Life does not exist by itself—rather it exists in a world where the expanse of opportunity grows to the limits of an individual’s ability to think critically and creatively. There are an endless number of ways to begin a story, but the story itself must exist within a believably constructed world that not only makes sense to that story you’re trying to tell but also maintains a sense of realistic truth within its own set of defined rules.
A concept starts as a simple thought that bubbles to the surface due to inspiration that causes your mind to wander in that direction, for whatever reason that may be (yourself being the sole provider of the fuel that feeds that particular fire). Within this conceptual stage is where the rules of your world find their roots, unformed and broad, with no clear definition for anything other than what inspired that moment. It’s more a myth to believe that a concept will remain as it was when you first imagine it. As with most aspects of the rules we must live by, ideas, alongside the people those ideas inhabit, have a tendency to evolve as the world changes and evolves with it. Think of a concept (whether for a story or the world it finds itself inhabiting) as a slab of putty needing to be shaped into its final form—without some external force, such as the hands of a human being to shape it, that putty will remain barren, devoid of that creative spark ignited by that inspiration. You must nurture the concept as it grows with your own ideas, treating it as a lifeform with a mind of its own while guiding it down a desired path. By this fact—artists, writers, poets, painters—we are the Gods of these worlds, for we are the ones who shape them into becoming more than what they start out as.
My first true concept came to me when I was in high school. During classes, I was often bored, and so spent my time writing in the margins of my notebooks. Most of this was nonsense, I will admit, but eventually those random words started to undertake certain patterns that were easily recognizable the more I noticed. They were names of places, characters; nothing in the English language, but unique, all the same—something I could build off, even if I didn’t know exactly where it would end up. I became so distracted by this that one teacher eventually stopped at my desk, kneeling to my level, and told me to put those writings away and pay attention to the lesson. I would nod, take out the proper notebook for the class, and pretend to be taking notes on the subject being taught for that day.
I never really did.
Instead, I kept building up these concepts in my head: adding personalities to these characters, history to these places that seemed at the time so foreign to me, but today, are second nature to my creativity.
One day in my Creative Writing class, we received an assignment to write a storied script for whatever we wanted (like a stage production, although on a much smaller scale). We were to write the script over a period of several weeks, present it to the class while having volunteers perform it in the room. Needless to say, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. “This was my chance,” I thought, “to create something out of this world.” That day when I went home, I barricaded myself in my bedroom for the rest of the day and wrote out, by hand, the rough draft of the script, using the characters and story I imagined in the margins of my notebooks out of boredom. A week went by as I continued to edit the piece little by little, eventually transferring it to a digital format for the final drafts—reading it over, performing it in my room to get the flow and wording exactly as I wanted it, developing a color code for each character and printing it on thick white paper when I determined the final draft ready to present.
It was poetry—the foundation of a greater work that consumed my life for the next 10 years after that ultimately amounted to little more than a much needed, hard taught lesson.
Concepts do not have to start out grand, but they can grow to become something greater than how they were first envisioned. I received a near perfect mark for the script I presented to the class, giving me the confidence to expand the story from these scribblings in the margins to a fully developed world. It is from the world that you build a story, not the other way around; and the world is built around that first concept, even if the idea feels small and insignificant at first. Imagination will make it grow, whether or not it succeeds in the end. A good idea will remain as the bad ones sizzle out. Usually what determines what a good concept is depends on the amount of time you devote to “thinking over” its circumstance.
Remember that script I had written for class? Well, as I spent more time developing that world into something larger, the more I realized many of the mechanics of the story did not fit with the world it was becoming. It’s a hard realization when this comes about, and for me, it was incredibly painful. Over time I came to realize that the story I was building no longer fit the grander scheme of the world, breaking its own rules and causing it to become chaotic, and thusly, less impactful than what I intended. So, I made changes. Drastic changes—some, to the degree, that saw to the abolishment of whole characters and moments that emerged as I spent time shaping this living “creature” to become its own, breathing entity. I shifted my focus to a narrower approach; something more confined by the rules, that allowed me the freedom to give the characters heart and a sense of humanity versus the stereotypical battle told between good and evil.
I wanted this world to have substance—quality over quantity, as many call it. Showing what happens rather than just telling it from an out-of-body perspective. The purpose of the world is to create reasons for your characters to do anything in order to define them as who they are as people, not just the conceptualization you devoted yourself to and penned. In the end, a piece of art must be as malleable in its storytelling as real life, even when it’s hard to connect the two. Integration of not only the imagination of yourself as creator but utilizing a human tendency to dream allows you the freedom to narrow down the focus of what may be considered too broad.
The hardest thing about building a world on that concept you first envisioned is figuring out the best way to present it to another. Going back to that first script of mine—while it sounded pretty, took a lot of thought to process its complexity. The world and story needed to change as I changed. That is the evolution I talked about before. Especially when you are writing something new—the more you read it, the more you as the creator will gradually change as needed. But some aspects of your work, especially when they are part of that initial concept, cause you to become blind to the wider needs of the piece. You’ll fail to see it until it becomes a glaring issue that will almost feel like a betrayal to yourself once you realize the mistake. In writing—this becomes your greatest enemy, the pride you hold toward what you’ve built. It’s a powerful opponent.
When it comes to writing and language in general, change is as beneficial as putting a Band-Aid on an open cut—it allows you to mend what doesn’t work and replace it with what might. I want to highlight the word “might” there, as language itself is a complicated art form, with more viewpoints on how best to utilize it than there are stars in the sky (as everyone who can read and write has their own preferences and habits when it comes to writing). The most we can do as creators is building our works in a way that the majority of people can understand. If you write a book entirely in poetry, while it may be an artistic masterpiece praised for its use of language and complexity, that doesn’t mean a majority of people will be able to understand what it says. Hints at deeper language is better used in short chunks to enrich a moment in the story or for a character to quandary at a philosophical level, not so much using colorful speech to describe how someone, for example, opens a door. I mention this here as the world must be defined by the language used to describe it to best match that initial concept and the changes it undergoes to its finished form. What’s less understood, but widely explained (think about how that’s worded) is how works of art “must” or “can be” done. My personal answer to that notion is that there isn’t any one “good” way to do it, but there are several “bad” ways, which can be quite confusing to understand unless you sit down and work hard to understand.
The key answer to that is change—change in the story, the world, as yourself as the artist trying to present it to a wider audience. Some people have good tastes and bad tastes. It’s about learning how to teach yourself the best ways to develop the concept into what could be considered “real enough” and believable.