Sometimes a story idea comes fully formed, or at least with enough detail of where it needs to go that you can’t wait to get writing.
Other times a character or a setting makes a strong enough impression on your imagination that you feel like you have the starting point of a story, but beyond that you have no clear indication of where to take it.
If you start writing with not much more than the germ of an idea it might work out, inspiration might strike when you need it—some writers indeed are only able to work in this fashion—but most people will struggle to fill three hundred pages off the back of a vague notion, even when that notion is full of potential. And there’s nothing worse than getting a hundred pages in and realising you’ve run out of steam.
So, how can you fatten up your idea, getting it into the kind of condition that means the ideas will lead you one to the next, rather than you having to force yourself to strain your brain to come up with stuff?
Firstly, I’d say that if you have too many ideas then that isn’t really a problem. Even if everything seems muddled up and unclear, I would recommend getting it on the page (in whatever order) and then sorting it out in rewrites. It will still be a difficult task, but not one requiring inspiration, just hard work.
When it comes to having a half-formed idea, the most common advice given to writers in this position is to put the idea away and just wait it out. If there is something worthwhile in there, then the subconscious will work on it and draw it out. Eventually.
Certainly there’s a great deal of truth in this. Lots of writers have gone back to an old idea they found in a drawer and this time it all clicks. Leaving any piece of writing and coming back to it will reveal new aspects to you and the same goes for ideas. But it’s a slow process and not everyone has the time or patience.
One way to jump start the brain is to take whatever you have and write a one or two line summary of the story like what you might find in a TV listings magazine. Those short summaries of movies give you an idea of where the story is headed without very many details.
The idea isn’t to come up with a precise logline that sums up your story (obviously not possible since you don’t know what your story is about), but to write a dozen or so summaries off the top of your head and see if anything takes your fancy.
A good way to get started is to read a bunch of them, preferably for movies in a similar genre to what you’re interested in writing. Even if you don’t come up with a usable storyline, you will probably come up with a few more ingredients to thicken up the broth.
Another useful exercise is to write a short story version of the idea. This is especially useful if you have a character in mind but no idea what to do with them. It doesn’t have to be a miniature version of the novel, it’s more to do with getting a sense of what kinds of things the character gets up to.
You should bear in mind a short story can be a hundred words long or a dozen pages; the important thing is that it should be about them doing something, and that something should be eventful enough so that it would be worth repeating to someone (even if the character only goes home and tells his cat).
Keeping the character alone and thinking about stuff, like a long, descriptive tone poem painting a picture of the world isn’t going to be very helpful. You have to push the character into active behaviour involving other people to really get the creative juices flowing.
If you can’t think of something interesting for them to do then consider the thing that this character would never allow to happen. It could be seeing an animal being treated badly or a husband cheating on a friend or a drunk get in a car. Everyone has a line that you cross at your peril and your character has one too, so work out what it is and then put them in just such a predicament.
This scene doesn’t have to appear in your novel, but hypothetical situations full of woulda, coulda, shoulda are very wishy-washy. Make the character face their bugbear, write it out, and you will not only learn more about them, but their reaction will give you a much stronger idea of whether you can build a story around them.
The last thing I would suggest is to work on the ending. A lot of people don’t like to think about this part of the story as they want the characters to organically come to whatever conclusion feels right. If you have enough going on at the front end (i.e. enough to get you started writing) there’s nothing wrong with this approach. But if you’re stuck at the starting line then an idea of where you want to end up can provide the impetus to set off into the deep blue yonder.
By ending, i don’t mean a vague impression of how you’d like the story to conclude (boy gets girl, world gets saved, innocent man gets freed or what have you), I mean a specific image or idea that strikes you as cool or interesting or in some way satisfying. You may not know how you’ll get there, but as long as you find the idea interesting it will be enough to get things moving.
The image you had in mind might well end up somewhere else in the story and not be the ending, or it might not make it into the final version at all. The purpose isn’t to know how the story is going to finish, it’s to create enough momentum to keep the story moving forward. Once that momentum takes over you can steer it in any direction you wish.
As with all of these suggestion it doesn’t matter if things go nowhere. You won’t have wasted much time (in fact probably saved some by not going long with ideas that weren’t as strong as you’d hoped) and nobody gets to see the weird stuff you come up with but you (and you already knew you were weird).
Hopefully one of these methods will light the spark that changes an idea into a story. Then you just have to write it.
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