Orchestrating Your Book Idea Into a Symphony
A Session with Roger Bagg
I once read that the average novel was geared toward an eighth-grade education level. I disagree. The comment is rather disparaging of eighth graders, in that many of them are reading some of the great classics of literature which are hardly dumbed down. What is true is that an author’s language need not be esoteric to be profound, or to convey profound meaning. Simple words, elegantly arranged, will keep the reader interested, whereas having to reach for a dictionary is likely to lose him.
If you were to agree with the above comment, you would extrapolate that a writer of an average novel tells a story of extraordinary human experiences, to which everyone can relate, in a language simple and ordinary enough for anyone to understand, eighth-grader or not.
I am convinced that in a good novel, the writer’s idea is both intriguing (grabs the readers) and simple (readers can associate with it emotionally). It is precisely this quality of a novel that will help you develop your core idea, or the “high concept.”
THE HIGH CONCEPT ITSELF can be the stimulant for the writer, spurring her imagination into developing characters and situations arising from the conflict inherent in the concept.
TASK 1: Formulate Your “High Concept”
In fiction writing, “high concept” refers to the very kernel of your idea; the premise of the story and its unusual and innovative quality. It is original and compelling and should be able to be condensed into a single sentence that “hooks” your audience.
Brian A. Klems, suggests that “high concepts” are “born” from the “what if” questions that inquire into the hypothetical, challenging our normal ways of thinking about the world.
Using a “what if” question as a formula for your novel will allow you to explore the intended and unintended recipients of the key action and its consequences. It is a great opportunity to explore your characters deeper, write out their background in a longer format, and envision the full spectrum of their emotions, the trajectory of their personal growth and their interactions with your setting. Here are some examples of the “what if” question used as a formula for your “high concept:”
1. What if an alien crashes on Earth and is rescued by small children (i.e. E.T.)?
2. What if science had advanced to a point where we could transmit our consciousness into an alien body (i.e. Avatar)?
A musical analogy seems appropriate here: Start with the core of the music. Compose your main melody – your core idea. Then add your drums, bells and whistles – to further personalize your individual style of narration and the nuances of the story.
Before the music is born, there can be a thought, an image, a color, or a sound in your mind’s eye. Here are a few ways to help you formulate your “high concept” and develop your idea into a captivating melody.
At dinner one night, announce that you are writing a book. There will be inaudible (and audible) groans, because the others know you are supposed to be mowing the lawn. Ignore them. Then come out with your fantastic idea.
“Vampires are fun, mummies cool, and zombies are special. But, wait till you meet these guys!”
Do this with a twinkle in your eye and a knowing smile on your lips. Practice that expression. You will need it later.
This is “sound-boarding” to test your idea. Retell the story as many times as possible to all your friends (this does not include Facebook friends) fine-tuning character descriptions and adding details to the progression of events, sometimes focusing in on a scene or two, to engage the audience and watch for their response. Pay close attention to feedback, listening to clues and questions that help define the idea and evolve the characters even further.
Structurally, this is the storyline development. No worries, none of your friends will steal your idea. They wouldn’t dare! However, never, ever divulge the ending. The “twist” is for your eyes only. They’ll have to buy the finished product to know what happens.
At this point, focus on writing the beginning and the end of the story, planning to finish the middle or how the characters arrive at the end later.
Here is an example from my novel Expedition Beyond, Desmond Alexander Cox makes a new discovery and finds a way to pursue a dream exploration mission. Here, my “high concept” can be summarized as the following question:
What if life was possible deep inside Earth’s core?
Below is a sample of the same task in the language of the finished novel, within two paragraphs:
A deep crevice had opened in the ice at the edge of the Arctic Ocean near the magnetic North Pole; the shadow appeared on recent photographs, but had not been there three years earlier. Des had explained to the board that this was an exceptional opportunity not to be missed. He’d emphasized the possibility of finding rare minerals and his wit and charm had swayed their judgment. Why else would the board spend three hundred grand to fund an exploratory adventure?
Des wished he hadn’t brazenly insisted on leading the team; upon reflection, their acceptance of his proposal seemed too easy. Des had never before been on assignment outside his office, yet they expected him to succeed just like he had in-house.
Decide on a dilemma that deeply fascinates you in your book. Isolate the core ideas associated with it. Ponder the meaning of these ideas as they relate to your characters (as well as yourself and your readership).
Imagine contrasting and opposing forces that your characters will encounter. Open thought to all options of how these core ideas become a story shared between your characters.
Envision a continuum of events that mark the story’s beginning, middle and end. Write one paragraph describing your core idea condensed into a “high concept.”
At this stage, I outline the entire novel. This is not a three-page quick synopsis, but a detailed analysis of how events happen and lead to the next scene. I enjoy thinking sequentially, and so create my outline to become my novel’s backbone.
This is also where I discover what my characters are like. In the book I am working on now, I wrote 10,000 words before I realized that one of the main characters was a guy, rather than a girl! With a name like Chin, how was I supposed to know?
My typical outline is 50,000 to 120,000 words long. Up to 30,000 of these words will not appear in the final draft. Entire scenes will be omitted. Some characters will be written off as unnecessary. The “outtakes” will be left on the cutting room floor. Painful, yes.
When characters enter the outline, they change the progression of events by their personalities. Sometimes they delay the flow forward, and at other times, they shift the direction of the story altogether. Once molded, the characters have a mind of their own, and I am often surprised at where they take the story.
