents that dig deeper into the concept.
Like, in my example above, “what if he starts to trust people again?” That’s an interesting little detail. But why does he need to learn to trust again? A whole new round of “what ifs?” branched off from the original.
- What if he’s been making videos since he was thirteen?
- What if his parents got involved because they knew they could make some money?
- What if they started filming everything he did whether he wanted them to or not?
- What if they ignored his wants?
- What if they manipulate him to do what they want?
- What if his friends use him for the fame?
- What if the vlogger has asthma and has an attack?
- What if his mother films it instead of helping him?
- What if he finds out his friends and family triggered the attack to film it?
- What if they hid his inhaler to make it more dramatic?
- What if his sister was the only one to help him?
- What if he finds out she was involved with the whole thing?
Can’t blame him for not trusting people. My notes go on and on, but I won’t bore you with them.
All of these questions are great brainstorming. But is there a concept in there somewhere? Brooks gives a list of criteria that should be met in the development of a solid concept. Let’s check.
Is the concept fresh and original?
Fresh and original are pretty subjective. A majority of YA fiction follows a basic plot: girl meets boy, hilarious antics ensue, girl gets boy at the end. Authors stick with the format because it sells. I’m not trying to win the Pulitzer here. It’s commercial fiction. So is it fresh and original? Not so much. But I haven’t read any novels about YouTube vloggers (yet).
If not fresh and original, does your concept at least present an opportunity to impart a new spin on a familiar theme or premise?
Honestly, at this point, the answer is probably a no–it’s still the same predictable plot. The closest I can get is that the book is from the boy’s POV which isn’t common in YA romance. The vlogger angle is different but not necessarily “fresh.”
Is your concept compelling?
I don’t know. Brooks says, “It isn’t enough that your character and your theme be compelling… you need to give your hero a motivated situation and an intriguing goal or problem to conquer.” That makes a little more sense. Is my main character motivated by a situation? Um, his family nearly kills him by hiding his inhaler. To increase their viewer numbers. I’d say he’s pretty motivated to get the hell out of Dodge. An intriguing goal? Eh. That still needs some work.
Does the concept set the stage for an unfolding dramatic story?
Okay, I think I got this covered. The whole him running away because his family almost kills him sets up all sorts of drama.
Does the concept lend itself to the other three essential elements of storytelling?
The other three elements are character, theme, and structure. Well, the concept I have so far builds up an interesting array of characters. The two main ones are shaping up to not be stereotypes (no girl waiting to be saved by her knight in shining armor). I actually do have a theme that came from my “what if?” brainstorming (I’ll talk more about that later). Structure is the outline. The sequence of events that supports the rest. That was the big thing I discovered while looking for the concept inspired by my little idea–the structure just kind of builds itself. My structure, though, is still a little lacking in the second half, but it’s getting there.
Can the concept be expressed in a succinct “what if?” question?
I already answered this. Not yet. But I’m getting there. Obviously, I need to do some more work. There’s probably a concept in the pages of questions I’ve asked, I just haven’t put it into words yet.
I’m not sure if this is what Brooks really meant when he talked about “what if?” questions. But for me, it worked as a great brainstorming exercise that sorted my thoughts and showed the direction the story could go in logical ways. I’m just gonna keep doing things my way.
Next week, I’m going to skip ahead to look at the structure of my story. The four essential elements don’t have to be worked in any particular order, but as Brooks says, “at some point in the development process you must create a concept for your story.” I like to get that done right off the bat. I’ve found that figuring out the concept leads to the other elements.