How to Know if You Have a Story or a Topic (with guest writer Abria Mattina)
Sometimes the best lessons of our writing careers come from unexpected places.
Four years ago, I jetted off to New York to study publishing at NYU in a bid to make my English degree worth something. I expected to learn about business, not storytelling, but some of the best writing advice I ever received came from that course.
Every day, professionals from various roles in the publishing industry came to speak to the class. The goal was to teach us about how publishing worked and help us find our places within that industry, but it was also an amazing opportunity to learn about how stories come to life. No matter what aspect of the publishing world a person comes from, he or she is a career storyteller.
One of the best lessons I learned there came from a journalist specializing in long, in-depth articles (the kind of central stories you read in magazines like Time). He spoke about finding stories and pitching them to editors, hoping to get the green light. It's easy, he explained, to find something to write about. It's finding the angle — the hinge point of an interesting story — that's the hard part.
The worst thing to hear from an editor, he said, is: "That's not a story, that's a topic.”
The difference can crush literary aspirations, whether you're a journalist or a novelist. Most writers experience ideas flitting through their brains like fireflies in the night; as a scattering of shiny things that may be beautiful and meaningful, but can also just be a distracting series of bugs. Experienced writers can pick a good idea from the bunch and run with it.
So, what does a topic look like when it masquerades as an idea?
How to Identify a Story from a Topic
Let's say you're thinking: I want to write a story about…
- A teenager with cancer
- A kid who discovers magic is real and he can do it
- A great white shark
...then you have a topic, not a story. You probably recognized these as the topics at the heart of the mega-popular books The Fault in Our Stars, Harry Potter, and Jaws.
Without a plot, each of these things is just a topic. Take a look at how the authors of these three examples made the leap from topic to story:
- A teenager with cancer teams up with a peer to pursue resolution for her favorite book before she dies
- A kid discovers magic is real and he can do it as he is whisked away to a secret society where old enemies await
- A great white shark terrorizes swimmers in a postcard-perfect beach town, devouring them one by one
How do you know if it's a topic or a story?
Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Can I communicate the entire thing in a single, declarative sentence consisting almost entirely of nouns? Like the examples above, it's probably a topic.
2. Is it time sensitive? Plots require a ticking clock. For The Fault in Our Stars that clock is the characters' health problems. How long will Hazel and Gus be well enough to pursue their dreams? In Harry Potter the academic year provides a long arc, with several tighter deadlines thrown in along the way.
In Jaws, the shark is such a nuisance because it appears at the height of tourist season, when the tiny town of Amity makes most of its money, and the sheriff knows he only has so much time before the shark strikes again.
3. Does it contain identifiable characters? Even if the idea starts out as spare as "a teenage girl," you should have some idea of who is doing the important stuff that makes this idea a story.
4. Can I pinpoint the conflict? Dissatisfying books and imminent death; secret societies and child-murdering psychos; a perfect vacation ruined by becoming a monster's meal — we can clearly see the conflict between what the protagonist wants and what the antagonist or the nature of the universe is driving toward.
5. Is it heavy on theme, short on details? It's probably just a topic, hovering above the level of a story, if it's mostly theme. For example: "I want to write a story about how dangerous it is to swim in the ocean at night." Danger is a theme, and the other conditions of that situation (action: swimming; setting: ocean at night) form a topic.
We need to add character, conflict, and timeliness to turn it into a plot.
Making the Leap from Topic to Story
Books like No Plot? No Problem! exist to help writers take their idea from topic to story. That transition requires the construction of a plot, no matter how basic. A topic simply can't stand on its own without the elements of a plot to engage the reader.
- An actor. Who's doing the what?
- A ticking clock. Because let's be honest, our perception of time is the only thing that keeps humans from being as lazy as lions.
- Conflict. Without opposing desires or conditions, your story is just a series of happenstances.
- Setting. If a story could take place anywhere, setting is definitely being underutilized.
- Theme. Also known as the moral of the story, or the grand idea that ties it all together.
Finding Your Angle
Students of journalism spend years honing the skills of finding and pursuing their topics from a particular angle — the hinge point that turns their topics into stories. It takes practice, not only to find an angle to approach your topic, but to find the right one that will interest readers.
You don’t have to find your angle on the first try.
Sometimes you may think you have it, only to realize you don’t… thirty-thousand words into your first draft. That happened to me a few times. I started writing a particular story in January 2008, and I’ve made annual attempts to rewrite it ever since.
I realized the first time that I’d approached the story from the wrong angle, and it was bogging down my storytelling. The story itself has changed little, but with every fresh attempt I refine my angle. Little by little, I’m getting closer to the book I want it to be.
A Few Methods for Finding Your Angle
If you’re stuck with a topic that’s still in declarative sentence form, try playing with adjectives. Like this: “My story is about a family of badgers,” versus, “My story is about a family of mutant badgers.” Find the angle that adds intrigue to your topic, and build your plot from there.
Drawing inspiration from your theme works too. If your theme is unrequited love, I’m afraid Shakespeare and all his imitators may have you beat. When a theme is redone in perpetuity, it becomes a genre convention. Skim the bestseller lists of genre romance, and you’ll find many synopses that begin with unrequited love, despite the ubiquity of that premise.
Some genre conventions are worth adhering to (e.g. happily ever after), and some are worth breaking for the sake of an entertaining, subversive story. Take a look at how other authors have executed works on the same theme, and decide where you want to deviate, if at all. You may find your story’s angle in a completely unexpected place.
In my first novel, Wake, I placed the motivations of one of the narrators, Willa, in opposition to convention. Upon befriending a sick young man, she resists the call to caregiver’s heroism, present in so many other comfort-oriented stories.
Some readers weren’t fond of her character for that reason, but by refusing to fall into the Florence Nightingale trope, I had a story that stood out. It was also a lot more interesting to write, because I couldn’t fall back on conventional templates when writing Willa’s scenes.
Practice: Incorporate Mad Libs into your Free Writing
There are some amazing sources for writing prompts out there, but you can practice free writing and honing your story’s angle at the same time with a little Mad Libs fun. Before your next free writing session, try jotting down the first ten nouns, verbs, and adjectives that come to you.
If you want, flip through the dictionary with your eyes closed and choose whatever words your finger lands on. Use these thirty words to outline a story premise — you don’t even have to write the whole story; just summarize it from beginning to end.
When you see a story from a bird’s eye view, it’s easier to spot the things that need further development.
Author: Abria Mattina
Abria holds a Certificate in Publishing from New York University and a degree in English Literature and Psychology from the University of Ottawa. Her debut novel, Wake, is about the struggle to redefine life after experiencing cancer and caring for an ill loved one. When she isn’t writing she enjoys traveling, eclectic books, blogging, and baking. She lives and writes with her fiancé, Daniel.