Here, especially, I pay close attention to the rhythms of my characters’ expression in voice and movement, their interactions and how this applies to the book’s balance. As Robert Goodspeed wrote in his manual on creative writing, “It just feels right when cadences fit circumstances.” (The Novel Sentence, 74)
My character, Des, made a shocking discovery while examining hieroglyphics in Expedition Beyond. Personally, I am not that good at reading runes, so I mulled for days over what he saw. It certainly seemed important! And then, OMG, I saw it too, a real game-changer. As a result, my core idea grew into something bigger:
Anastasia spoke briefly to the timekeeper. His shadowy figure flittered away from the clock.
Des watched the lodestone carve a new line in the sand.
“The timeline is too long,” Des said.
“What do you mean?” Anastasia asked him.
“Who built this timepiece?”
“The ancient ones. It is recorded in the runes.”
Anastasia led Des to an antechamber. Inside, he waved his torch from side to side. The room was an eight-meter cube, with a flat, granite ceiling above a parallel granite floor. It was like a vault without a door. The walls were smooth and covered in hieroglyphics. Des understood none of it, until he found pictographs.
“Oh, my God!” Des exclaimed.
“What is it?”
Anastasia said, “It is a bird.”
It wasn’t a bird. It was an airplane.
“The beasts must not find this,” Des said, wondering what other secrets were hidden in the runes.
What is your story’s beginning? How does the core idea enter the narrative? Write out a sequence of events that features your protagonist.
What is the story’s ending? How do you arrive? What twists do you project in the path along the way?
Compose 3-5 paragraphs developing your core idea through a sudden change in the plot. Take your concept “higher” into the “what if” realm.
Ideas develop most vividly in well-orchestrated and well-staged scenes. Scenes are situations that happen to characters, which you select to follow the storyline. I usually focus on behavioral patterns that fascinate me the most in my characters; patterns that reveal humans, well, being human. I set the stage and watch my characters, discovering their reactions. I test them, pushing my characters to extreme edges.
There is an incredible musical quality to this process, as the characters have their paces, rhythms and tones of expressions. Here, the symphony of human voices and experiences truly begin to emerge.
Compose descriptions of three important scenes in the progression of your story from beginning to end. Identify the situation that carries the strongest emotional change for your characters, demanding the most flexibility or decisive action on their part.
Write out this situation in greater detail; set the stage (what/where/when/who) lead the characters from facing the dilemma through the resolution. Identify and add contrasts and twists.
In Expedition Beyond, I limited the resources Des could draw from to confront the enemy.
Nearly fifteen hundred souls left the village that day, bound for havens down the coast and inland. As the warriors brushed away their families’ footprints, Des inventoried who was left, besides himself and Anastasia:
496 women warriors
Itar and his two guards
Six young girls who were the fastest runners he could find.
And, hopefully, God was on their side, too.
A ragtag fleet faces an invincible army, if I do say so myself. Good luck to him!
TASK 2: Composing your novel’s summaries
Summaries, synopses, or elevator-pitches of your novel will come in handy well before you might actually need them (for your friends, potential publishers, agents, etc.). Begin creating these early, perhaps, in concert with composing your narrative. The more time you give yourself to polish these individual forms, the better off you will sound at your recital; and your chances of attracting Lady-Publishing-Luck will correspondingly increase.
Once I complete my outline, I step back and write a one-sentence log line (or a paragraph), a one-page outline and a five-page synopsis. Be aware that I never push style—it will travel under its own momentum.
The log line is meant to be alluring, the simple essence of the entire novel. A beginning author doesn’t have the luxury of pages of text that a veteran composer can write before hammering down the reader. Why? Because the reader of a favorite novelist knows the hook is coming and it is going to be mouthwateringly engaging! This sentence can become your elevator-pitch, offering an enticing sneak-peak at your protagonist, too. It is a fabulous opportunity to fine-tune your language with personalized metaphors, symbols and a unique rhythm, if you wish.
The one-page summary should be solely dedicated to your protagonist. What extraordinary qualities does this character have that we should care about? Why does he/she sing the song of your book?
The five-page synopsis includes two or three characters and their interactions that demonstrate more of the intricacies of what you are writing. This exercise will help you articulate the evolution of your characters, i.e. the full scope of their personal growth in relation to the plot. Here, I prefer to focus on the story’s major conflicts and how they showcase the characters’ transformations.
To tackle this task, I first write out the personal backgrounds of each of my characters in as much detail as possible. Then I move on to creating the lists of conflicts in my novel, discerning individual levels and nuances within the most significant ones. I identify the surface problems and all the sides involved. I then mark the hidden battles within my characters. I watch how these clashes escalate and how they affect my characters, or how the characters fuel the escalations. Writing out your characters and your conflicts may prove to be the single most powerful exercise to keep you on your own track while finishing your novel.
I prefer to use the five-page format to likewise introduce the individual characteristics of my characters’ personalities. I make up their gestures and speaking patterns. I improvise with the flow of their utterances in dialog, listening for their unique light and steady or sharp and convoluted cadences; allowing them to take over. These five pages may help you tremendously in designing the deeper emotional fabric of your novel and truly pull all the strings together into your perfect symphony of sounds.
In Expedition Beyond, Des, Mitch and Anastasia are the generals driving the action. So, before diving into finishing the manuscript, the four of us sat down for a little powwow.
“You guys are the best characters in the world! Now get out there and make me proud of you!”
It always helps to drum ’em up a little. ~
Best of luck to you,
About the Author…
Roger Bagg, D.V.M. is an upstanding scientist, an indefatigable adventurer, and a dedicated veterinarian practicing near Boulder, Colorado. His outside interests include camping, hiking, jogging, skiing, hunting and most other outdoor activities except skydiving and bungee jumping. He is a motorcycle enthusiast, proudly riding both a Kawasaki and Yamaha.