That first story idea - skeleton or scaffolding?

By the time it's finished, every good story will need structure - compelling plot, interesting characters who grow and change, etc.  However, every story begins with an idea. Maybe it's specific, maybe it's nebulous, but they all start with that first concept.

The question is, how do you use that starting point?

SKELETON I almost always take my first idea and build on it. Follow it out to a logical conclusion, expand its ramifications, find characters and voices to express the idea, pick location(s) that provide a good backdrop, etc. No matter if the final piece is 1K, 6K or 100K, deep down in the center of it is that first idea, fully integrated.

But does it have to be that way?

I've been thinking about some of the pieces I wrote part way, then abandoned. Among other reasons, it was because the story wandered so far from the original concept that I felt it had just lost its way. Without the bones to hold it up, the story can't stand... can it?

SCAFFOLDING Many structures have temporary supports, designed to hold it up until it can stand for itself. When the mortar sets or the glue dries, the scaffolding is disassembled and taken away. The structure is usually much more graceful and beautiful for having been built this way. Great soaring arches, cathedral ceilings and huge domed atria are impossible to build without scaffolding.

What would happen to the final story if you began with the assumption that the first idea is only there to give you a way to assemble and support all the other ideas, the ones you would never otherwise have been able to work with? Could it be all the more intricate, beautiful and intricate without the central idea?

Conceptually, this is different from simply changing the skeleton from one thing to another. Great soaring structures are as much about the negative spaces they define as it is about the structures themselves. Can you think of some examples of great works of literature that allude to, encompass or even define something that isn't directly part of the story? The Old Man and the Sea, perhaps? Or Great Gatsby? Or My Antonia?

What are some others? Do you write using skeletons or scaffolding? Which is easier? Which gives better results?

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. I always think I have a skeleton, but it ends up being more like a scaffolding once I realize my initial idea ends up making the story look cluttered and ugly. (Taking down the ugly scaffold in a short story right now)

    And I completely get and understand what you mean by great works defined by their negative space. The best stories are told subtextually, and the only good way to get that done is to use the scaffolding. Great post.

  2. I've always seen the novels of Kurt Vonnegut more about the negative space, as you put it, than the actual goings-on. I suppose I am a skeleton guy - though sometimes I may start with a human skeleton and end up with a rhinoceros wrapped around it.

  3. The skeleton is there to help me get through the first draft - when the words aren't flowing it helps to have bones in place - all I have to do is flesh out the bullet-pointed scenes and fill in the gaps. But when it comes to rewriting it can change so much, you would have no idea it came from that skeleton. That's always what I hope will happen, anyway. It's a sign of the story having a life of its own, which I believe to be vital.

  4. This is a compelling way to look at it. I like it.

  5. Thanks, guys. After starting with the initial idea, knowing what to keep and what to throw away makes all the difference. I've hung onto some concepts long after the story didn't need them anymore.


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