It should come as no surprise novels, movies, TV shows, plays, musicals, and anything else that involve some type of story all started with a single idea. Someone, somewhere, at some point in time, thought to themselves, “Hey! That’s an interesting idea! I wonder if I could…”.
Being a writer, I’m always thankful when I have a sudden thought or idea that I realize would make a good story. But what happens when those ideas don’t come to you right away? What happens when you sit in front of your laptop, notebook, tablet, or loose piece of paper and just can’t seem to come up with anything?
That’s when the magic happens.
Normally the way my stories come to me is just by way of small, insignificant ideas, and it’s usually when I least suspect it. But, if you’re on a time crunch and want to get started working on something right now, there’s a technique I’ve used that some people might like. I’ll give you an example below of the process and how such small ideas become fully fledged stories.
Let’s make a story, shall we?
Step 1: Start with the big picture
This is where you’ll pump out anything, and I mean anything, that can be expanded upon to make a story. Here’s some things I’m pulling out of my hat right now for this example:
- A cat gets lost
- A boy finds his family
- A girl decides to face her fears
- A man and his wife take an adventure
- Two aliens have an idea while drinking at an intergalactic bar
As you can see, the ideas are simple and easy to work with. You don’t have to immediately know everything about what you’re going to write about – that’s half the fun of creating a story! So, let’s go ahead and choose one of these for our continued example… how about, ‘A boy finds his family’?
Step 2: Get a little more specific
Okay. So ‘A boy finds his family’ is pretty general and vague. How old is the boy? Why isn’t he with his family? Where is he now? What kind of boy is this? So many questions! We need answers! WE NEED ANSWERS!
Slow your roll there! We don’t need all the answers right away; don’t worry so much about the details that you give up on making the story itself.
It’s okay to be excited about a story, but getting ahead of yourself won’t do you any good in the long run. For now, we’re just going to give enough extra details to our first basic concept that it’s easy to understand where we’re going with this idea.
- A boy, who was abandoned on Earth, travels through the galaxy to find his family.
There. Now our main character has a more defined purpose. We can work with this.
Step 3: Break it down into Beginning, Middle, and End
Many a time, writers can get hung up on the plot twists, complex character arcs, and other intricate details when they’re creating a story. Unfortunately, we’re not at that stage yet. For now, we’re going to take our concept and give it a simple beginning, middle, and end to help us plan better what will be needed in our writing of the story. This is also where you can decide the character’s fate before you even begin writing, which helps with foreshadowing and context clues for the readers you can implement in your story. Does the boy find his family? Are they still alive? Only the writer knows before the story is even written.
The basic formula for any good story is to have a conflict, a struggle, and a resolution. Even the simplest conflicts, such as losing a hat or stepping in mud with new shoes, can lead to interesting struggles and even more interesting resolutions.
As a side note: writers can change the story at any time regardless of what their outlines say, so long as they can either create a new outline for their deviated story or work it into the pre-existing outline so as not to completely derail the story. If your main character suddenly turns bad because you think it’ll be more interesting to the story, make sure it makes sense. People don’t stop eating a sandwich to bite their own tongue as hard as possible unless there’s a good reason behind it. Make it believable.
So let’s get to that outline, yeah?
Beginning (Conflict) – Boy is stranded on Earth, learns of his real birth parents from space, decides to find them (probably to fill a void in his heart or some such thing; a longing to know the unknown).
Middle (Struggle) – Boy travels the galaxy while having adventures and mishaps.
End (Resolution) – Boy learns that his real family are the friends he made on his journey, decides to stay with them after finding his real parents.
See what happened there? I’ve already planned for the ending to be about the boy caring more for his new-found friends than the people that merely gave birth to him. By doing this now, I’m also thinking of what kind of person the boy is. I feel like he wouldn’t have had many friends on Earth, was probably a loner, and thought that people didn’t understand him. That would be a good motivator for why he would be desperate to search out his parents, and a good reason for him to cherish the friendships he’d make on his journey.
Step 4: Flesh out your information for chapters, parts, volumes, series, etc.
This is a step a lot of writers disagree upon. I, personally, like to plan out my stories chapter by chapter. Not only does it give me a good idea of pacing, but allows me to not spend too much time on any segment of the story.
It’s hard for a writer to know when they’re giving the reader ‘too much’, and that’s okay. We fall so in love with our stories that it’s hard for us to know when we’ve got to pull back and save a little for the imagination.
