Most writers have been asked how they come up with their stories, where do they get their ideas, or some variation on that theme. No one ever asks how the ideas actually become the stories. After all, ideas are only the beginning, and stories do not drop out of the brain fully formed and ready to publish. My experience with ideas boils down to this: about three-fourths of them are not viable, i.e. they cannot be developed into a full story with conflicts and resolution, character development and a coherent structure. Those ideas usually are great beginnings that never go anywhere.
The other quarter? They need to be rigorously tested and developed, twisted and pulled, shaped and trimmed until they prove themselves to be the stories they promised to be. In other words, prepare to work those ideas. How?
My process seems to change with each new idea, i.e. the idea itself dictates how to develop it. For Perceval’s Secret, the original idea was actually a character. So, I began by first writing a description of that character and what he was doing when he came into my consciousness from my imagination. My next step was to ask the character questions, but not direct questions like who are you? I started a conversation with him as if he were the guy sitting next to me at a bar. How’s life treatin’ you? The music in this bar stinks, doesn’t it? Just get off work? You live here? Stuff like that. I’m writing this all down, free associating off the answers that pop into my head from the character. With Evan, I wanted to also find out why he was conducting the empty stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. He started talking to me about his friend Paul Caine and something that had happened to the two of them as kids walking home from school one summer day. I used that as the beginning of what I thought was a short story.
My ideas for stories usually come as a character or characters and I need to figure out who they are and what they want me to know. It sounds kind of weird to talk to myself when I’m talking to the characters, but that’s been the most effective way to do it. I know that the character’s story is viable when I can see that he or she really wants something and there are all sorts of obstacles in the way of getting it. So if you are looking at an idea’s viability in terms of, say, 3-act dramatic structure, the idea needs to evolve beyond the first act into the second conflict act. If I can do that with the idea, I know the idea is viable. At that point, I start to have fun with it.
One idea that came to me as a situation first, i.e. a general experience that a lot of people have but what if the outcome was more science fiction? I’ve been struggling with this story for a couple years now because the experience didn’t have a character connected to it. The first version ended up being a dead end even though structurally it worked. So I decided to start over, changed the main character and made the experience in the past rather than something she was going through during the story. This approach clicked and all sorts of ideas for development came to me. At this point, I knew what the character wanted and I had a good idea what kind of obstacles would be in her way.
So, what I’ve learned over the years is to be open to all possibilities when working with an idea. I’ll need to figure out the main character, then what that character wants in the story, and if there are obstacles in the character’s way. Try analyzing some of your favorite stories to see how this structure works.
How do you develop story ideas? Do you write plot-driven or character-driven stories?