First, some housekeeping. December 23 is the last day to register for my online worldbuilding workshop at Odyssey, if you are interested. I will be taking next week off for the holidays, so no more blog posts until the new year. Now the question:
I’m having a heck of a time trying to turn my idea into a story. Since the idea is a whole economic system for a utopia, I have the setting. I’m just having trouble figuring out the conflict. Does my idea have to be the driver of my conflict, or is it okay to be more of passenger?
I’m spending a post on this partly because I was so busy last week that I kept not updating the comments, so nobody got a chance to answer Rocky, and partly because it fits right into the “developing the idea” post I was planning to do next anyway.
The short answer for Rocky is, there aren’t any writing rules except “you have to write stuff” and “what you write has to work.” There are emphatically NO rules for the writing process, except “it has to end up with words on paper/pixels” and “whatever you do has to work for you.” So basically, whatever you choose to do with your idea is OK, as long as it gets you writing and whatever you write works on the page…and no, your idea doesn’t have to drive the conflict. Because there’s nothing in “you have to write” and “it has to work” about how you get from an idea to a plot and characters, or whether you have to have a conflict at all. What you need is a story; how you get to one depends on you.
The slightly longer answer is: As I said last post, all ideas are missing something and need to be developed. If your idea is for a conflict, then obviously you don’t need to develop the conflict (though you may need characters, setting, subplots, theme, etc.). If your idea is for a setting, then you obviously need to develop a plot and characters. How you go about developing them and what you end up with depend on what kind of story you want to write, which in turn depends on what you think will be interesting or fun or challenging or all of the above.
Quite often, settings and situations require more story-development work than characters or plots. This is because characters usually come with some desires or problems that can be developed into a plot (and if they don’t, one can usually tease out said desires and problems without too much difficulty), and plots almost always come with characters (or at least, roles like Hero, Detective, Sidekick, Romantic Interest, Murderer, that make it clear what characters will have to be developed and slotted into place to make the story work). Settings and situations are far more open-ended.
A setting is fundamentally a place. It may have history and backstory and all sorts of cool cultural twists, but at bottom it’s the context in which a story happens. Context is hugely important – a murder mystery set in Rome in 12 B.C.E. is going to be very different from the exact same mystery set in San Francisco after the earthquake and fire in 1906 or the same murder-mystery set on Tau Ceti IV in 2533.
Settings, however, are vast in terms of story possibilities. Think of all the different stories that have been set in London – murder mysteries and police procedurals, spy stories, literary novels, immigrant stories, historical fiction, courtroom drama, romances, thrillers, war stories from pretty much every possible era from Boudica to WWII, myths like the Arthurian legends…every possible type of story there is, except maybe a classic American Western. And all of those story types and genres have also been set in other places and times, from New York to Bombay and from the dawn of history to the far future.
So developing a setting into a story means that you have a lot more choices in terms of potential plots and characters than you usually do if you’re starting from some other direction. (About the only starting place that’s more open-ended is theme, because “I want to write a story about love and death” can fit pretty much any characters, setting, or basic plotline.) Similarly, any given situation can be resolved in multiple different ways, each of which can lead on in several different directions. This is why five different writers can take the exact same situation and come up with five totally different stories (See Five Fates, a 1971 collection that illustrates just this).
This means there are several different ways of developing a setting into a story. You can poke around in your setting, looking for the misfits, the people who aren’t really happy even if things appear Utopian, the ones who walk away from Omelas, and build a plot around one of them solving (or not) their particular problems. You can look at all the different types of fiction and explore how they would have to change if they took place in the context of your setting, the way Western “horse opera” became science fictions “space opera.” You can introduce an outside character from somewhere else who isn’t familiar with your context, and look at the kinds of trouble he/she/it can get into here and how that gets resolved. You can look at whatever your very favorite part of your setting is, and come up with a plot that showcases that bit (say, a murder-mystery plot if your favorite bit is the futuristic police force, or a Cinderella romance or rags-to-riches plot if your favorite bit involves upward social mobility). You can take your favorite characters from other stories, file the serial numbers off, and see how people with those personalities would fare in your setting – what problems they might have, how their needs and wants might be the same or different, what different obstacles they’d face to achieving their new goals, and how they’d have to go about overcoming them in this different environment. You can write the story of some important milestone in the development of your setting – the discovery of anti-gravity or a vaccine that prevents aging, for instance – and the way the consequence of that event brought about your current utopia or near-utopia.
Or you can just look at the setting and ask yourself what would be the coolest and most interesting story that could happen in this place/time/culture/context. Note that this means the one you think would be coolest, not what anyone else would think was cool.