Idea Examples— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Kernel Ideas Can Be Anything

A character

A plot

A setting or scene

An intent

A “What If”

TN_ETERNITY_BASE(2)Let’s look at some ideas

  • Character: “A housewife and female assassin must uncover the truth of the men in their lives in order to save their own.” Bodyguard of Lies
  • Plot: “What if a Federal agent investigating a murder, finds out it’s connected to an illegal CIA operation?” The Green Berets: Chasing The Ghost
  • Setting or scene: “An international treaty bans weapons in Antarctica: What if the US put nuclear weapons there and lost track of them?” The Green Berets: Eternity Base
  • Intent/Theme: “Connection leads to a full life.” Don’t Look Down.
  • “What If”: “What if people going into the Witness Protection Program really disappear?” The Green Berets: Cut Out

For an example of What If and how we can make it better:

What if Mary has to stop a band of terrorists?

How could this be improved? What does Mary mean? Not much. How about ‘a housewife’? How about making her a special housewife with an anomaly. What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife? However, that term hints at a comedic tone.

Stop a band of terrorists from what? How about ‘assassinating the president’? so we understand what’s at stake.

This gives us: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife has to stop a band of terrorists from assassinating the President?

That pops, but it makes me wonder how we balance the comedic possibility of the OCD with the high stakes thriller of the assassination? Do you see how your idea raises questions? Both good and bad. This is why we spend almost an entire day at the Write on the River retreat working on this one sentence. Putting it on the whiteboard and dissecting every word. Because . . .

The Importance of Your Kernel Idea

  • It starts your creative process
  • Remembering it keeps you focused
  • It’s often the core of the pitch to sell the book

I stress this in my teaching because this one idea is critical to the writing process. It’s the one thing I believe every writer should start with, or at the very least, find it before getting too far into the draft.

I also believe every writer should have this on a piece of paper, post-it note, or taped to their computer screen where they can see it at the beginning of every writing session.

Sometimes the kernel idea could even be a way to tell a story, rather than the story itself. Telling the same story from two different perspectives, usually presents two different stories. For example, an idea is “What if a person with limited mental capacity interacts with the world?” The film A Dangerous Woman (film works the same way) shows normal, everyday life with the main character being a woman who always tells the truth. You want to talk about someone who is dangerous. Think about it. The film is an excellent portrayal of our society, but the idea was the different perspective. What was Forrest Gump about? It had the same basic what if. Wasn’t it the main character’s perspective that made the story, rather than the actual events?

thousand acresA different point of view can be a way to tell a story that’s already been done in a fresh way. In Beowulf the monster had his story to tell and John Gardner did it in Grendel. Who was the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre? She had her story and Jean Rhys told it in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Smiley put King Lear on a present day farm and called it A Thousand Acres. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

Whenever I watch a film or video I try to figure out what was the original idea the screenwriter had. For example, in the movie True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino, there is a scene at the end where there are four groups of people in a room all pointing guns at each other in a classic Mexican standoff. Rewatching the film, I can see the entire movie driving to that one climactic scene. In an interview, Tarantino said that scene was the kernel idea. He didn’t know who the people with the guns were (that’s character); where the room was (setting); why they were in the room (motivation); whether it was the beginning, end or middle of the movie (story and plot); what the result of this stand-off would be; etc. etc. He just had this vision to start with.

When I watched the movie The Matrix, the scene that stuck out to me was where all those people were plugged and being tapped for their electrical power. I almost sense that was the kernel idea—the screenwriter read or heard that the human body produced X amount of electricity and sat down and thought what he could do with that idea. I think he then came up with the concept of the Matrix itself as a follow on.

Are you thinking about your idea? Do you know what your one sentence is?

We’ll spend the next couple of posts going deeper into this!

The Alpha Male: Really?

oxygenIt seems one has to be a (pick one, or combine some): cowboy, billionaire, SEAL, Secret Agent, race car driver, CEO, etc. etc. in order to the hero in a romance novel. Essentially the Alpha Male.

Which is kind of amusing since those occupations also tend to have the highest divorce rates. My first year in 10th Special Forces, I was deployed 330 days out of 365. And that was without a long deployment (usually 6 months for Spec Ops). Instead it was constant coming and going as mission required. Do you think that’s conducive to marriage? Or a romance novel:

Becky lusted for Lance, but he was in Bosnia at the moment, trying to keep people from killing each other. So she went for the tennis instructor at the country club. The End.

Seems no heroine ever wants to boink the guy serving fries.

