Something hit me when I was going through my folder of unfinished stories the other day. No matter the size of the story–some were only a few hundred words while others were several thousand–they all had one thing in common. For every story in that folder, I thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty cool idea,” followed by a somewhat disappointing “but it doesn’t really go anywhere.”
And then I understood why I had so many stories in my unfinished folder. It was pretty obvious, too, once I thought about it for a few seconds.
Nothing in the folder was an actual story.
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, as a few of them are nearly completed, but for most of the things in my WIP folder, if you ask me “what happens?” I’d have to stare at you blankly and try to make something up.
The problem I found was that too many of my “stories” weren’t stories at all. They were just settings. Sometimes settings with cool characters, and sometimes even settings where the cool characters were doing stuff. But having a bunch of cool characters doing stuff in a setting of some sort doesn’t make a story.
A plot makes a story.
The reason my unfinished stories folder exists is because it isn’t full of stories; it’s full of ideas. If they were stories, they wouldn’t be “unfinished.”
Coming up with a plot isn’t difficult. There are all sorts of books out there with complicated formulas and firm rules about the precise “perfect” way to structure your plot, but I don’t think it’s necessary to make such a complex process of what is actually a quite simple concept. I’m a simple guy, so I think it’s a much better idea to keep things simple.
Consider the old adage:
“Get your hero up a tree, throw stones at him, then get him down.”
That is a great way to get started with a plot.
Who is the hero? What is his tree? What are the stones? How does he get down?
And that’s it. That’s your story.
My biggest problem with my idea/WIP folder is that I have a whole bunch of heroes, a whole bunch of trees, and even a handful of rocks. The only problem is that none of the heroes have climbed any of the trees.
Once that happens, the idea becomes a story and I can start working on getting that hero down.