I wrote in my last post about different techniques for finding ideas, specifically ideas which speak to what you really love. Of course, your mileage may vary—and other techniques might work much better for you. Or you just might be one of those people who gets random new ideas all the time.
Wherever your idea originates, sometimes it takes off and you find the characters and the story as if you are excavating them whole from the abyss of your creativity. But sometimes an idea remains just an idea, a glimmer or a static image or a character just standing there.
How do you find the story?
I’ve often made the mistake (and continue to do so) of thinking a static idea is enough for a draft, and I forget about the need for a story. A cool setting, a fun relationship, a unique character—great places to start. And when you are coming from “fandom” for an existing work, you’ll see people fixating on characters and settings and random static elements, and you might think that’s all you want or need. But what inspires that fandom, what makes a piece of media actually work, is the story that brings those elements to life.
Many different definitions for “story” exist, but they generally break down to a character with a goal that faces obstacles (“conflict”) in the achievement of (or failure to achieve) their goal. And another important element which that definition leaves out is a character who changes; not all stories have this, but it can be a fundamental—sometimes the only—factor in some stories.
For my process of development, I usually gather my desired elements and create the characters and the setting and maybe their occupations and background world conflict… and thus create a static and unchanging situation. It can be an interesting situation, which is a good start, but it is not a story.
Sometimes things masquerade as stories when they are actually still “situations.” For example, I am often suckered in by the idea of a character undergoing a transition or having an “experience,” such as entering a fantasy world or getting drafted to an army or going to magic school (can’t use that last one… sigh). But these stories always stagnate and fall apart, mainly for two reasons: first, that the experience happens to the protagonist and thus renders them passive; and second, that once the character adjusts to the experience, it is once again just a situation.
So I find my way towards an interesting situation, with characters I enjoy and often a good amount of conflict in the background—but how do we turn this into a story?
One option is to generate plot-based stories. A villain enters the situation, threatens the main characters somehow, and must be dealt with. The main characters’ goal is to stop the villain and/or survive, and they may not change along the way (they start being good, they do good things, they end still good). This technique is common with TV shows that have to supply endless plot-of-the-week scenarios, or with procedural series (like James Bond) that supply one action conflict after another.
Plot-based stories are not a bad thing, by any means. They can be small and simple, or they can be large and epic. And they can be driven by the characters, particularly if the character’s goal is to “solve” the plot. For example, just because your character is a cop and it’s their job to solve the case, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a personal and internal motivation for doing so (either directly related to this case, or more generically in the sense that something in their character motivates them to do their job well).
A possible technique to increase the character interest in a plot-based and unchanging situation is to fill the character with internal conflict—that they don’t solve. This will make the character more engaging and interesting, and it will also allow you to have a lot of dramatic character moments. But if the conflict is resolved and the character changed, you might not have anywhere to go for the next story (if you’re working towards a series). Or you might not be sure how this character would change through this specific plot. But by giving them some internal conflict (enough to be interesting, not so much that they can’t function), you keep the character complex even as they don’t really change.
But if you don’t want your story to be too plot-based, or you want it to be less villain-driven, how can you find your character’s goal and arc within a static situation?
What I mean is that with a situation that the character is happy in, that they aren’t motivated to escape or change, I often get stuck figuring out the character’s goal. Okay, so they want to do their job well—if it’s an interesting job, you can generate a story, but the character’s motivation feels stagnant and often impersonal. If the plot/story has to come from the job, either give them a really personal motivation for doing their job well or make this particular case or assignment personal somehow. Sometimes even dramatic situations, such as being in the army during a war, can become a bit boring and stagnant—yes, the character wants to survive, but that isn’t unique to them and they can’t really do much about it (if they aren’t trying to desert the army or rise in the ranks). If you can find a personal element there, use it to try and increase interest.
Or build the story apart from the situation entirely, so that it remains an interesting background. Maybe the situation leads to something the character wants, rather than being what the character wants. For example, maybe you have your cop meet someone on the case, and their goal in the story is to romance that person. Or maybe after they’re drafted into the army they discover a talent for singing, and their goal becomes to survive the war in order to become a famous singer, giving concerts to their fellow soldiers along the way (I don’t know, I’m winging it here).
Another option is to find the conflict that may be built into the situation already, and try to mine it for a specific conflict that you could use for the story. For example, if your cop is the only woman in the precinct, build a case that directly confronts the potential conflict there. Or make it about her trying to be taken seriously by going after a particularly difficult case. Or maybe she already has difficulties with her partner (not necessarily because she’s a woman, maybe just because of their different styles of investigating), and this particular case exacerbates those issues. The key here is to look at what you had planned for background conflict (or what background conflict may be inherent in the situation) and see if any of it can be used for central conflict.
And if you’re still struggling to find the story?
I almost always get stuck in this phase, or I try out various conflicts that never come to life for me. It’s this reason that I’ve often doubted that I’m a “storyteller” at all; I’m much better at coming up with settings and static characters than stories with life and motion. But I refuse to give up altogether, so I have to figure out a way to take the situations that I love and turn them into stories I can love.
This is why sometimes you have to step back from something you like and open your mind to more options. Even if you’re fixating on something for the “right” reasons, such as that you love it, if it’s holding you back you have to consider other options. Maybe the situation you love can be something your character works towards; or maybe you have to take the situation away from them and have them work to get it back. Or maybe the character you love isn’t the best protagonist because they don’t have a clear goal and don’t have anywhere to grow. Or you have to give up something you want and use something you don’t love, such as a plot-driven story or a darker tone or multiple POV, in order to use the situation you do love.
So I try to go back to the core of what brought me here. I go back to the exercises I talked about in the last post—my most personal influences, the things that draw me into a story, the things that I keep thinking about after the story’s done. I look for my priorities, the things I want the most, and sometimes I have to be a bit ruthless about the rest, the other things that I would like to have but that just don’t work.
And the number one thing I have to look for, that I have to stay focused on above all else, is character and thus, story. No other element is worth anything without a character with a goal, who has agency, who has a story.
If you’re spinning, if you’re stuck, go back to the character. What do they want? If you don’t know, start thinking about what they might want in the moment. What do you want? What do people you know want? What do people in other stories want? Your character, and what they want (and how they go about getting what they want, or not getting what they don’t want), is your story.
Get from idea to character. Let that lead you to the rest.