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Someone just wrote to me with the following question:

The problem I encounter every single time I try to write something is that I have a brilliant idea, but I have absolutely no clue as to how to make a proper story out of it. Bits and pieces will come to mind, but finding the whole story is typically a feat… do you know of a way to overcome this issue?

And this was my very quick response, which it occurs to me might be worth sharing, as one avenue (of many) that can be taken to solve this:

Identify a character in your idea.

1) What does that character WANT?

2) What does that character need to do to GET what they want?

3) What are they prepared to DO to get what they want?

Superman wants to save the world, will go through a quest to save the world, and will, if need be, sacrifice himself to save the world. (Crap example, but you see where I’m going.)

Hannibal Lector wants to be free to live in the way he wants, needs to arrange people and incidents in such a way that he can escape his current circumstances, and will kill and eat anybody he feels like in order to be free. (The difference between a "hero" and a "villain" is often the ruthlessness and extremity they’re prepared to go to in order to achieve what they want.)

(Also, the villain is rarely the villain in their own mind. Norman Osborn from THUNDERBOLTS/SIEGE is a good example of a villain who is plainly the hero of his own story. Another good example is one of my favourite villains, the deluded, vicious Janetty from Steven Grant & Vince Giarrano’s BADLANDS)

It’s a really simple way to discover a rough one-two-three structure that you can start to build on. You build on it by asking yourself what you can do to make 2) as difficult as possible for the characters.

Hope that helps someone.

Published in paper and process


  1. pj pj

    That’s the kind of thing I wish you would deal with more – some words about the process.

  2. Warren Ellis Warren Ellis

    Well, you know, I’m spending most of each day DOING it, which doesn’t leave much interest in TALKING about it…

  3. alex aguirre alex aguirre

    What you said spoke volumes. Its a great start to build upon. Thank you Mr. Ellis

  4. […] Also, Warren Ellis gives sound writing advice. […]

  5. I reposted some of this in my much-neglected LiveJournal(, mostly so I wouldn’t lose it for the next time I’m trying to wrangle an idea into something useful. And because it’s bloody great advice!

  6. Thank you for this.
    Often the creative process can get bogged down in details – it’s always good to be reminded of the basics in story telling.
    As much as it may come across as douche-baggery, it would be awesome to get more of your thoughts on the process on a regular basis.
    Especially as an “outsider” in the Comics industry, since too often they work off of a template instead of off the top of their heads.
    Maybe a once a week parcel of wisdom, and when you aren’t up for it pressure some bugger you know to say something about the creative process – writing, art, photography, music…
    It would be an awesome thread.

  7. this is great – thanks a bunch for sharing. it’s nice to see the parts of the process that are invisible, and this makes a ton of sense. :) you rock.

  8. Anonymous Anonymous

    Thanks for the advice Chief.
    2nd for any process, creative info advice posts. I realise you ain’t running a creative writing workshop here but any insight into the production processes you employ are fascinating and helpful.


  9. This calls to mind a breakdown from a memo that Mamet allegedly circulated to the writers while THE UNIT was first spooling up, something to the effect that even if the audience didn’t know at the time, the scene was not fully developed until the writer knew the following three things about it:

    1) WHO wants WHAT?
    2) WHAT HAPPENS if they don’t get it?
    3) WHY NOW?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share this. Hope the rest of your day is productive.

  10. Trent Trent

    As a (rather wannabe) writer who occasionally struggles with characters, but can come up with multitudes of ideas/concepts, this is helpful advice that I plan to take fully to the darkest depths of my heart and brain.

    Thank you, Mr. Ellis.

  11. Chris Gering Chris Gering

    Warren, thanks. I’m also a person bogged down by details. I always lose myself in those, and it’s taken me so long to flesh out certain story ideas for that exact reason. Thanks for reminding us that the hardest stuff is solved with the simplest answers. Also, Black Summer and No Hero were badass. Please write more along those lines. The dark side of superheroes is ripe with ideas.

  12. Thanks, Mr. E. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that it is indeed that simple.

  13. Chris Gering Chris Gering

    Also, it occurs to me that Alan Moore wrote a very concise guide with advice for writing, from Avatar Press. Should the idea ever get pitched to you, I guarantee at least one would be sold (me, duh), and you know, if you wanted to share your opinion and style of writing to those of us always looking for good advice.

  14. /d /d

    Fairly close to Stanislavski, useful stuff.

  15. This is fantastic advice and every writer should remember it. But I think it’s really only true for a specific type of writing: story-oriented commercial writing. I’m the absolute furthest thing from a high-minded literary snob and I’ve spent my entire natural life reading genre fiction so this definitely does NOT come from a place of condescension that there are tremendous differences between genre and literary fiction, mainly being that genre fiction is driven by the the MacGuffin whereas literary fiction is driven by complexity of theme and characterization, with sometimes a standard plot barely even being discernible. The above tips, while tremendously useful and solid for anyone and everyone wishing to write for a commercial story-telling medium are MacGuffin-oriented and don’t necessarily represent ALL fiction writing, solid though they may be. You may want to ask even more questions, provided your goal is something other than using characters to advance the plot. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer but it is worth pointing out the distinction.

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