An Idea is Not a Story

Ideas do not just become stories, but take time and effort to grow into something substantial.

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The difference between an idea and a story appears to be fairly clear-cut, but there is a point where the line blurs. An idea is a spark—a starting point—whereas a story is a fire. Keeping the fire alive requires fuel, which the writer provides as they write, but starting the fire in the first place is where the idea comes in.

Stories may well begin with ideas, but to become stories they need to grow. A story is the answer to the idea’s question. The idea is that first spark—the strike of the match or the chip against flint—which is used to ignite kindling. A fire cannot immediately appear; it must be brought to life.

Sometimes, even creating the spark takes time. If the idea is too fresh, it may still be wet. Like a damp match, it needs time to dry out before it will light. The writer must consider it, let it mature, before attempting to spark it.

Then comes the kindling. For an actual fire, one could use dry leaves, small twigs, or even dead grass. For a story, a writer needs at least one character, a motivation for that character, and a world for them to live in. Those three elements combined will provide enough kindling that when a spark is introduced, a small flame will appear.

This is not yet a fire, and so still not a story. It is the no-man’s-land between the idea and the story; the place where the line is blurred. To keep it burning, one must blow on the fire, add more kindling to increase the heat, and shield it to stop the wind extinguishing it. Only when it is hot enough, and has sufficient energy to burn the main fuel without assistance, will the fire will be stable.

At this point, the writer is still not writing the first draft. Instead, they must mentally blow on the flame, injecting enough thought into it to allow the idea to expand into something more. Further kindling—in the form of other characters, themes, initial obstacles, or backstory—can be added. It must be shielded from outside influence and allowed to develop in its own self-contained space within the writer’s mind.

The time this takes is often in direct correlation with the size of the fire, or intended story. A small campfire will require less time when compared to a large bonfire. Similarly, a short story will need less preparation than a novel, but will still need that initial mental investment.

It is only when the story has enough energy to exist by itself that the writer can begin drafting the story proper. Everything written before this is purely process; it is theory for the later practice, research for delivery. Working through characters, settings, themes, analogies, motivations, situations, subtext, relationships, problems, and growth is all rehearsal. It is preparation. It is not a story.

When approaching a new idea, a writer must allow it time and provide it with energy and kindling. Fanning the flames is not enough, and assuming it will cope without kindling will result in a quick death for a fire that was never really alive. It is better to let it develop before stepping away for more fuel, until it has roared into life by itself.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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