On the flip side, there was this article in the NY Times where the author complains about the modern male: Swearing Off The Modern Male.

I confess I don’t know what Coachella is, so I am lacking in moderness. (Is that a word?). Sometimes people send me messages on Facebook and I don’t see them for like a month. Seriously—who sends a message on Facebook? I don’t know what Tinder is and if I did I imagine my wife would pile some tinder under me and make me a smoking wreck. She’s currently cleaning the shower convinced she can get the water marks on the glass off. I’m staying away as she just yelled down asking me to google what happens when you mix alcohol and acid. On the other hand, if there’s an explosion, I will know what to do! Army training, sir!

I do lean towards the idea of universal service. Not necessarily military. We’ve got the Peace Corps, which Jen’s daughter has joined—that’s a serious deployment she’s going on. No texting, Facebooking or any of that crap. As a matter of fact, Jen was told not to expect to hear from her daughter for the first three months if not longer since her daughter will be going through training, learning the culture, the language and getting to know the villagers she will be living with for the next 27 months. Basically, no news is good news. The Peace Corp has been in existence since 1961 and has only had 220,000 volunteers. Current volunteers? Just under 7k. It will, though, give her a very unique perspective about the world in which we live in. We could have a version of the CCC to work on our crumbling infrastructure. Except they’d have to leave their iPhones at home.

Frankly, there is something to be said about going through a rite of passage. I’m not talking some fraternity/sorority bullshit singing ignorant, offensive, songs on a bus ride. I’m talking one where a person is pushed to their limits. Because most people have no clue what their limits are. And that most people are capable of so much more than they think they are. They just never have been tested. And as a society, we have stopped testing the average person, so our average is below average.

A TeamPushing yourself is a learned thing. I don’t know how much training I went through where they started with the old “look to your left, look to your right, one of you is going to be gone.” Sometimes it was two of you would be gone. Sometimes it was: we’re going to do our best to make all of you gone. It just never occurred to me that it would be me. And that attitude has stood me in good stead over the years.

Growing up, all my dad and all my uncles had been in the military. They’d all done at least one stint. Went through basic. Stationed somewhere. Sometimes where they got shot at. Had to learn to obey orders. Inculcate discipline. Now less than 1% of our population has served. I find that a bit worrisome.

After all, where are the heroes in the future romance novels going to come from?

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Ten books in one bundle– all by experts in the field of writing (including my Novel Writers Toolkit).  This is a great value for any writer.

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The Kernel Idea (The Original Idea)– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Toolkit_TNThe kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book. By that I mean it starts your creative process and it completes it. It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.

The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel. When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be. Or the most important incident, although it can be. But it can also be a setting. It can be a scene. It can be a character.

It’s simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel. All else can change, but the idea can’t. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write. If you don’t, your story and style will suffer terribly. You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence. And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it will keep you on track.

For every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it. The kernel idea is the moment of conception.

Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track. It is important to:

Write The Kernel Idea down

Ask yourself: What emotional reaction does it evoke

Good writing and strong characters are the key to great writing and knowing what excited you to write the book in the first place will bleed onto the page. However, if you don’t write the idea down, you might forget and get lost along the way.

What Is Your Kernel Idea?

Good news is you had one

Bad news is you probably forgot it

It is usually the first thought you had (the spark of inspiration, the moment of conception)

It is the foundation of your book, the seed

KERNAL IDEA EXERCISE: Write down the idea behind your current project.

If you can’t do it, then you need to backtrack through your creative process to find it, because you had it at one point. Everything starts from something. While idea is not story (something I will talk about later) idea is the only thing in your manuscript that won’t change. Your story can, but your idea won’t.

In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That’s it for Dragon Sim-13. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was all right because I still had the idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.

You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.

For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline.   Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.

I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say, “the author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.” I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.

A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done.   No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.

After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?

This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. Not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing. It might not be your kernel idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.

The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.

Some writers balk at the kernel or one-sentence idea. How can you be expected to write the entire essence of your epic novel in one sentence? You are told that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene must have purpose, so how can any writer sum up their work in twenty-five words or less?

It’s simple. Your story started with an idea. If you write it down when you think of it, then summarizing your story in one-sentence is that much easier.

During the Write on the River workshop, the very first thing we do is write the idea on whiteboard.  It’s not as easy as you think!

One way to work on understanding the Kernel Idea is to take your favorite movie or book and try to figure out the Kernel Idea. This will help you narrow the focus and see how it is the foundation of everything in the story.

Do you know your kernel/original idea?

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