You’re driving down the highway and BAM a brilliant story idea sparks your imagination.
You know exactly what the beginning scene will look like and who the main characters are.
You’re excited and ready to get started writing this soon to be bestseller.
You get home to your computer or notebook, the story idea still vivid in your mind, and something happens…
…You don’t know what to do with it. You don’t know how to make it a complete story with a structured plot and a satisfying ending.
How do you take your brilliant story idea and turn it into a great novel?
To be sure, this happens to all writers. It’s part of the process. Every story idea needs to be fleshed out. Some story ideas have potential, others don’t.
For some writers, it’s the most exciting and satisfying part of the process. Others prefer to get down to the business of writing.
***Once you have an idea, write it down. Make sure you don’t lose it. There’s nothing sadder than a lost and forgotten story idea.
I’ll start by sharing my process for fleshing out a story idea. Then I’ll share tips and processes shared by others.
My Personal Process
When I get a good story idea, or what I think is a good story idea, I like to do what I call “noodling.” Essentially, I daydream and brainstorm the possibilities. There’s no time pressure here. I find that if I try to rush the process, I get locked up. Instead, I’ll go for a walk. I’ll take a long hot bath. I’ll go sit outside in my backyard. And I’ll always have a notebook with me. I’ve been known to record ideas for a scene on my cell phone while driving my kids around.
Eventually, I’ll get to a place where I have a very loose plot. Then I sit down and pull it all together on paper. I’ll look for holes in the story and places where it just doesn’t make sense. Eventually, I will have a chapter by chapter outline. Then, I send that outline to a few friends and critique partners for assessment.
Sometimes the story just doesn’t come together. Other times it does.
Variations on The Outlining/Plotting Process
Many writers use a variation of my noodling process. They’re more structured about it. Here’s how it looks:
First, answer these basic questions:
- What’s the storyline? What is your story idea? What is it about? Write a few sentences that describe your story idea.
- What’s your character’s motivation – what do they want? We’re talking about internal motivation here.
- What is their goal – what do they need or want to accomplish? This is their external motivation.
- What’s the conflict? What prevents them from reaching their goal?
- How will the character grow or change?
Okay, Questions Are Answered, Now What?
Once you have those questions answered then you can start playing with the possibilities.
Stories all have a three act setup. As you write more, you’ll intuitively begin to write with this structure. If you’re working on your first story or two then you may need to be conscious of the format of a story.
You can practice defining the three acts of a story when you watch television, movies or read books. Become conscious of the three different sections/acts of each story.
You can see this three act structure in the image below:
#1 What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
With this three act structure in mind you can now begin playing with the possibilities. Ask yourself “What is the worst that could happen to my character?” Start writing down the options. You’ll find that some of the options resonate with you and others seem too farfetched or too convoluted. Some may seem too cliché too. Choose the idea that feels most exciting and unique to you and then move onto the next plot point or chapter and continue the process.
#2 Mindmap It
If you’re not a step by step outline person, try using a visual process like a mind map.
Mindmaps are excellent brainstorming tools. They allow you to think outside of the box and you don’t need any special equipment to mind map.
You just need a pencil and some paper.
#3 Start With What You Know
There’s no rule that says you have to start with the beginning of your story. Instead of trying to plot or outline from the opening scene, start with the scenes that you know and work backwards and forwards from there. Maybe you know how you want the story to end but that’s all you really have. That’s fine. Work backwards. What might happen right before the story ends?
Finally, just write.
If you’re bogged down with the plotting and story outlining process, let it go and just start writing. You may not be a “Plotter” (a writer that plots first.) You may instead be a “pantster,” (a writer that writes by the seat of their pants – as the story comes to them).
Experiment with different plotting and outlining styles. Try just writing too. There’s no “Right” way to create your story.
If you think you have a wonderful story idea, run with it. Don’t let conventions get in the way of getting your story on paper.
That’s what the revision process is for. Write first, shape and polish later.