As I attempt to reenter the realm of story-making I’ve been trying to figure out ways to make the process easier and more manageable for myself. It’s usually easy to come up with an idea, but to take that idea and make it something that has a beginning, middle and end with compelling situations and characters can be a whole different animal.
I’m no expert on this, not even close. My track record is anything but mediocre at best. However, creating stories, characters, and worlds has been an activity that I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid. I’m currently trying to develop stories for two potential personal projects. I had little problem coming up with the general ideas for both. In fact, I have several ideas that I like, many were started years before. The first problem was to narrow them down. In the end I decided on two ideas that seem interesting and fun and are also something that I think I can handle. I was even able to combine a couple ideas together to make them more layered.
I have plans for both of these ideas, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to give some tips I’ve come up with to help me develop these ideas into full stories. So if, like me, you have your idea(s), you can picture it in your head, but it’s not a complete story, what next?
The most important thing for a story is to have compelling characters, so this is likely the next best place to start. We need to figure out whom or what will move the story forward. Who is the good guy and who or what will try to stop them? We need conflict. You’ve likely heard the phase man versus man, man versus himself, and man versus nature. These are the bases for story conflict. It doesn’t always have to be another person that’s causing the problem, so keep that in mind.
Usually when you have a story idea in mind you will know, vaguely, who the characters will be, but they aren’t usually very fleshed out. We’ll work on that in later steps. The main thing is to have in mind who the characters are in the story. Don’t be afraid to add more characters or remove some and never be afraid to kill off a character if it will move the idea forward.
Also keep in mind relationships between the characters. Do they get along? Are they related? These things can be useful in developing more story ideas.
The next thing is to try and drum up as many scene ideas as we can. Knowing the characters and the overall story idea we should be able to think of some interesting scenes that we’d like to have in our story. Order is not important here. What we want to do is basically create a catalog of ideas. Don’t worry about how much they make sense. You might not use them in the end or you may merge some later on.
The trick here, and for any story development, is to keep asking “what if?” What if the character runs away? What if they have an unknown brother? What if they get hit by a car? These kind of questions can easily spark scene ideas.
One of the most crucial scenes we need to think of here is the ending. This is something that may take a long time to develop. It is, after all, the crux of the whole story. We don’t even need to know how it happens yet, we just need to have an ending. If unsure, you can try to think of a couple endings. If you can’t come up with an ending then the next phase will likely help.
Work on both of these parts for a while. Let the ideas “cook” in your head. Give it a couple days or even weeks, each day try to add more ideas. When you get to a point that you just can’t come up with more ideas, move on to the next part.
At this point we need some fresh ideas. It also doesn’t hurt to see how other stories are setup. We should find some inspiration to get ideas. I’m not talking about stealing ideas here. That’s never a good idea. Get it? Ahem… Anyway, we can learn a lot from other sources and it will likely spark more ideas. Look at books, comics, and movies etc. It’s likely that your original story idea was sparked from something you read or saw. Try to find stories that have elements similar to your idea. It doesn’t even have to be the same genre. We’re looking mainly for character development. What has a character in it in a situation similar to your character?
I like to watch TV shows and movies. This way I can see and more easily feel the character’s emotion. It’s also faster than reading a novel. Yes, I’m lazy. The point is to, again, gather as many ideas as we can. I usually will write down little things anything to spark more “what if” questions. For example: I saw a fight scene where someone got thrown out the window. I had no idea if I could use that, but it was an exciting and scary moment in the show, so I wrote it down.
I don’t just jot down scene ideas, I’ll also pick out character traits—”Likes animals” “Hates smoke” “Is afraid of heights.” I can use these to help flesh out my characters.
Again spend a couple days or weeks on this part of the process. I keep adding all these things to my “idea list” on my iPad. That way they are in one place an I don’t have to worry about losing papers etc.
Once you have collected a decent amount of fresh ideas, go to the next step.
With all our ideas gathered it’s time to test ourselves. We came up with as many ideas as we could and we did research. Let’s see how far we’ve come. At this point we should create a list. I will usually start with a numbered list of, say, 10 or 12 chapters and then test myself to see how many chapters I can fill in. I figure that the first two chapters are the introductions, where we learn about the character(s) and are met with the first challenge that sets the stage for the rest of the story. Then I go to the bottom of the list and put the ending. Then I’ll fill in a couple chapters before the ending. These are the lead-in chapters, the build up to the final conflict.
With that in place I’ll have a few chapters left over to fill in. Here is where all those ideas come into play. We can start to figure out where some of those idea can play into the overall story. Can some of them lead into other ideas? Can we make connections between scene ideas? Do we need a new character to move things along?
If we can’t fill in all those chapters then we need to go back and find more ideas or try to combine some of the ones we have. You can repeat this process until you have all the chapters filled in. The ideal situation is to have more ideas than chapters slots on the list. You don’t want to add too many unneeded chapters. Going from 10 chapters to 100 is likely not a good sign. You should always make sure that each chapter and each scene moves the story forward. If it doesn’t, and it’s just fluff, then you should remove it or merge it with a scene that does move things forward.
By this point we should have a decent idea of what’s going on in our story. We should have a very basic outline. From here we need to refine and add detail.
The basic process here overall is to start with very broad strokes and then slowly narrow things down to the details. This way we never get overwhelmed with the details from the start. We work towards that slowly so that we can always see the whole picture. This is actually true for drawing too.
If you get stuck then either something is preventing the story from taking shape or, more likely, there is an idea that’s blocking other ideas from connecting. Something else you can try is to take all the ideas you gathered place them on index cards and try to jumble them around to see what ideas crop up. Place a couple cards in random order and see what you get. You may be surprised. It’s all about sparking an idea.
And finally, talk to others. By talking to friends and family about your ideas you may find that ideas just jump out at you in the process of explaining it. Or they may ask you a question that forces you to think of an answer. If the idea sounds bad while you explain it, it’s likely that you’ll need to keep working on it.
Always write down ideas. Don’t let them slip your mind. An iPad is great for that “nighttime idea” that you think of as you are trying to fall asleep. Just be sure the glowing screen doesn’t bother others.
Of course, there are many other ways to develop a story. This is just a method that seems to work for me.