Fleshing Out Your Story Idea
Last week, we talked about a few ways to get that initial spark of an idea when you’re starting a new story from scratch. This week, I want to talk about the really difficult bit: turning that crumby idea into a story.
No matter how clever your crumby idea might be, it’s not a story yet. Stories never (well, almost never) just pop into the head fully formed. Even if you are planning on writing a piece of historical fiction and you know exactly whom and when you want to write about (for instance, the death of Christopher Marlowe), you still don’t have a fully formed story yet. You have an idea. A story must have structure to function. It is unlikely to pop into your head neatly structured, and even if it does, it is almost certain to be full of plot holes. Heck, it might not even be as fully formed as that. It might just be a single character, setting or theme you want to explore. Even historical events lack the kind of structure they need in order to make them work as stories, since real life is replete with random events, unresolved problems, and has no beginning and end (unless, of course, you’re writing a character’s entire life-story, but even then… you need structure to make it feel like it’s going somewhere). If you’re like me, you might find you need to polish an idea a thousand times over before it can truly function as a story.
In all probability, your initial idea will be like a newborn; exciting, full of potential but ultimately, not able to do very much right at the moment. No one expects a newborn infant to perform brain surgery the day they’re born. They need to get big enough first, and at this stage, your story is a newborn. Exactly how you go about expanding your idea will vary somewhat depending on a) your preferred style of working and b) exactly what kind of idea you already have, but in general terms, it would be a good idea at this stage to develop your characters, your setting and the important events you want to happen.
Personally, I would be inclined to start with characters, since characters are the driving force behind any good story. They want something and so, they all do something about it. That’s what makes a story happen. So even if your initial idea was a character, it’s still a good idea to get out your notepad and start fleshing out a few of the most important players in your story. At the very least, I would try to develop your main protagonist, antagonist, any important supporting characters and – depending on your story – perhaps a love-interest as well. At the very least, you should try to develop basic ‘demographic’ information for each character (i.e., name, age, gender, religion, date of birth, etc) and – most importantly of all – motivation and goals for your characters. Once you’ve got this, you will probably find a very natural sequence of events flows from the way the characters’ motives and actions interact and (best of all) conflict with one another. Johnny wants to take Jeannie to the dance. Jeannie wants Jimmy to take her to the dance. Jimmy hates dancing and isn’t too wild about Jeannie either. The result is that Johnny asks Jeannie to the dance, but Jeannie says no and tries to coax Jimmy into asking her instead, until it is finally revealed to her that Jimmy would rather eat his own foot so she accepts Johnny’s invitation after all and realises he’s actually a great guy. Thus, from our characters, flows our plot. From our plot, we can also begin to invent a few key settings. For example, is this ‘dance’ a school disco? A work night out? A charity ball? Where do these characters all know each other from? Do they frequent the same pubs? Do they ride the same bus? Do they work in the same office? All of these are potentially important settings.
Once you’ve fleshed out your story idea, it’s time to polish it off. This means clearly establishing the beginning, middle and end of your story and getting rid of any plot holes. To take the above example of Johnny, Jeannie and Jimmy and the mysterious dance… is the dance the climax of the story, where there is one final showdown between Johnny and Jimmy? Or is it just the beginning of the story, where Jeannie decides she quite likes Johnny and the story stems from there? Ultimately, your story must begin with your character having a goal and end with them realising (or not realising) their goal, with the middle part being how they get there. So…
|Beginning||Jimmy and Jeannie both work in the same office and he fancies her rotten. Unfortunately, he has severe social anxiety and misses his chance to invite her to the office Christmas party.|
|Middle||She ends up going with Johnny instead. Jimmy shows up at the party intending to talk to her, but ends up hyperventilating because of his social anxiety and is carried off in an ambulance.|
|Ending||Johnny makes fun of Jimmy’s social anxiety and as a result, Jeannie realises what a horrible person Johnny is and decides to dump him for Jimmy.|
Great! We have structure! Of course, even now there is still much to do. Almost any plot you come up with (and yours will almost certainly be better than the example one I just used) will have a few issues that need sorting out. I find the best approach to removing any plot holes and generally smoothing all the rough edges is to write down the sequence of events as they are supposed to happen in as much detail as you can at this early stage and try to identify any obvious plot holes. The aim is, quite simply, to weed them out. Can they be fixed? How do the changes you have made affect the rest of the story? You may find that using this approach means writing and re-writing your outline over and over again but believe me, it will save you a lot of heartache in the long run when you come to actually write your manuscript.
Obviously this has been a (by no means exhaustive) whistle-stop tour of the kinds of things you need to do to turn your idea into a story. All this talk of developing characters, plot outlines and what-not could quite easily have been a whole series of more detailed blog posts (and I would definitely encourage you to research these kinds of things in more detail for yourself), but hopefully this gives you a flavour of the kind of things you can do to get from your initial, crumby idea to having a story which can truly stand on its own two feet and is ready to be turned into a manuscript. The exact process you use will probably be unique to you, but believe me, having a process that works for you will make all the difference.