How to test drive your story ideas: Part 2
Story skeletons, "story bibles” and other knicknacks
Today’s letter is the conclusion of our lengthy craft piece from last month (see Part 1). This is a 10-minute read.
Welcome back! In the first part of this craft letter, we discussed selecting the right story idea to test-drive and poking the story idea to see if a better one falls out. We demonstrated this with a sample story idea we’re currently calling “Lost Girl Resurrected.” For the uninitiated, here’s where we left off with it:
Amidst a global infection that kills quickly, then brings its victims back to life untouched after a few days—they’re called Resurrects—a young woman fakes her elaborate abduction in order to achieve fame. But it goes wrong and she dies. Unknown to her, though, she was infected pre-death, and returns as a Resurrect.
But back home, she soon discovers she’s already been “found.” Another woman who looks like her, talks like her, acts like her—is her—is already there, living her life. This sets her off on a journey to prove she is the real version of herself, and that maybe there is more to Resurrects than meets the eye.
Now, let’s shake this idea some more to see if it “has legs.”
3. Giving the story a skeleton
Rather than jumping head-first into a plot outline, I like to first make a few notes about what I feel the story might end up being. Aesthetic, vibes, concerns, elemental drivers—little notes on what the cocktail of the final story may contain. For “Lost Girl Resurrected,” here’s what those notes may look like:
Title & pitch/short synopsis/logline: “Lost Girl Resurrected” as a title is a bit on the nose, but let’s use that as a placeholder for now. The short "back cover copy" we have above should also suffice for now. At this stage, you only need some shorthand to refer to the story. Later, if say this becomes a book and you’re at the official agent querying stage (after writing the story, of course), you’ll need a proper query letter with a different kind of synopsis. If you’re pitching the story directly to an editor for whatever reason, you might need a full synopsis.
“In the style(s)/tradition(s) of…”: I use this to avoid pigeon-holding my work into particular genres early on. Influences, storytelling traditions, tonal, mood or linguistic similarities, tropes, etc—I make notes about who/where I’m drawing from in telling his story. For “Lost Girl Resurrected,” I’m thinking:
the dark-ish, tongue-in-cheek, speculative whimsy of Neil Gaiman (simply because I enjoy stories like this);
the semi-noir-ish tone of Black Mirror and speculative psychological thrillers like Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls;
millennial-esque bites at pop culture & fame culture, like one might see in The Atlantic or Slate;
etc. (I could add influences from pandemic/infection stories—especially the early stages, when people often panic—but this story is not about the infection or solution per se; it’s about one person’s quest for answers.)
Story drivers: If you’ve read my previous letters about how elements of fiction power stories, then you’ve come across this expression. I think “Lost Girl Resurrected” might be driven by:
a distant but limited third-person narrative voice;
the main character’s shift from self-absorbed to befuddled to scared to despondent to determined; and
a brisk-paced plot propelled by the quest for answers.
(In essence: POV/voice, character/narrative arc and thriller-like pacing.)
Target audience and word count: By now, we’re seeing this story is shaping up to be some sort of speculative mystery-thriller, which means the target audience is a venn diagram where lovers of traditional psychological suspense/mystery (a la Gone Girl) intersect with lovers of contemporary science fiction/fantasy. I’d say the brisk pacing would put the story on the shorter side. A novelette or novella could be maxed out (since they’re already shorter forms), but a novel would likely be on the shorter side (circa 60k). From the kind of protagonist we have (young woman who wants to be famous), this could be written either for a YA or adult audience, depending on the author’s approach to character voice, emotional focus, tropes included, etc. This will affect the word count as well (a YA story would be brisker and shorter). For the kind of complexity and social commentary I have in mind, though, I believe an adult audience might be better served by such a story.
Now that we have a firmer idea of the story, we may now proceed to write an outline of all story events from beginning to end.
I will not write an outline for “Lost Girl Resurrected” here, but I’d like to point out that various people have different approaches to doing this. NK Jemisin’s Cliff Notes for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is one approach; Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward outline is another. You may describe in full paragraphs, use bullet points, or outline every scene/chapter. Personally, I outline in 2 ways:
a bullet list of all key events (in this case: opening scenes, inciting incidents, major discoveries and revelations, character shifts, new complications, climax, resolution, etc) wherein I’ll fill out the parts between key incidents if I end up writing the story; or
a full chapter-by-chapter outline where I lay out the goals, stakes, conflict and outcome of each scene/chapter (I usually opt for this approach with shorter novels and/or stories).
