When Is a Story Worth Writing? – Part One

by Jami Gold on January 18, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Tree growing from book

Every story begins with an idea.  Sometimes this idea comes to authors out of the blue.  Sometimes a dream provides the spark.  Sometimes “people watching” or an overheard conversation will trigger the thought.  But no matter where it comes from, the idea kicks off everything else, like a seed from which the story grows.

These seeds can take different forms: a “what if” question (What if aliens walked among us?), a character (a modern-day Cleopatra), a theme (love is stronger than fear), or a situation (a single mother getting fired).

Seeds can then turn into a story in our mind.  The roots create a foundation with setting and backstory.  The branches twist and turn with subplots and turning points.  And when the story is fully grown and leafed out with minor characters and layers, it can be difficult to remember that it all started with just the seed of an idea.

In a recent blog post, Bob Mayer talked about how this seed, which he calls the “kernel idea,” can help us come up with a query letter or determine which scenes stay or go.  If we consciously remember the initial idea, it’s easier to keep things from going off-track.

But I most liked his observation about the “shiver.”  What made you excited enough that you’d commit to spending time and energy to write down the story?  That aspect is the emotional heart of your story.

And I think these two concepts—the “story seed” and the “shiver”—determine how successful we’ll be in sticking with our story through the hard work of completing the drafting, revising, and editing.  We might even be able to use them to predict which ideas to toss into the great recycling bin in the ether and which to allow to come to fruition.

What’s Your Story Seed?

If you’re anything like I am, you have more story ideas floating around your head than you’ll be able to finish in a lifetime.  So how do we decide which ones to pursue?

Can we tell from how easily the seed grows in our mind?  After all, some ideas germinate and take off like a weed, infecting our thoughts until we get them written down.  Others…not so much.

Does that mean we should avoid the ones that need a little encouragement or pruning as we take a more active role, like shaping a bonsai tree?  Not necessarily.

What’s Your Story’s Emotional Heart?

Does your story have an emotional heart?  As Bob points out:

A key to selling your book is being able to communicate this shiver to other people.  To get them as excited as you were when you first began writing.

So now the question is, how passionate are you about the story?  Do you care enough about these characters to stick with them through good times and bad?  Through writer’s block and critique partner feedback?

If you don’t feel personally invested in your story, in the characters and their situation, you’ll have a harder time bringing that emotion into your story.  And when the writing gets tough, it will be easier to give up on the story than to trudge through the work.

How Connected Are Your Story Seed and Emotional Heart?

If the core of your story idea is connected to the emotional heart of your story, it will be easier to see how the story should grow, and you and your readers will feel more passionate about the story (even through writer’s block and the toughest critique feedback).  And if the seed and the shiver are one and the same, I think that’s when we have a “story of our heart.”

No matter how you feel about Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight phenomena, we have to admit she’s been successful in making her story mean something to her readers.  They’re passionate about the characters and the plot.

Many people have tried to figure out why.  I think it’s because her story seed and the emotional heart were one and the same.

On her website, she shares her story seed:

In my dream, two people were … in a meadow … discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Obviously, the story seed and emotional heart don’t need to line up exactly for every story.  Not every story can, or should, be a story of our heart.  But the more those two concepts are connected, the more successful we’ll be in overcoming the hurdles and developing the story.

I have a story of my heart, and like Stephenie, the seed for my story also started with a dream.  A woman was choosing to die to protect a stranger she’d never met.  As I woke, the questions started.  Who was the stranger and why was he so important?  What had led to that situation?  And the most important question:  Why—when I knew she was married and had a young son and a close-to-perfect life—why would she choose to do that?  That last question is the emotional heart of my story.

My investment in the emotional aspects of this story sustained me through more revision and editing passes than I care to admit.  And the clarity of that story seed carried me with ease through the intricate plotting dance.

This story has become more than just a story to me.  It means something.  It’s the reason I’m a writer today.  I’ll continue writing other stories until I’m successful, so I’m not being stupid and refusing to work on anything else.  But this story was worth writing even if it’s never bought.

