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A problem I run into frequently is that I am struck by an idea, more accurately termed "a premise," for a story, but then I can't decide what to do with it.

I think of a million ways to present the idea and I can't really decide on how to proceed.

Example:

Say I have an idea for a sci-fi short story about a society that replaces the dead with artificially intelligent holograms, imprinted with the mind of the deceased, so as to create the feeling that nobody has truly departed. This is a society that cannot let go, that does everything possible to avoid accepting death.

But now I think: this could be seen through the eyes of a child. Or an adult. Or of several people. Or by the crew of a ship visiting this society from somewhere else. This could be a personal, touching story, or a sterilized and distant story (sort of the way Asimov writes). This could be told in a thousand different ways, with a thousand different scenes and endings and voices.

Let me condense this into a not-so-simple question: once I have my premise, how do I decide on how to tell my story? On what the best way to tell it is? What characters would best fit this tale? Etc.

How do I narrow down my story's content?

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This... has the potential to be AWFULLY vague. I'm not sure this is answerable in present format. I'll be watching answers; if this turns into a brainstorming session on how to brainstorm, I might have to close this. –  Standback Jun 30 '12 at 19:42
    
Acknowledged, mon capitan. –  Aerovistae Jun 30 '12 at 20:47
    
Have done a light edit to get rid of some of the discussion-y language; I agree that the question is vague, and it's on the edge of what we really should allow. But it is producing some good answers. –  Neil Fein Jul 1 '12 at 15:09
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Knew it would, knowing the people here. –  Aerovistae Jul 1 '12 at 18:33
    
The First Immortal by James Halperin touches on a variant of this idea, for comparison. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 2 '12 at 10:12
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I agree with SC about conflict. The other thing that will help you decide how to tell it (voice, characters, etc.) is theme, theme and theme.

Look at your world. Decide what you want the main theme of your story to be, because that will help you decide which people or groups to use.

In your example, do you want to explore the ways in which humans cope with death? Maybe you could use a mother who's about to die - she thinks differently from the rest of society and wants to be gone from the world for good (for whatever reason, maybe something in her past for example). Her goal is to be left alone when she dies. Her daughter, however, doesn't want to lose her mother and wants to imprint a hologram with her mind. Bam. Instant conflict from goals that are equally valid but cannot co-exist. You would then want to tell it from a personal voice, as a distant voice wouldn't convey the characters' struggles very well.

Or maybe you want to explore the mechanics and structure of such a society. What would happen to such a society? How would the imprinted holograms be treated? Do any of them deteriorate over time, and what happens then? This would certainly be a more clinical telling, from some outside force. Note that if you do go down the Asimov hard science path, you will need a very novel, interesting premise to grip the reader. Take the movie Primer as an example. I wouldn't say the emotional or plot elements were anywhere near fantastic, but damn if it didn't garner a huge following because of its new take on time travel.

IMHO, the viewpoints and conflict all come from your theme and what you want to leave your audience thinking about when they reach the end. It's very well and good to have a concept but if you don't know what you want to say, then why bother saying anything at all?

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For myself, your last paragraph is the single most helpful thing I've gotten out of SE. Seemingly so obvious, yet I had never looked at it that way. It is exactly what I needed in answer to this question. –  Aerovistae Jul 1 '12 at 18:31
    
You know, I really can't thank you enough. Maybe this doesn't seem like such a big thing from a third-party perspective, but suddenly everything seems a lot clearer to me. I just hadn't thought to think that way before. I'm sorry, I'm repeating myself, but I feel like I just learned the biggest, best, most obvious secret ever. –  Aerovistae Jul 1 '12 at 18:42
    
Oh wow, that's a HUGE compliment. Glad I could help you see writing with new eyes! Though I'll admit, it's much easier to say than do. :P –  Lexi Jul 2 '12 at 1:14
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I think the answer is that all of these are valid viewpoints to take, and each of them might make a story. But you have to ask one more question - why is your premise important? Who is it important to?

You need to identify not just a premise, but a story. The premise is just the oddity of the society that you have to describe, but for the people within it, it usually is just life as it happens. So you need a story, someones story, that drives against this, or with it, or around it.

You may want to tell this through a child, but why is the child challenging or questioning it? the same quesiton for an adult - why do they draw attention to this aspect of their society, rather than, say, their ability to fly through space?

Even if you want to take the position of a visiting group, what is it about this technology that challenges them? Maybe they have moral problems with it, which could provide a good story. You could even tell the story from the point of a deceased person, but you still have ask the question why is THIS story being told? What is the force of this particular story that makes it different?

I think once you have the conflict point or story point - not complete, but just as a point to work from - you will know why that story is the one to tell, and then you will know how to tell it.

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I have sort of a different take: don't narrow it down. Write them all, as short stories.

Your premise is the premise of an entire society. All those potential stories are valid. So create them all. Use each little vignette as a different window into how this society functions, how the people relate to one another, how the technology developed, how some people embrace it and some reject it, how it's seen from the outside.

Edgar Lee Masters wrote a book of poems called the Spoon River Anthology. The 200-plus poems are each from the POV of a different character, and all together they create a portrait of the town of Spoon River. I suppose yours might be the There Is No Spoon Anthology, but you get my point. If your goal is to explore all the different facets of this society, then show all the facets.

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Well, that was just an example which would indeed work well with multiple viewpoints into the society. I'm really talking about any idea in general, though, particularly when I want to narrow it down to a single story. –  Aerovistae Jul 1 '12 at 3:32
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That is viable, but you still need to find the stories that work. Each one has to stand on its own. This is a good approach if you can make this work, and provides a whole lot of insights into a world. If you write these, you may find it works, or that you find one story which works better. –  Schroedingers Cat Jul 1 '12 at 12:02
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