As I creative writer, I hear this often: “I have a story for you to write.”
“I’m listening,” I’ll say.
“It’s about a blind man who regains his sight, but then loses his hearing.”
“Then what happens?” I will ask.
“You tell me. Write it!”
But that’s not a story. I definitely appreciate the lead-in, but let’s call it what it is. A story idea. A writing prompt. A character.
So, what’s the difference? Let’s define it.
A story, in simple terms, is a narrative telling of connected events with a setting, characters and plot.
A story idea is a fragment of a story. It’s an idea for a character, a backdrop, a start of a sticky situation.
But what happens next? What happens to the character? What happens at this place? What complicates the situation? How is the plot resolved?
There’s nothing wrong with story ideas. The best stories were born from a story idea. The difference here is that the writer recognized that the story idea was, in fact, a story idea and took the time to grow it into a story.
Even the best of creative writing students mistake a story idea for a story. I know I did.
During my grad school years, I wanted to write a young adult novel about a teenage skater girl who gets sent to an all-girl Catholic school. I was so certain that I had a story that I plunged in and wrote several chapters. But by Chapter 5 and she still wasn’t at the all-girl Catholic school, I knew something was up.
I didn’t write her to be at the all-girl Catholic school because I didn’t know what would happen next. I didn’t take the time to see the big picture because I was so excited about one detail of the potential story.
That’s when I knew I only had a story idea, not a story.
Don’t worry. I was able to shape the first chapter into a short story.
That’s why I’m a big supporter of outlining a story. I agree that freewriting helps in the creative process of crafting the plot of the story, but we creative writers often believe that we’ll be able to write a perfect draft from start to finish without any hiccups simply by having a story idea.
But a story idea isn’t enough. Knowing what happens from start to finish as well as how the characters change and grow is.
At least, enough to know that you’re on the right path towards a story.
Do you agree that there’s a difference between a story and a story idea? Share your thoughts below.