Episode 2: What Comes First? The Characters, the Plot, or the Setting?

In today’s podcast episode, I want to dive in deep to the actual thought process of coming up with an idea for a book. Ideas for books don’t come as a fully formed book. This is a deep dive into my process:

How do you come up with the idea for a book?  

I’d describe an idea for a book as a spark of imagination triggered by a moment in a place. 

Sometimes the moment is a real life moment I experienced, but most of the time the moment happens in my imagination. 

Once I have a setting — I begin to imagine — who lives here? What is it like living here? What would it be like to fall in love here? What would it be like to live here but not fit in? What sort of murder would happen here? What would it be like to solve a murder here? 

The answers to those questions gives me, at the very least, my main character. Usually, that’s just me imagining myself living in that moment, and then taking a few steps further and creating a new human. I think a big part of it is that a setting gives you something solid to react to. And I think I love small towns so much for my books, because everyone reacts to them in a different way, and how they react to a small town shows so much about who they are as a character. Are they pretentious about it? Do they love it so much they want to preserve it? Or do they love it so much they want to gentrify it? Do they want to leave, or do they want to stay? Do they romanticize it and ignore the meth addicts on the corner? Or do they see it how it really is, and want to save it?  

Once I have my main character, at least, I can imagine the other characters, because, just like with the setting, they need to react to her. That means that, in some way, they need to contrast my main character. Otherwise it’s boring. Whether that’s in looks, gender, belief system, job, style, whatever it is, you don’t want your main characters to be exactly the same, and because they aren’t exactly the same, in some way, they will react to each other. It’s sort of like a puzzle piece. If Josie May is a creative minded people pleaser with her head in the clouds, than what would it be like if her best friend was a bull in a china shop type a go getter sort? And if all she wants is to leave this small town and travel, then what if she falls in love with someone who never wants to leave this small town and hates to travel? 

Then I begin to imagine — How do I get them both in the same location at the same time? And what do I want to happen at the end? Basically, what happens to trigger the story, and what needs to happen in order for the story to end? And then, because of the genres I write, what happens in the end is either their first kiss, or a murder is solved. 

And then, you fill in the blanks. Why and how. How is literally the plot. How do two complete strangers meet, fall in love, get torn apart, and get their happy ending?

But my favorite part, is the why. The why is what takes the building blocks of a book — setting, characters, and plot — and turns it into an entire story. 

But, as you can see, what comes first is the setting. And then, the characters. And then, the plot. 

I think this is how my mind works, at least, because this is actually the order you introduce these things in a book in order to bring the reader in from sentence one. If you start with characters, there’s not enough information to make a connection. You can’t start with plot before characters because without the characters, who gives a n s about a plot?

Why do you do it in that order? 

It’s how it all began. The story of life. First came our setting — and then the two characters — and then the inciting event — and the plot began. 

Everyone always says if you want to be a good writer, then read a lot of books. Study how other authors write books, form characters, and pull off their plots. 

I don’t want to just study any book. I want to study the best books. My goal is to write books that are still read after I die. So I turn to books that have already achieved that — the classics — they have withstood the test of time. Jane Austen, F Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie… 

It’s 2023, and I know it’s kind of scandalous to say this — but a few years ago I found out the bible is the most read book of all time. 7 billion copies sold on record brand new. Estimated 54,945 bibles sold every single day. 20 million every year. Can you imagine? I’m not trying to compete with the bible, but I literally was like, “Ummm… why?” 

So I cracked it open. And I read it, front to back, and I discovered that it’s not just a bunch of random books thrown together — it literally tells a story. It’s insane, because each book is written by an entirely different person, most of the books are written generations apart from each other, and yet the plot is PERFECTION. Foreshadowing, metaphors, connections, battles, characters that are woven in and out of it, structure, like, a legitimate PLOT — like, leave it up to God to be the most talented author and write literally the best written — most skilled book of all time — like, even the NAMES of locations and people and the meaning behind what herbs and spices and animals are mentioned in specific moments add this insane depth that would make any author or reader who loves to analyze to the depth of every single word’s mind blown — and — so I asked myself — how does it start?  

