Tag Archives: ideas

How to Develop Ideas for Stories

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?


The Blizzard


Image thanks to Chris at icanhascheezeburger.com

What’s it with blizzards anyway?  The wind whips the snow into whiteout sounding like sand against my windows and my imagination ramps up into overdrive.  Not that I’m complaining.  But with a blizzard?  Why not with sunshine and clear skies?

So what does it mean to me, the writer, that we’re socked in by a blizzard today.  SNOW DAY!!!!  Time to play!  The imagination loves to play, to create, to have fun.  Early today, she had already come up with a tantalizing character for a children’s book, the title, and the very first scene, along with a timeline for writing it next year.

A little later, I decided to work on fiction today, specifically a short story that needs a rewrite.  It had a problem that I couldn’t figure out.  But today was the perfect day to drag it out and ask myself what the problem was and how to fix it.  The answer came fast, whizzing through my brain’s circuits from the imagination to the intellect.  It’s so simple, I’m astonished I didn’t think of it sooner.  I spent the rest of the morning working out the details and began the rewrite.   Most of the original story will remain, too.

This blizzard has triggered also a lot of memories of past snow days, both in childhood and as an adult.  Precious gifts – memories – when they come as specific gems, fully formed in the mind, and they’re things not remembered in a long time.  Memories feed the imagination with emotion and visual images, sounds and smells.  Memory fuels the writing process, mostly subconsciously but sometimes consciously.  Seeing the snow this morning triggered the snow day memories which took me straight to a childhood place and enabled my imagination to play with thoughts of being a kid, of kids I know, of stories I’ve written for kids in the past, and that led to one specific kid who invites me to his birthday party every year — my Scientist friend’s oldest son.  Another element popped in: I reread Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time a couple weeks ago, which had also triggered a lot of childhood memories.

So it all came together because of the blizzard and having a snow day: the snow, children’s science fiction, and the protagonist of the story.  I added a character that popped into my mind as I was thinking about the “tesseract” concept from L’Engle’s book.  Now I have two characters, a situation and a scene, but not a story.  Why?  No conflict yet.

The next step was to write down everything I’d thought of, which triggered more ideas that I wrote down also.  This could be the beginning of a fun children’s science fiction/fantasy story, or it could end up being a dead-end. My imagination will let me know eventually.

In the meantime, I have that short story rewrite to finish….

Finally, a Defining Label

This week, I experienced one of those tingling, spatially disorienting moments of realization.  Some people smack their foreheads.  I hold my stomach and shake my head from side to side, groaning.  It was a “why didn’t I see that sooner?” realization:

Perceval is “speculative fiction.”

I had been trying to fit the series into a science fiction niche but failed to find one that fit the novels like a model in haute couture.  The novels are set in the near future, so I’d been calling them “future historicals.”  Well, they are that.  But the broader category that includes future historicals, dystopias, hard science fiction, and fantasy is speculative fiction.

This resolution to the problem of defining Perceval for marketing purposes came in the middle of a computer software class I was taking (and enjoying).  My mind was playing, having a lot of fun with all the cool stuff MS Access 2007 can do, when the idea slid into my mind, unnoticed, and settled into a groove.  It waited.  I saw it somewhere between working with the Input Mask Wizard and creating Validation rules.

The smallest feather of an idea floats in despite the furious activity in my mind.  A welcome idea.  Isn’t it great how the mind works?

Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You

The writing process.  Those three words mean different things to different writers.  And yet, it’s the one thing non-writers and writers alike want to know about, i.e. what is it?  How does it happen?  Is there a standard way to do it?  How do I get ideas?  How do I lure inspiration into my life?  Am I doing it right?

First of all, the writing process is exactly that: the process of writing something, be it fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a play or screenplay, a speech, etc.  There’s nothing mysterious about it.  The process involves desire and openness to begin: the desire to write and an openness to the world and people.  Curiosity about everything also helps, because inspiration waits for no one.  Live life to the fullest, read widely, travel, follow interests, meet people, listen to dreams.  Be curious and interested with everything outside the self. 

The writing process happens when an individual decides to write something.  There is no standard way to proceed and complete the process which is as individual as each person doing it.  Ideas are everywhere.  Curiosity about the world and people is essential.  Having written that, I realize that ideas also tend to find the person they are most suitable for, like a cat finds the person most allergic to her.  Not that any writer could develop an allergy to ideas….  Inspiration waits for no one, so it’s important to be open to it.  Inspiration is really just an idea finding the right person and making her sneeze.  There is no right way to do it, either.  But like narrative structure, there’s a beginning, middle and end.

In the beginning of the short story I’m currently working on, I had an experience that involved a disease and a treatment for that disease, specifically an ultraviolet light chamber.  This experience reminded me of the line “Beam me up, Scotty!” in the original Star Trek series.  That thought made me smile and hung around for weeks in my mind, just sitting there, swinging its feet, waiting.  That is, waiting for an idea.  I have no clue how my imagination takes in experiences on all levels and then slips out the thing that nags at my mind, in this case, it was the idea of fish scales.  Then one day, I saw in my mind a sentient being that resembled more a Komodo dragon than a human and I…sneezed.  Inspiration had caressed my nose.  That Komodo sentient being was a character with low self-esteem and it had a story.

