Developing Ideas: Defining and Refining

In the last post in this series about developing ideas, I talked about getting the vague shape of the story in mind. It’s like a blurry picture of a story that you have to squint to see clearly. Sometimes it helps me to imagine holding the published novel in my hand: what’s the tone of the summary on the back or the inside jacket? What sorts of books/stories do the review quotes compare it to? What sort of reader is going to pick up this book and enjoy it? (If you want to think big: what kind of movie would this make? What would the trailer look and sound like?)

At this point, you may know nothing about the actual story, the characters, or the setting. You have your original idea, which could be anything from “a pink dress” to “a story about an assassin” to “what if all cats were aliens observing us?”

Now you have to take that vague shape and use it to develop elements of that idea into a story.

The first thing I try to look at is the plot—what kind of plot, what pacing, what structure? One way to get a quick sense of the plot is to look at what you want the climax to be: a fight, a romantic confession, a singing contest, the revelation of the murderer’s identity? You can use your influences as well as genre (and sub-genre) conventions to try out some different options; for example, if you know you want to write a literary novel about that “pink dress,” maybe the climax of the story would be the character forgiving her mother’s emotional abuse—and then you could start to look at how the pink dress could come into play, such as the character letting her mother be buried in it or something. Or if you’re writing a historical epic, maybe the climax is the character’s execution wearing that pink dress (until she’s rescued by the dashing pirate, if you’re not going too heavy).

Your idea fragment doesn’t actually have to be in the climax; maybe it’s just a starting point that leads you towards the plot. The key is to just start thinking of options and asking questions about what you want, as a writer and as a reader. For example, the idea about alien-cats—do you want them to be our enemies, or our allies (that probably depends if you’re a cat or a dog person)? Is the climax our ultimate battle against the feline overlords, or is it the triumph of a human/feline alliance against the invading rat-spiders? Or is it a quieter story, about the bond between a single human and their feline guardian, as they solve crimes or find love (independently, I would guess, unless you’re either going in a kinky or platonic direction or having the cat-form be only one of their shapes… no judgment!)? Actually, I kind of want to write that story now… 🙂

A quick word at this point about series planning—this is the stage when I try to get a sense of any series potential. I’m a sucker for wanting a series because I think it increases fandom participation and anticipation, but standalones are not only valid and easier, they also at this point are more original. But if you do want a series, now is the time to start thinking about how that series is going to look.

For an epic series, it helps to have a general idea of the series climax—not specifically, unless it comes easily to you, but at least a sense of what the final climax is about. The defeat of the dark lord, the oppressive government, the robotic army? Then you can start to look at how you might break up that story into multiple individual conflicts, or into continuous pieces (like Lord of the Rings). If you’re not sure how many volumes you want, and want to leave some options open for now, just focus on the conflict of the very first story. Is it the defeat of the ultimate villain’s lackey? Or their first plan (like Harry Potter, where the first book defeats Voldemort’s initial plan to return to life)? Or perhaps it’s an unrelated villain who secretly works for the ultimate villain, or whose defeat motivates the villain, or some other step-conflict to what the series will be about? If you’re going with continuous storytelling, what’s a good stopping point (with enough plot to take up a whole story, but still leaving enough left)? After the first battle? The revelation that the governor has an evil plan? Once the characters reach the Ink Line Plains (intersected by a black river… ha, get it?)?

For a procedural series, you don’t have to worry as much about future volumes, unless you still want to have some sort of epic endgame in play. In the first story, you just have to set up characters that you’d like to stick with for a while, and who have the opportunity for multiple future conflicts. If your protagonist would only reasonably get involved in this first conflict, you’re going to have to come up with a whole new set of “unique” circumstances for the next story, and the next, and it will get either repetitive or illogical eventually. Set up a circumstance that makes it easy to get them involved in future conflicts; an occupation such as “private detective,” or a new superpower or friendship (like Watson finding Holmes) or mission in life (like Tony Stark’s revelation to help people with his technology). Once you have the characters in mind, then develop the first conflict they face. One option is whether or not this will be the “origin story,” establishing those circumstances mentioned above, or whether it will be “business as usual,” leaping right into the current conflict. Then develop a more or less standalone conflict that will be resolved by the end of the story, and you’ll start again with the next story and a new conflict. (Strands brought from story to story, such as recurring villains, are a matter of personal preference; they can be developed ahead of time or done on the fly.)

When you’re developing the story out of your idea, you have to look for conflict. In more plot-based works, the conflict is more overt and physical, usually manifested in a “villain” with a plan of their own. Starting with the villain is essentially starting with the conflict, so it’s a good place to begin for a plot. Another (perhaps better) place to start is to look at what the protagonist wants, and who would want to stop them. If the hero wants to save the world, then you sort of have to start with what they’re saving the world from, but if they want to win a tournament or get married before they’re 40 or escape from prison, then they’re going to be driving the conflict.

Even if you do start with the villain, finding the protagonist’s motivation is an absolutely essential step, and one I’ve often skipped and regretted later. If you have a sense of the plot, then you just have to figure out why this character wants to stop the villain—if it’s obvious (such as “it’s a dystopian government killing babies, of course they want to stop them!”) then the question becomes why and how does this specific character act to stop them?

But if you either don’t have a villain or are writing a story without a villain-based plot, you might need to look at your protagonist for what they want, and start there. Look at their emotional history; you’ll probably only get vague internal needs (such as “wanting to be loved for who they are”), but it’s a place to start, and will be helpful in developing your character’s depths. Then look at what people in this world want—if it’s our world, look around; if it’s an invented world, think about how this society works and what it values. Would characters here want families, or great careers, or to survive the harsh environment? No society is homogeneous, so every individual may want something different, but getting a sense of what’s normal may also give you ideas for how your character’s wants differ (thus adding more conflict!).

The idea is to keep asking questions and considering options until you get a sense of your protagonist and what they want. Then you look at the antagonist—do they want to stop the protagonist from getting what they want, or is the protagonist trying to stop the antagonist from getting what they want? Who makes the first move? Do they know about each other right away, or only later? Are they reacting to each other, or to the indirect actions of each other? At what point does one of them realize the full plans and desires of the other and specifically act to stop them?

From here, you’ll go on to develop the actual characters, the settings, and the specific plot points, but these early shaping qualities will lay the groundwork for what the story will ultimately be. And you’re that much closer to a draft!

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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