And this book starts… where? With the setting. Time, place, and emotion. In the beginning… there was darkness. 

That’s not a direct quote. It actually goes like this: The first Setting, introduce the hero, inciting event, main setting, emotion, and the key event. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now, the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of god was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

Three sentences and we have everything we need to write an entire story — in order. I’m not even joking. Look at this. 

Ok. Setting comes first. The first setting in a story is always the status quo. It’s how things are before the inciting event. In this case, it’s both time and location — in the beginning. We are inside the beginning. The beginning is a time and a location. So poetic. 

Then, we meet the hero. Our hero of the story — God — is introduce to us through action. He does something that suggests to the reader who he is. God created. Those two words alone — his name, and his action — lets us know who he is. He is an artist. 

This sentence also gives us the inciting event. God created the heavens and the earth. The inciting event sets the story into motion. None of the rest of the story could even take place if the inciting event didn’t happen. If God hadn’t created the heavens and the earth, we would still just be in the beginning. But because he created the heavens and the earth, things start to happen. 

What happens? We are given this through the main setting, the emotion, and even, in its own way, characters. Now, the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of god was hovering over the waters. The main setting is the earth, but not as we know it today. It’s a place that is empty, formless, dark, a deep place that is filled with water. As you felt, all of these words describing the setting also give us the emotion. But it’s not that simple. 

We’re also introduced to the antagonist — darkness. Darkness was over the surface of the deep. And our hero, God, is reiterated as the protagonist going up against darkness. Darkness was over the deep, and God was over the waters. 

We’re also introduced to what it is they are fighting over — the earth. Formless and empty — a blank canvas. 

This sentence also describes how our hero reacted to the inciting event — he hovered over the waters. Now, um, spoilers, but we learn later in the book that water is a key physical element that God uses to complete his miracles and win multiple battles, both big and small. And here he is, hovering over it. The battle is set up, but no one has acted yet. All he is doing is hovering over. To hover actually means to pause in-between two states or decisions. It’s a word that describes a lingering moment before. In contrast, our antagonist, Darkness, isn’t hovering. He is just over the deep. He is not paused. You could even go so far as to suggest that they are each “over” their weapon of choice (darkness vs water) and what they are fighting for. I’ll let that last one land on the christians who know what water means to God and life and goodness, and let everyone else just chew on it for awhile. 

But SEE? Y’all I’m telling you this book is so . well . written! We’re only 2 sentences in! 

And we have the stakes. We have the battle. We have our main setting. We have our protagonist, our hero. And we have our antagonist. The next sentence is the key event. 

And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. The key event is the thing that happens that engages the hero in the story. It’s even been argued that the key event shows you the entire story. So we know that Earth is basically a blank canvas, and God is fighting darkness for it. 

Interestingly, during all that hovering, God made a decision. Two decisions, really. A decision to act, and a decision on how to act. He doesn’t use the water or anything else. He speaks. Let there be light. He created light, and the light had some sort of form. And there was light. The light was physically there. You can see how the key event sets up and confirms our suspicions from the sentence before — yes, this is a battle between darkness and light that God rages from the beginning to the end of the story. 

And now, we have a plot. 

We are also given a foreshadow to the happy ending — there was light. Darkness didn’t win that battle, and he doesn’t win in the end, either. Light won. Light wins. God wins.

In 3 sentences, literally, we now have an entire story formed — in perfect order — and it all started with the setting. Then the characters. And then, the plot. 

Now, can I do all of that in three sentences? 

Um, no. 

But I do hope that, just like for me, this helped you understand the formation of a story better. what I’d love to know is how you come up with the idea for your stories? It’s ok if you’ve never written it down. All a book really is, is an idea that was written down. So as long as you have an idea, you have a book inside of you. 

Thank you for listening. I’ll catch you next week for the next episode.


Maggie Ann 

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