"You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."
~ Neil Gaiman
Character or plot? That's the writer's equivalent of the philosopher's chicken/egg dilemma, and it evokes the same questions about the beginning of life and the nature of the universe. Only instead of our real universe, we are pondering the universe of a story.
For me, building a novel's universe--the physical and magical laws that make it work, the landscapes within it, and the people who walk those landscapes--usually begins with an image from a dream, a moment, or a photograph. I may remember only that one visual. Nothing else. We all do that. Every person in America, in the world, has a story idea, or a script idea, or a sit com idea. Of course, some are better than others:
- Stephanie Meyer's dreamed of sparkly vampires.
- Mary Shelly dreamed of a "pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," the thing that became Frankenstein.
- Robert Louis Stephenson dreamed up the situation for his "schilling-shocker," Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by seeing Hyde take the powder and undergo the transformation in front of witnesses.
- Sue Monk Kidd, began her SECRET LIFE OF BEES based on a single image of "bees that lived inside a bedroom wall and flew out at night."
- Jacquelyn Mitchard, Stephen King, Anne Rice, and many other writers have all described images or dreams that sparked either a first or subsequent novel.
"The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build: making it interesting, making it new."
~ Neil Gaiman
The image, dream, or idea is only the beginning. Even full dream sequences make no real sense. We have to craft stories around them, populate them with living, breathing, fascinating, real characters who have unique problems that, at the same time they are fresh and different, lead with seeming, unputdownable inevitability, one misstep at a time, to an astonishing conclusion.
As Gaiman further puts it, "dream logic isn't story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you'll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream -'Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn't look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen...' - and watch their eyes glaze over." (Sort of, you know, the same look your family gets when they ask you what your story is about and you tell them.)
- The fascinating character
- The interesting setting
- The inherent conflict
- The inciting incident
- The high stakes
- The twist
- The coolness factor
- The hook the reader can relate to or think about
- The great title that draws the reader in
No matter the expert, no matter the genre they are discussing, when someone tries to define the recipe for a successful story premise, the top three ingredients on the list include character, plot, and setting. The order may change, the depth of each--the amount of each ingredient--will vary. That's the alchemy of writing.
No one can tell us exactly how to build our story universe. No one will say, start with character, or start with plot, or start with setting. You need them all to create a magical book. But the key is that they all have to work together.
The plot sets the main character in motion, but she solves the plot problem in a way that only she can solve it. Her external goal hinders or becomes the inciting incident, and her internal need hinders her on the road and ties back to her greatest weakness. She reacts the way that she does, and acts the way that she does. She acts. She becomes the story. The setting creates obstacles for her, challenges. At the same time, it becomes a mirror to show us her thoughts, and our thoughts. To shape the way we see her and the laws and mores of the world she inhabits.
Whether the chicken came first, or the egg came first, our universe began with a bang. The universe of a story begins with the inciting incident, which includes a character and a place.