From there, Komodo has been slowly opening up and sharing its story with me.  I ask what gender it is, and receive no answer, so I’m beginning to think its sexuality either is extremely different from human understanding or isn’t important in the story.  Ditto with a name.  But I know what Komodo wants, what some of the obstacles are to getting it, and….  I don’t know anymore.  At this point, I haven’t begun writing down the story.  First, what I generally do is write notes which develop into a sketch of an outline, usually 3 sentences to 3 paragraphs: Komodo wants such and such; a list of obstacles and conflicts; then a possible ending.  At this point in the process, nothing is written in stone for me.  I want to be completely open to the story evolving organically according to the needs and actions of Komodo.

After time has passed — days, weeks, or months — I begin to feel really restless, on edge, and full, like maybe I shouldn’t have had that second helping at dinner.  I also feel that I really want to write down Komodo’s story and see what happens with it.  As I write, whether longhand or on the computer, seeing the words flow triggers more words, more ideas.  Sometimes, a story comes out all at once — quite a fortunate experience!  Most of the times, it comes out in spurts, with a lot of thinking going on between them.  Once I have a first draft down on paper, I will put the story away for a minimum of a week to ferment.  When I return to it, I revise to tighten it, sharpen the language and images, check for narrative holes, make sure Komodo changed over the course of the story.  Revising is finding the right word, the right image or detail, being specific in language.  One revision is never enough.  And Inspiration continues to flow into the story with each revision. 

Finally, the end.  The story is done.  I will put it away again for a minimum of one week.  Then I might ask people I trust to give me constructive feedback after reading the story…or not, depending on what I think the story needs.  I might put it away for months and work on something else.  Or I might research markets, i.e. magazines or literary journals, in order to submit it.  Sometimes more revisions happen after several rejections.  Sometimes an editor loves the story and wants to publish it. 

And that’s a sketchy outline of the writing process….no standard, right or easy way about it.

Who was that guy or Where do you get your ideas?

Evan Quinn, the protagonist of Perceval, began life as a nameless male voice in my mind, insistent on being heard, while I sat in the auditorium at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, enjoying an evening concert.  At first I resented his intrusion.  His voice carried a Minnesota inflection as he spoke to me.  I suppose someone might mistake this leak from the imagination as “hearing voices” and suggest I needed help, but I’m accustomed to paying attention to thoughts or experiences that have what I call a “clarity,” like a bell ringing, that alert me to a story idea emerging.  Like this nameless male voice in my mind.

My stories usually begin with an idea, a situation or a character or some visual representation of it in my mind.  For example, a screenplay I wrote several years ago began with two persistent images in my mind.  One was of a young woman high up in a winter-denuded tree at night, clinging to its trunk, while an army of men fought viciously below, the woman illuminated as if by a spotlight from a hovering helicopter.  The other image was of the same young woman in a barn, bales of hay stacked nearby, a man aiming a shotgun at her, and two small children cowering behind him.  In this case, I had situations and a character.  Who was she?  Why was she up in that tree?  Why were the men fighting below her?  Who was the man aiming the shotgun at her and why?  Who were the two children?

The spark of ideas are everywhere in the world.  They come from newspaper articles, news magazines, television or radio news stories, overheard conversations, gossip, dreams, daydreaming and the observations of people and situations in the writer’s life.  One of the “games” I play with my imagination is to make up stories for the people I see on the street, on the bus, in restaurants, etc.  Give them jobs, lovers, secrets, a suspenseful situation.  Why is that guy watching the waitress so closely?  Does he know her?  Or is he her stalker?  I never accept idea suggestions from other people for my fiction.  Those ideas belong to the individuals who thought of them, not to me.  I usually encourage that individual to write the story himself.

I believe that story ideas capture the specific writer, not vice versa.  The imagination gravitates toward subjects and ideas that resonate with the writer’s heart and soul, so it is a personal experience.  I believe also that writers work through themes unique to them and their lives in the stories they write.  Sometimes a writer may not be aware of the unique theme(s), or sometimes it takes a long time for the realization to sink in, or sometimes readers point it out.  Years passed before I figured out my main theme (there could be others, too) which I have seen bubble up time and again in my stories.

As for Evan’s initial nameless male voice in my head, characters had not entered my life before in this way.  His voice continued to speak to me during the concert, until toward the end of the symphony on the second half, an image finally faded into my mind.  The voice belonged to a tall (over six feet) man, mid-thirties, Caucasian, with thick, straight black hair, a runner’s lean body, and he wore white tie and tails.  His back was to me because he was conducting — he was an orchestra conductor — the bare stage of the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna.  From his voice, I knew he was a Minnesotan, an American.  What was he doing in Vienna?  Why was he conducting a bare stage without musicians or even music stands or chairs on it?  Who was that guy?  He’d captured my attention.