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Developing Story Ideas

Developing Story IdeasSo what do you do with a story seed you think shows promise? How can you tease out elements to create plot, setting, conflict, and stakes?

This is my favorite part of writing. I enjoy discovering what the story is about and why it matters to the main character. The other Muses know better than to run an idea by me if they don’t want a development discussion. I (almost) can’t help myself!

Let’s start with a basic idea: Tammy wants (and deserves) a promotion. (I just made it up and I know it’s silly, but there it is). You may have in mind a scene of Tammy confronting her boss or complaining to her BFF. That’s enough.

Now, where you take this seed will depend on your genre of preference, of course. Whichever direction you take, the following questions still work:

  • Why does this matter so much to Tammy?
  • What’s the worst that can happen?
  • What (or who) are the obstacles to her goal?
  • Does her promotion affect anyone else (coworker, family, client, etc)?
  • What is her career (corporate, professional, artistic, educational, blue-collar, high tech, etc)?
  • Are other employees receiving promotions?
  • What is her boss’s attitude?
  • How far will Tammy go to attain her goal?
  • What is she willing to do?
  • Who will try to stop Tammy? Who will encourage, discourage, or undermine her?
  • Are there sinister reasons she hasn’t been promoted?
  • Is legal action an option?
  • What matters most to Tammy? Authority, money, or title?
  • Now, think of the most bizarre reasons for denying promotion that you can. hair color, genetics, parent or marital status, planet of origin, living vs unliving?

Hopefully these questions get you a great deal of information on Tammy, her motivations, and the people in her world.

Let’s turn to setting.

How would all the answers above apply to the following settings: Victorian Steampunk, the 19th century, the 23rd century, a deep space freighter, a haunting agency?

What if Tammy is a fantasy creature? The daughter of someone universally loathed or universally famous?

Outer stakes matter, too, so the world you create for the story affects her employer, industry and job. How are her goals affected by the society around her? What are the repercussions for family, friends if she isn’t promoted?

Don’t chose the “safe” answers to these questions! Look for contradictions and options that appear to have no ability to reconcile.

As a panster, I don’t go too far beyond this point. I’ll mess with the order of some events, maybe write a few character sketches, and prewrite about the world. If anything feels predictable, I try to twist it or eliminate it. Look for the unexpected. I know the first third and the last 20 pages usually, and don’t like to know the rest. Makes the process more intriguing for me.

Thereafter, I keep notes as things come to mind. I have a lot of books I want to write, so whether a story makes it or not depends on a lot of factors.

Let me know in the comments below what basic plot/character/setting you developed from the above questions. 

How do you develop story ideas?

14 thoughts on “Developing Story Ideas

  1. I often work by brainstorming the unique or unusual aspects of the situation and then seeing how they connect together -that creates ideas that are logical but sometimes unexpected.

  2. Writing picture books, I have to take many of the steps you take for a novel; but everything has to be simplified. That leaves me with the task of engaging the child with HOW the story is told. I usually know the beginning and the end and have to work out the middle.

    • Do you think it’s more challenging to write picture books than just words? I’d think the visuals would take over my brain and possibly leave the story to the side (my brain).

      • Not more challenging, but different challenging. It really is all about language. I can’t get overly descriptive because publishers want writers to leave room for the illustrator to create. I have to keep the vocabulary and plot simple enough for a child to understand, but it also has to be fun for an adult to read aloud. It’s tricky and requires a great deal of editing on my part. I think an average story goes through about 10-15 revisions. Considering the fact that they’re only a few pages long, that’s a lot of editing; but I really enjoy playing with the words.

  3. It depends on whether I start with a character or with a story. If a character, then I have the character write a letter to me telling me all about himself/herself and his/her background, beliefs, family, history, passions, etc. Somewhere in the midst of this, the plot usually emerges and I take it down. For stand alone books, I pants along nicely. For a series, I have to have a little more information or else the foreshadowing and details get too confusing.
    If I start with a story/plot, I brainstorm as much as possible at the time I’m inspired. Depending on where I am, this could be on my computer, loose paper, a journal, or dictated into my phone. Then I find my ending in that mess and work backwards, finding characters and setting and goals.
    Great list of questions! They can be used for a variety of genres and styles. Thank you.

    • I use the letters from characters also. Never failed to bring up good stuff. 🙂 I do admire writers who can work backwards. I usually know where the character is AFTER the end and use that to get from 20k to the end.

  4. Generally I start with a scene I want to write, or a basic plot idea, like, “A dialogue about memetic vs genetic inheritance,” and from there I usually sketch out a storyboard of what I expect to happen, with a very stream-of-consciousness style, testing out various ideas for each section, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Once I have some basic ideas, I usually do research on anything that I feel needs it, like looking up any information on Xu Fu that I can find, so that I don’t make some basic errors, and then I start writing. First I just try to get a draft finished, and then I print it out and make edits and changes in red pen. Now that I think about it, my method is probably inspired by how I wrote essays back in college, since I started writing fiction immediately after graduation, and my essay method was pretty great by then…

    • Do you find if a story is coming hot, you just plow ahead and leave comments for yourself? I did that with essays all the time and still do if something comes up that I don’t want to stop and deal with during the scene.

      • Yeah, I don’t always write in order. I’ll just leave a gap to return to, work on what I have the inspiration for, and then go back to do the more mundane sections later. It happens more often when I’m writing erotica than other genres, but it still happens.

        • I’m about half & half on writing in order, Just prefer to research before and after draft instead of during, I guess. 🙂

          • I usually do all my research before, unless something unexpected comes up and I have to be like, “Wait, is that accurate?” I have a boatload of links I need to read about Xu Fu right now… I’m planning a dialogue, but one character in it has only like, one sentence written about him ever…

  5. Pingback: Planning, Plotting, Pre-writing, Oh my! | The Sarcastic Muse

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