What is the seed of your story?  What is the emotional heart?  How well do they mesh?  What made you decide your story was worth writing?  Do you have a “story of your heart”?

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42 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Kelli McCracken January 18, 2011 at 7:09 am

Very good article, Jami. The emotional heart of my story is that no matter what, love finds a way, even when it seems like the world is against you. Yeah, I’m one of those mushy, hopeless romantics, but I believe in true love. I believe there is someone for everyone and that timing means everything.

I’m emotionally tied to this story and I have stuck by it, writing, revising, editing, for several years. I started getting serious about it about nine months ago. After six months of writing, I completed it. Now I am going through edits and revisions. There are days when I feel like giving up because I’m discouraged, but then I remember the reason I started writing to begin with. I love to write, and my characters deserve a chance to be heard. This story is where my heart is and I refuse to back down and let the opportunity to share my story disappear.

Sorry for rambling. Thanks for posting.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 8:05 am

Hi Kelli,

That’s not rambling, that’s sharing why your story means so much to you. And I understand perfectly. I could do a whole post (or more) on my story as well. :) And yes, there have been many times it would be so much easier to just give up and shove my story under the bed. But as you said, then you remember why you wrote the story to begin with. Besides, I figure if I have to do this learning curve thing anyway, why not do it with a story that I believe in enough to make it worth it. :) Thanks so much for the comment!

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Kelli January 18, 2011 at 7:10 am

I apologize, I misspelled your name :-(

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 8:07 am

Hi Kelli,

No problem, everyone does until it clicks for them. I had to create a special search column in Twitter for the misspelling. :)

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Murphy January 18, 2011 at 7:23 am

Hi Jami!

It’s the funniest thing. The moment I read the phrase: a story of my heart, I immediately thought of the very first story I wrote. Hmm.. I’ll have to think about that.

I have a tendency to fall in love with my characters, so maybe I just haven’t cut the cord with that one yet. :) But that’s the thing, right? You get attached and for me, it’s not so much the seed that’s the draw, but what grows out of it.

Great post.

M.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 8:14 am

Hi Murphy,

Hmm, this would be the story I haven’t seen, right? :) Now I’m curious.

That’s interesting about what you say about how your characters are the draw for you. I agree that my characters make a story worth writing, and I do love all my characters (yes, even the villains :) ). But for the story of my heart, it’s beyond that, like they’ve taken on even more of a life of their own in my head than usual (for me). I’m not sure if that’s a story-of-my-heart thing or a because it’s meant to be part-of-a-series thing, but I feel more connected to their past and future. Interesting. Thanks for the comment!

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J.A. Paul January 18, 2011 at 8:16 am

Thanks, Jami, great post. I have a strong seed germinating in my mind and your post forced me to dial in the focus.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

Hi J.,

Yay! I’m glad this helped. :) Good luck with it!

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Lili Tufel January 18, 2011 at 9:14 am

This was a great blog. I really needed this today. Thank you :D

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 9:17 am

Hi Lili,

No problem, I’m happy to help! :)

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Jenni Holbrook-Talty January 18, 2011 at 9:20 am

When the shiver happens it’s magical…one of my favorite parts of “critique” is brainstorming and as you are hashing out your plot or character and you writing buddies are asking you the same darn thing over and over again almost to the point you want to scream, toss in the towel…it happens. Someone says something magical. Good reason to tape your sessions.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 9:26 am

Hi Jenni,

Yes, very cool. I don’t do brainstorming sessions in a group of real people, but I can easily imagine it. I brainstorm in a conversation with my muse, and he’ll often say something to create the shiver effect in me. (Hey, it sounds crazy, but it works. :) ) Thanks for the comment!

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Bob Mayer January 18, 2011 at 9:38 am

Thanks for the mention and link to Write It Forward. I used to call it the Original Idea. I changed that to Kernel Idea: The Alpha and Omega after discussing it with Elizabeth George and she made the important point that the idea not only starts the creative process, it also ends it. Everything in the book at the end must support the Kernel Idea.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 9:47 am

Hi Bob,

Yep, you did a great job explaining that concept in your post. I wrote this post because I realized that the shiver for some of my story ideas didn’t match up with the initial seed/kernel idea. I wondered if it would help the growth of the story if I lined up the alpha/omega more with the shiver. Interesting thoughts, thanks!

