Monday, October 01, 2018

Nanowrimo Prep: What is a good story idea?

It's October first, and you know what that means....

It's Nanowrimo PREP month!

I always do a brainstorming and story structure review series in October, and continue throughout November with prompts and encouragement, based on my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and workshops.

Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall road map, before November 1? 

But even before that, it's important to come up with a sustainable IDEA. 

When people ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” authors and screenwriters tend to clam up or worse, get sarcastic - because the only real answer to that is, “Where DON’T I get ideas?” or even more to the point, “How do I turn these ideas OFF?”

The thing is, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not the real question these people are asking.   The real question is “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest - for 400 pages of a book or seven seasons of a TV series?”

Or more concisely:  “How do you come up with your PREMISES?”

Look, we all have story ideas all the time. Even non-writers, and non-aspiring writers – I truly mean, EVERYONE, has story ideas all the time.  Those story ideas are called daydreams, or fantasies, or often “Porn starring me and Benedict Cumberbatch, or me and Idris.” (Or, speaking of Devil's Triangles, maybe both. )
You see what I mean.

We all create stories in our own heads all the time, minimal as some of our plot lines may be.

So I bet you have dozens of ideas, hundreds. A better question is “What’s a good story idea?”

I see two essential ingredients:

A) What idea gets you excited enough to spend a year (or most likely more) of your life completely immersed in it –


B) Gets other people excited enough about it to buy it and read it and even maybe possibly make it into a movie or TV series with an amusement park ride spinoff and a Guess clothing line based on the story?

A) is good if you just want to write for yourself.

But B) is essential if you want to be a professional writer.

Let's start with  A),

The best advice I ever got about what to write about came from one of my favorite writers, Denise Mina.  I heard her say it at the San Francisco Bouchercon in 2010 and it instantly coalesced the idea for my ongoing Huntress Moon series.

Write about what makes you angry.

Now that's a theme for a rage-filled week, isn't it?

It was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at the time. I find rage a great motivator. I get tremendous inspiration from things that make me angry. Social injustice especially. My supernatural thriller Book of Shadows, was partly inspired by the gross miscarriage of justice that resulted in the accusation and conviction of the West Memphis Three in Arkansas: three teenage boys wrongly accused of the murders of three little boys. 
I am especially outraged by crimes against children and women: rape, abuse, trafficking. Before I sold my first screenplay, I worked in the Los Angeles County prison system, teaching juveniles, mostly teenage gang kids and very young girls who had been arrested mostly for prostitution. Yes, they arrested the girls instead of the men who were trafficking and abusing them. The whole experience taught me a lot about the vicious circle that the so-called justice system is. We are failing our next generation, and it’s heartbreaking. I know I write crime thrillers because of that early experience, and I draw on the emotion of it – and the criminal procedure I learned during that period of my life - all the time.
My Huntress/FBI Thrillers - the books and the TV series I'm developing based on the books -  constantly draw on my rage about those crimes and my anger at society for not making their elimination a top priority.

Now, I'm a crime writer, so this works particularly well for me. Writing what makes you angry may not work for you. Don't worry, we'll talk about other jumping off points, too.

Now back to writing and calling my senators and reps.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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