This is another point where you may choose to end your pursuit/test-driving of this idea. But if the idea excites you even more, you may go a few steps further to expand the story into its fullest form yet.
4. Expanding the “story bible”
For most stories I end up writing, I often set up a document where I make notes about everything useful that comes to mind. This is what I call my “story bible,” and its robustness differs from story to story. Some are one-pagers while others are packed dossiers.
The notes from the previous section often form the first part of this document. But if I decide to pursue a story further, I often expand this story bible to include other kinds of notes. Here are some of such possible notes for “Lost Girl Resurrected.”
Character Arc notes
I don’t have a firm grasp of who the main character/protagonist for “Lost Girl Resurrected” is right now, but from the notes above, I can already assume that she is:
probably a bit narcissistic & self-absorbed in the beginning, and likely privileged in some manner (only such a person would fake their own abduction);
highly vulnerable, impressionable and susceptible to external influence (for one to chase fame in such a manner);
not particularly skilled or competent (because the plan fails spectacularly) but quite dogged when the desire for it arises (like in her quest to discover the truth), an interesting strength/weakness duality that offers a lot of narrative opportunity;
earnest, in a manner that’s noble, but often detrimental in a cruel world; etc.
I can almost paint a picture of this person in my head at this moment. I can also, now, begin to think about what her “shadow” or Resurrect equivalent might be like. I know doppelganger stories often take the “evil twin” approach, but I’m going to switch it up and make the Resurrect an even better version of her. (Perhaps Resurrects as a whole are simply perfect versions of the same people, with the not-so-great stuff erased. Now that I think about it, that’s even scarier than an evil twin).
With speculative stories, my worldbuilding section tends to start out lean and grows bulkier as I write the actual story. At the test-driving stage, most of it falls into two categories: what I know (statements) and what I don’t yet know (questions). For this story, for instance, here are a few:
Resurrects, upon their return, age at half the pace of a regular person (statement)
Resurrects are perfect versions of the people who died; all the not-so-great stuff is stripped away (statement)
Resurrects are prized and abhorred in equal measure, because while most are ecstatic about their “upgraded” loved one, their unnerving slow aging and the idea that they’re undead is still unnerving (statement)
If Resurrects are doubles/shadows/doppelgangers, where do all the real people go when Resurrects return? Why is this character the only one who doesn’t go there? (question)
Are Resurrects going to be allowed to return to the populace, or set apart? Can they be treated as human? What is the legal/ institutional response? What is the emotional response of citizens, friends, family? What is the response of the Resurrects themselves? (questions)
Where in the world is this set? Is the Resurrect problem global or local? (question); etc.
Other ideas, questions and/or possible emergent themes/topics/issues
This is a dumping ground for notes beyond a world & character purview. Here are a couple for “Lost Girl Resurrected”:
How did the protagonist get unintentionally infected? How is the Resurrected “found” in her place? (questions)
Protagonist realizes the old life she tried to escape from is not so bad, now that someone else is living it (possible emergent theme)
Research, possible sources & sensitivity reads
Here, I often dump links to sources that may be of use to this story. This may also include names & contacts of resource persons I might talk to for further information. I can’t think of any resource person/topic for “Lost Girl Resurrected”, but I’d likely read a few deep-dive exposes on people who’ve faked their deaths/abductions.
This is also where I’d note any possible areas that may require sensitivity reads, especially if there are topics that are out of my range.
5. Writing sample scenes/chapters
Notice how we’ve stretched the story idea as far as possible without writing a single word of story? But of course, nothing gives you the true experience of a story like diving into the story itself. So, if you’re one of those who’d still like to write something before you decide if an idea is worth pursuing or not, this is your jam.
For a short story, the first 1,500 to 3,000 words should suffice. For anything longer, the first 5,000 to 8,000 words (or first 5-10 chapters) are enough to know if you’d like to take this story further. The most important thing is that this sample demonstrates the central concerns of the story, giving you an insight into if the story carries weight and excites you enough to pursue. Some of the things I like to include in my samples include:
intro to main/key character(s)
intro to key incident(s)/conflict(s)/problem(s)
establishing voice/style/language + tone & mood
stopping at a point of impending change/shift
If you ever pitch a story and a sample is required, these are the same things an editor or agent would like to see. By doing this now, you’ll likely just be getting ahead.
That’s it, folks! Hope this helps.
Before you go…
If you liked this, then How to Author Like a Strategist and On Fiction Genres and the Elements That Power Them might just be for you! All free, no strings attached. Okay, one string—it’ll be great if you could tell your friends about this letter!