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Bob Mayer January 18, 2011 at 9:54 am

Sometimes the two don’t line up. It’s similar to the an outline is used to write the book and a synopsis is used to sell it. Sometimes the two don’t end up looking a like.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 9:56 am

Hi Bob,

Yes, very true. :) Thanks for the thoughts!

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Todd Moody January 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Great post Jami! It sparks a lot of thought as usual!

I use the word kernel for my new ideas also. I definitely think you are a long way to success if you can get the shiver moment to translate for your readers. My first novel didn’t really start with a shiver moment for me though, and maybe that will be it’s downfall. I just took a idea that I had been cultivating for a long time and and started adding elements to it from some other ideas I had and smooshed it all together and played with for a bit until a new shape came out, then I got the shiver moment. Combining different plot ideas or kernels together is a great way to add some depth to your story.

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Jami Gold January 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Hi Todd,

Yes, most of my ideas don’t start with the shiver moment either. They come into play later as I’m fleshing out the idea. I think as long as you have a shiver moment, the story will still resonate with you and your readers. Thanks for the comment!

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Anna DeStefano January 19, 2011 at 8:40 am

Great post, Jami!

It’s the love we put into our stories, the reasons we write them and how real our characters and their journeys are to us first, that make the book shine for readers. Thanks for reminding us to put ourselves on every page ;o)

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Jami Gold January 19, 2011 at 8:49 am

Hi Anna,

Yes, if we feel passionate about our story and let that shine through our writing and voice, readers will feel it. Thanks for the comment!

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Anassa January 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Dropping by to let you know you’ve just won a blog award! http://specnology.blogspot.com/2011/01/i-win-blog-award.html And then commenting…

I have two levels of story ideas. There are the ones that seize me, where I think “oh, that needs to be a book!” and “I’d read that!” Those are the ones that I either file away to use later or try to sic on someone if the idea’s way out of my genres. Then there are the ideas that come to me and don’t have enough of a hook or enough novelty to be useful. I drop those pretty much straight away.

I’m definitely passionate about the current WIP. I’ve been in a relationship with it for several years and I am going to finish it and sell it no matter what. I love the characters, I love the world, and I think it’s got major potential. (But then, don’t we all?)

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Jami Gold January 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Aww, thanks, Anassa!

I try to write down my ideas on a list no matter what because oftentimes one idea will spark another. But probably nothing will ever come from 60% of them. :) Thanks for the award and the comment!

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Penny Rader January 22, 2011 at 11:42 am

Great post, Jami. I especially liked the shiver comment. I will definitely keep that in mind.

I nominated you for the Stylish Blog Award. You can pick it up here: http://pennyrader.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-blog-won-award.html. :D

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Jami Gold January 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Hi Penny,

Aw, thanks for the award! I suppose I really need to figure out what to do with those. :)

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Laura Pauling January 22, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Great points! I think it’s crucial for your the premise of a story to be connected to the emotional piece. That’s what makes the reader care about what happens! :)

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Jami Gold January 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Hi Laura,

Thanks for the comment! Yes, it’s all about connecting with the reader on an emotional level, isn’t it?

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Patrick Thunstrom May 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I really like Bob Mayer’s ‘idea’ posts. And the bit about Stephanie Meyer’s story seed makes me understand a lot more about her success. Great post.

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Jami Gold May 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Thanks, Patrick! :)

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Kyla September 2, 2011 at 8:12 am

I have so many story ideas right now, in my early 20s, I don’t believe it is physically possible to write them all in my lifetime. And more just keep on coming!

Choosing which one to narrow my energies onto, and make happen is complicated. For about a year or two, I refused to write anything, because I was stuck on a story I had been writing (turns out it needed a massive rewrite to work, plus I knew it could never be published) and I didn’t want to start a project I wouldn’t finish. In the midst of this time period, the smallest seed of my current story came to me. For days, I ran through scenarios on how to make that tiny kernel of a story work.

