How to tell when you have a story

Lightbulb. Like most writers, I have a lot of ideas. I have ideas for quirky characters, interesting settings, crazy plot twists. Sometimes those ideas become stories that I and my critique partners get really excited about. And sometimes I’ll take those ideas and run with them for a whole novel-length draft (or seven), but at the end of the day I still can’t pin down the story behind the spark.

I’m getting better at spotting the difference between ideas and stories, but sometimes it can be hard to tell when I’m in the middle of a project. I don’t consider any writing wasted — even if I end up scrapping scenes or entire drafts, the time I spent writing them was time spent improving my craft — but for the sake of being more efficient, I’ve come up with a mental checklist before I get too far into a draft. If, like me, you’re quick to jump into every promising idea, you may find asking yourself the following questions helpful before you start writing.

1. Can I write a query letter for this book? You don’t have to have every scene planned out, or even know exactly how the story ends, to be able to discuss the heart of the story. What is this book about? What is the main character trying to accomplish, and why, and what will happen if s/he doesn’t accomplish that? What is standing in the main character’s way? What is the hook?

In my own experience, the ideas that work really well as books are ones I can draft a query letter for before I’ve even finished the first draft of the novel. If you can talk clearly and succinctly about your project, you know you’ve got a story. If you can’t, maybe you’ve got a great idea, but you haven’t quite figured out how to turn that idea into a story yet.

2. Do all my characters have realistic goals and motivations? An antagonist can’t just be an antagonist because your story needs one; s/he has to have her own reasons for opposing your hero. Likewise, your hero can’t just go on a quest for the sake of going on a quest; s/he has to have a larger goal in mind. Maybe she wants to save her kingdom, and defeating the antagonist is the only way to do that. Maybe he wants revenge because the antagonist killed his brother. If it feels like your characters do what they do just for the sake of moving the plot forward, you don’t have a story yet.

3. Am I constantly making big changes to my draft? For me, this is the biggest sign that my idea isn’t a story yet. I’ve had a couple ideas that I’ve been really excited about, and have written multiple novel-length drafts that I’ve tried to edit only to realize they just aren’t working. So I’ll change the main character, or the viewpoint, or the setting. I’ll add a subplot or make the original plot a subplot and come up with a new plot. I’ll re-work an idea until I make myself crazy and burn out on it, and have to set it aside for months before I can look at it again. If you find yourself making these kinds of major changes to your project, you may not have a story yet.

Note that in all of these cases, I say you don’t have a story yet. That doesn’t mean your great idea will never become a story. Sometimes you just have to find the right characters or setting to make that idea work. Sometimes letting that idea marinate in your subconscious for a while will help you figure out exactly how to turn it into a story.

Also, keep in mind that every writer’s process is different. I talk about what works for me on this blog, and hope it helps others along the way. If your process goes against anything I’ve said here or in other posts, and it works for you, keep doing it!

Have you gotten stuck on a project that turned out to be an idea, not a story? Did you find the story in that spark? Please share in the comments!

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