Most great story ideas begin with those two most important words “What if….”
- What if a young man found out his mother married her deceased husband’s brother to retain the throne of Denmark? (Hamlet)
- What if a deadly disease wiped out most of the U.S. population leaving only a few thousand good and bad people to ultimately battle each other? (The Stand)
- What if the lives of African-American maids and nannies were as rich, and even more so, than their wealthy white employers in the still racist 1960s? (The Help)
Many “what if” scenarios can be resolved in only a few pages. I was flipping through some horror stories in the Kindle Store yesterday and came across The Basement by Chad Brown. It tells about a young woman, Heather, who enters a haunted house and descends into the basement where she faces personal guilt over her mother’s death to which Heather unintentionally contributed. The story resolves itself in less than 10 minutes.
In William Faulkner’s Barn Burning, the belligerent, poor land worker Abner Snopes exacts his revenge on the well-to-do landowner Major de Spain by tracking horse droppings into his beautiful home and burning his barn to the ground.
In both cases, you have a protagonist (Snopes, Heather), an antagonist (the gentrified class, guilt over a parent’s death) and an action (walking into a haunted house, desecrating someone’s property). Each story’s conclusion resolves from these three factors.
Even ideas that morph into novels start with a very basic premise. They have to. One doesn’t write a novel based on an idea. One writes some pages based on an idea, and finds that the idea has legs, can really take off in a fantastic direction and demands the writing of more pages. One great way to know your idea is good enough for a novel is in the discovery that the emotion or idea you hope to convey through your protagonist can be easily reflected in the story landscape or in other characters who exist in the protagonist’s world.
Consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The novel holds a basic premise; in a postapocalyptic world, a man is leading his son to the nation’s southern coast to escape the ravages of impending winter. Few people are left alive (and most of those who are have resorted to cannibalism). No society or infrastructure remains. Resources are virtually non-existent.
The novel is unusual for McCarthy; the end shares an odd hope for the future in the figure of the man’s son. Odd, I say, for a McCarthy novel. The author dedicated the novel to his son and, in speaking with Oprah Winfrey about the novel, explained the impact of fatherhood so late in life.
The story is filled with bad guys who have been corrupted by the destruction of civilization. Several characters also appear, however, who are either helpless victims or “good” fighters like the boy’s father who wish to preserve some semblance of community in a ravaged world. The introduction of these other characters expands upon the story’s original premise–”What if a father and his son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic world seeking shelter from impending winter?”–to make the book less about those two people and more about what it means to feel hopeful or hopeless in the face of horrific circumstances.
That creates a novel. A character becomes representative of an idea and the story environment around him or her deepens and complicates that idea.
In my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, the protagonist, a young Border Patrol agent from Tucson, Arizona, struggles to keep his new job after losing two others in less than a year. The immediate conflict concerns his wife, Jessica. She has threatened to leave him and take their son away if he gets fired one more time. Billy has been raised by a dominating father who lost his son (Billy’s younger brother) in a gun battle on the U.S.-Mexican border. The tragedy has twisted Hector who, in turn, has raised Billy to be cold, emotionless and hostile to everyone south of the border.
While Billy tries to find a the most constructive way to grieve for his brother without becoming the machine his father urges him to be, he gets his high school girlfriend pregnant, thus ruining his plans to leave town and begin life anew somewhere else.
As the novel progresses, the reader’s concern for Jessica’s plight as an angry man’s wife takes a twist. It turns out her father is a well-to-do litigation attorney who wished her to continue in his footsteps by practicing law. An unexpected pregnancy derailed that dream, which leads to disappointment. At first, readers quickly identify with her disillusionment with Billy. But as he begins to succeed as a line agent, Jessica seems less interested in the new man he is becoming and continues to rail against him for the sins of the past. It becomes quite clear that some of her anger also reflects her disappointment in stumbling upon an unexpected future that does not include law school.
Clearly, this is a story about children raised to fulfill expectations set by their parents. Reinforcing this concept is the story of Hector Maddox, Billy’s father. He holds his grandfather, William Maddox, in high esteem, indeed, at the level of hero worship. William (for whom Billy is named) was an Arizona Ranger who fought Pancho Villa and then retired to build a family ranch. Hector uses the memory of William to urge Billy to become a law enforcement agent when he has lost his other jobs.
It is also possible to see why Hector’s reaction to his son’s death may have been so hostile and even violent; in emulating a forebear whose job focused on maintaining the security of the international border, Hector may have believed belligerence to be the appropriate course.
Billy Maddox Takes His Shot resolves the question: What if a young man whose brother was killed on the U.S.-Mexican border finds one final chance to redeem himself? But the plot is quickly complicated by the story’s other characters–Billy’s wife and father–who contend with their own challenges about how to lead successful lives while overshadowed by the ghosts of their parents and forbears.
One great way to know your idea is good enough for a novel is to discover that your protagonist’s struggle disappears into a broader struggle shared by the world of the story around him. Guilt, loss, fear and hopelessness are all powerful ideas that can be driven by rich, complex characters…represented in stories we call novels.