But I refused to write it.

After a while, the story faded back down to just a slight whisper of “write me” instead of a loud scream. I contentedly went on with my life, thinking that was the end of it.

It was not.

A few months later, I was reading a book and watching a movie around the same time. They were both fantasies, but it turned out that the creatures that were the villains of the book were the heroes of the movie. This frustrated me, as most generalizations do. Not all humans are good or evil, so why do so many stories assume all of a certain creature are?

I decided I wanted to have a story with 20 or 30 different kinds of mythical creatures in it (with no generalizations; though the villainous creatures may SEEM all evil, it’s complicated), and that brought me back to my seed idea that had been unconsciously germinating in the back of my mind. But I needed a villain of the piece, a reason why the story needed to be written. So, another idea that had germinated in the back of my mind for years connected with these other ideas, and a creature I had invented in the past for another prospective story, linked over to this story as the villain.

So, I guess my story is kind-of grafted pieces of many different seeds? That’s okay, usually those are the strongest trees anyway.

Great article, have a great day, and happy writing!

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Jami Gold September 2, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hi Kyla,

Great story! And you’re right that we can often incorporate unused elements from different stories into a new one to make it stronger. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Another fantastic article!

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to get a “seed” from my dream. It’s basically about how I met this little boy–10 years old–on the metro one day; we talked and found out that we had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company so much. Then I discovered he was an orphan and I decided to adopt him!

Ha, crazy dream, isn’t it? Yet…it does give me that great “shiver”, because I have always wanted to adopt a child (too scared of the labour pains). And I’ve always wanted a foster son, not because I’m sexist (towards my own sex), but because I really wanted a child of the opposite gender: my friends are predominantly female and ALL my close friends are female too, so I really desire the chance to know a male deeply–i.e. not just my dad. Plus, a foster son who shares so many interests with you and is such a compatible conversational partner would be so much fun and delightful to be with!

So this foster son idea was such a gigantic shiver for me, that I’m now thoroughly obsessed with my foster son and keep coming up with story ideas about him.

Yes, I am one of those weird writers who actually want to write themselves into their stories.

On an unrelated note, if I have story ideas that I find really really interesting, yet honestly don’t have an emotional heart, then I would just make it a short story.

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Jami Gold April 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh cool! I completely understand why that dream gave you a shiver. :) I hope good things come from it.

That’s an interesting point about short stories. While I think short stories need to have an emotional aspect, I think you might be right that we may be less passionate about the emotional heart of them in some cases. Like, if we were that passionate about the characters and their journey, we’d be more likely to keep coming up with more aspects to write about. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Becca July 24, 2012 at 9:11 am

This was exactly the sort of article that I needed today. I’ve been struggling, both with editing a completed piece and with starting a new one that I used to be so excited about. Time to rethink my approach to both!

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Jami Gold July 24, 2012 at 10:19 am

Hi Becca,

I’m happy to help! I know sometimes I’ll get excited by a premise, but I make myself slow down and think through the storyline to make sure there’s enough story there. And sometimes, by going back to what initially excited us, we can rediscover the core of the story. :)

Thanks for the comment!

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Vanessa December 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

Hi Jami,

You post does bring up some very things that worries most writers; Is this idea worth writing? Has it been overdone?

In my current trilogies I am writing, I took familiar themes and combined other sub genre’s into it. But I keep asking myself, Is that enough to get the attention of an agent or a publisher? Am I better off just self publishing? It does bring up questions in our mind. Then we get the rejections, we ask ourselves, Why did I even bother to write this?

Thanks for letting me comment.

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Jami Gold December 12, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Hi Vanessa,

I’ll admit that I might have it easier than some writers in one respect: I have plenty of ideas. :) So that means I have several to choose from when it’s time to write a new story. In general, I write the idea that’s screaming the loudest at me. Then, even if nothing happens with it, I can point to that fact and say I bothered to write it to hold on to my last shreds of sanity. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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