In The Way of the Writer, Charles Johnson suggests that a successful narrative requires three good ideas.
The first Good Idea is the ground situation. It's what most of us think of when someone asks us what a story's about. Here's how Johnson describes it:
“In this sense … plot and character are perfectly united, because character is the engine of plot. The conflict, or 'ground situation,' arises from the specificity of this particular individual, and it is the first good idea the writer has, the one that sets everything else into motion.”
Johnson goes on to say that at this stage the writer is working in the realm of possibility. That's part of the reason I think there's so much excitement and energy in sitting down to write a new story. You've got a great hook, a scenario that seems charged with interest and conflict, and it feels as though anything could happen. It's the fuel a writer needs to blast off the launch pad.
While this first Good Idea might not be “easy,” it's a cinch compared to the brick wall that comes after.
The second Good Idea is more difficult to conceive early on because, by necessity, it has to flow from the first. Here's how Johnson describes it (I've made a few elisions for the sake of brevity):
“...the protagonist attempts to resolve his (or her) problem … the writer's job is to constantly frustrate him. … We are now in the middle of the story—in the realm of probability—where all the details and decisions the writer made in the beginning create a causal connection … that we, as readers, feel is logical and inevitable based on all that has come before. Here, in the middle of the tale, it is crucial that a writer comes up with a second good idea, one that deepens and further complicates the actualization of the potential contained in the story's premise. For a reader (and often for the writer) this second good idea is never experienced as predictable—we never feel, there in the middle of the story, that we saw this new series of developments coming. … Most likely, the writer himself didn't fully see the events in the middle of the story until he got there.”
I've had this experience as a writer, and I've also had the experience of not having that second good idea. I've also gone through the frustration of trying to get at that Second Idea by means of an outline, only to realize, once I'd written my way to that point, that it no longer made any sense.
Sometimes the narrative works, and sometimes it doesn't. Why is it so hard to predict which one you've got on your hands? This is where things start to get a little woo-woo. Even Johnson, who is a deeply methodical and rigorous thinker, makes gestures towards the fact that sometimes we just have to live with the mystery:
“As writers, we live for the moment when the Powers That Be hand us a story so rich that exploring it becomes the most legal fun we can have.”
Handing off agency to the Powers That Be makes about as much sense as suggesting that writers, even very successful ones, don't always know what's going to work and what won't. Sometimes you go charging into a story you feel great about and the whole thing dissolves in your hands. Other times, what seems like a mediocre idea resolves into a piece that's better than you would have dared hope.
I still like the way Bonnie Friedman framed this tension in her essay Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards:
"I live in dread that the story I am currently writing resembles those that have been rejected. They are bad, I think. When I recognize emerging on the page a rhythm similar to the rhythm of one of these 'bad' stories, or when I recognize a character that turned up in one of them, I am appalled. I want to cross it out. I want to put away from me forever everything associated with those 'bad' stories because frankly I do not really understand what was wrong with them. Something was probably wrong; one must be realistic enough to admit it. Yet it feels as if my new writing comes from the exact same place."
It's hard to know sometimes what's good and what's bad, especially when you're in the thick of the writing. But although Johnson makes nods to the mysterious forces behind the creative process, he does still offer some clues for how to achieve that great second idea. To achieve it requires careful attention:
“...if the writer is faithful to the minute details he has established in the beginning, if he is tracing carefully every nuance of character and situation … then he will be continually surprised by how the actors in his stories are behaving. … If he's not surprised, he's not asking enough hard questions.”
What he's getting at here is that it's faithful attention that renders surprise. If the surprises aren't coming—if the writer never catches themselves off guard—it may be a sign that they need to look closer. To quote Bonnie Friedman again:
“Transcendence is not fleeting, not an absence, but a most attentive presence. To write well is to sink into the silt of the world.”
Do that successfully and you'll find your third Good Idea.
Here, as the writer moves toward the end of the story, they should feel like they're on the slope down. This is where you're rewarded for making it through the brick wall. From Johnson:
“At this point, the story has entered the realm of pure necessity, where events play themselves out with all the rigor of a logical proof. Here, at the end, the writer is more like a witness or a reporter than someone who is 'trying' to tell a story—all he's doing now is transcribing what he sees unfolding before his mind's eye. The only things that can happen are things predestined by the decisions the writer made in chapter one. This final phase of the story also requires a third and last good idea to wrap things up, but by this time—after all that has transpired—the writer should be able to find that idea with ease.”