Just as I did with my broad idea to detailed outlines above, I like to plan out what will happen in each chapter. It’s a personal preference, and as I said above, it really helps to keep my over-detailing in check. Here’s a basic example, though my outlines are generally a bit more detailed. I also aim for ~3,000 word chapters, as I feel it’s a good sized chunk of writing and, once again, helps with pacing. Some chapters may be 2,000 words, others 4,000 depending on what’s going on. That’s perfectly fine. There’s no right or wrong way to word counts in a novel. It’s your work; do with it as you will.
- Introduction to the boy, what kind of person he is, background, etc.
- Learning of his lineage, realizing he has a choice to make. Decides to find them.
- Finding a way to leave the planet. Ship? Teleport? Some other form of travel?
- Steals a ship with help of unhappy crew who don’t like their captain, makes his way to nearest galactic trading post for more information on his parent’s whereabouts.
- Gets his parents location, but it’s quite a distance. Starts looking for people with a better ship he can use, steal, borrow, etc. to get there.
- Finds someone who says he can use their ship if they help him with something first. Goes with them…
See? We’re already ~18,000 words into the story, and it’s going quite well with the chapter planning. I usually start with the first and last chapters. Of course, the last chapter in this scenario would likely be: after choosing to stay with new-found friends, they celebrate and decide where they’re going to head to next and what shenanigans they’ll get themselves into. Having this in mind as my ending point will help me as well in making sure I’m pacing my story right so that I end there at my desired word count.
Step 5: Detail your outline to your preference
This was mentioned in Step 4, but needs to be talked about a bit more. Each writer has their own style of writing. Some writers use their outlines as the foundation for their actual story, having each piece grow from the first. Others write a barebones outline of just the beginning, middle, and end, sit down, and write. They let the words direct where the story goes, and try not to get too specific about what should or shouldn’t happen.
Me? I’m a bit of both.
As you saw above, I like to give my chapters a general outline, but will usually go back and write some more details about what exactly I want to put into each chapter.
Example: Chapter 1: Introduction to the boy, what kind of person he is, background, etc.
- Boy is about seventeen years old, is fed up with high school, the cliques, the popularity contests, the bullying, etc.. Dreams about life elsewhere.
- Kind of a loner. Adoptive parents told him he was adopted at a young age and has felt alienated about it ever since, realizing that he’s not their real child, but closer to a puppy picked up at a shop. Unfortunately for his adoptive parents, the puppy they picked grew up to be a dog that normal people consider weird and unapproachable. Feels remorse for this, but can’t change himself.
- A letter or note is found detailing his actually lineage, and that his parents are not from Earth.
- Asks adoptive parents about it, which they confirm. Was a very hush hush situation, but since he found out they tell him.
- Boy starts to piece together why he never fit in, always felt out of place, etc., it’s all coming together.
From there I would write the first chapter with those elements in mind, and also use them if I find myself wavering in my writing.
Step 6: Start writing!
It does a writer no good to have folders, binders, notebooks, notepads, etc., full of ideas but nothing done with them. I hate to admit, but I’ve got a folder on my phone in my Pages app that has at least 9 unfinished stories in it… Which I hope to get to someday. It pains me to see such wasted potential for a decent story, but for some of them I actually had a good reason to drop them before completion.
That’s yet another lesson to be learned: you don’t have to finish a story you start to write.
Yes, write out your idea. Put your heart and soul into your work, do your best, and try your hardest. But, in the end, only you can decide if your story is going somewhere or not. That’s not to say that if you don’t like your story that it’s automatically a horrible story. But if you’ve been trying to write the same chapter for an uncomfortably long length of time and just can’t seem to get through it, either work around it, take a break from it, or discontinue and go on to other projects.
Writers don’t have to necessarily love their work to put it out into the world. I look back on my first series and have mixed feelings about it. It was my first attempt at trying to connect a plot across 7 parts, and in some ways I’m not sure I like the end result. But at the end of the day, I published it so that if there was someone out there who liked that style of writing style, they’d get to see it and enjoy it.
Yet, with all that said, my number one rule for writing has to be: have fun. The road to writing success is fraught with obstacles, so you might as well enjoy the bumpy ride!
Hope this has helped you in one way or another. Brainstorming and outlining are two of the hardest parts of starting a story on the right foot, but they don’t always have to be chore.