People often ask writers, “Where do you get the ideas for your stories?” For me at least, each of my six novels has taken its own tortuous path. Some come more easily and develop more successfully than others; but I usually start with a simple, one-line concept that sets the hook into the reader and pulls him into the story. In screenplays, they call these a ‘log line.’ To be effective, it needs to be incongruous, immediate, and jarring, as “Snakes on a plane” was. That is one of the simplest and very best. Screenwriters and movie producers use them in a pitch to sell a story, but they can be equally useful for a writer to set the tone and keep his story focused. Call it a concept, a premise, or a log line, but every successful novel has a strong one; and no amount of writing, re-writing, special effects, car chases, sex scenes, vampires, or dead bodies can make up for a weak one.
The challenge for the writer is to expand that concept, line by line, page by page, asking the ‘whos’, the ‘hows’, the ‘whys’, and all the other questions until a full-blown plot and characters are formed and they all fit together. Take my recent e-book novel The Undertaker. “A guy opens the newspaper one morning and reads his own obituary.” That’s the one-liner that struck me one day, and grew into a novel. How could that happen? Was it a mistake? All the details in the obituary are spot on; it is him! Worse, he sees a companion obituary for his wife! Who’s doing this? Why are they doing it? What’s at stake? He goes to the funeral home and sees two coffins. That adds a spooky, terror twist that takes the reader from the basement of the funeral home in Ohio, to bumper-tag on the Dan Ryan, snipers in New York’s Washington Square, a bloody Back Bay townhouse, sleazy lawyers, corrupt County sheriffs, mafia hit men, the FBI, an army of Chicago cops, and the upper berth of an Amtrak train. Someone with a penchant for sharp scalpels and embalming tables is planting bodies under other people’s names, and our hero knows he’s next. So far, that obituary has gotten me 16 Five-Star and 16 Four-Star Amazon reviews out of 34 posted.
The novel I’m currently working on, Through the Glass Darkly, began with, “A guy’s in the window seat of an air liner coming in to land at O’Hare. He looks down, and sees a man strangling a woman on the roof top of a building below.” Again, who were they? What building was that? Why would he kill her? What’s at stake? A crime of passion? Was the hiding something? Or was the guy trying to shut her up? And who is our guy in the airplane? What is he going to do about it? What is going on in his life that this situation will make even worse? In the end, it may look like plot pacing and imagination, but I think it is simply posing and answering questions. While I am picking at those threads, I flesh out the main characters and add minor ones as they are needed to fill various rolls in the plot; because it is meaty characters that drive the story and make it logical, inevitable, and whole.
My most successful novel, Thursday at Noon, published in hardback by St. Martins and in various paper and foreign editions by Harlequin, began with, “A burned out CIA agent in Cairo stumbles home one night and finds a severed head sitting on his rear stoop.” That would sober you up; but who is the dead guy? That’s the first and most obvious question. Who left him lying there? Why? And what is our protagonist going to do about it? Each of the other characters fill a specific role. A few are there to help him, but most are out to stop him, to frustrate him, to create hurdles for him to get over, or to kill him. These include a top Egyptian police detective, the radical head of the Moslem Brotherhood, and his own Embassy and CIA people. From that first scene, our hero find himself in the middle of a murder mystery, inside a coup, inside somebody else’s war, each of which gets peeled away to keep pulling the reader along.
Anyway, that’s how I try to do it. Download a copy of The Undertaker or Against My Enemies and see if you think I got it right.
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