If you can get from the idea to a protagonist who has a goal, you basically have a story. But even at that stage, things can still be so vague you have no idea where to start.
As I wrote in my last series on developing ideas, this is the point where you have to start gathering your ideas into a cohesive whole. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick with a single protagonist, so the story arc will be all about her actions and the climax should revolve around her choices and achievements. I might use third-person POV to allow for other POVs (for a chapter or so; not for their own story arc, which would make them protagonists), but I often find more fluidity in first-person, so we’ll see.
I already know that I want to write a novel, rather than a short story or screenplay, based on both personal preference and career goals. So I have to find a plot that can sustain a novel-length story, and its events have to work well in prose rather than visuals.
And while I tend to dive into series planning at this point, trying to get an idea of where the series might go, how long it will be, and how it will end, this time I think I have to stay focused on the story right in front of me. I have vague plans for different options and developments for a series, which is good because it tells me that this can be a series if I want it to be (which I pretty much do), but a series is nothing without a first story. So that’s what I have to work on now, and let the series development happen later on (maybe between first draft and revision?).
I have the general idea of my setting, I have my protagonist and a few of the characters around her, and I know what my main character wants—but in a general sense. So the first step is to develop specific goals that can drive the story more directly.
This is where the inciting incident comes in. For example, your character may want to survive his dystopian existence, and that’s a great goal—but what is he doing about it? When he is kidnapped by the evil dictator, suddenly he has a clear goal of escaping… and his actions in going after that goal may lead to new goals until his overall goal is to topple the dictatorship with the help of the rebels.
So without getting too specific, my character’s internal goal is to prove herself (to keep her desirable job, but also for her emotional needs), so the inciting incident is going to give her a specific challenging mission that she will take on in order to prove herself. Thus, her goal in the story is to accomplish this mission, which will give her concrete goals to drive the story. And as I develop the obstacles to this goal, I may give her an overall goal of stopping/defeating a villain—not just to prove herself, but also to save someone or avenge something or do the right thing or whatever. Goals can grow and change, and should respond to various conflicts and resulting motivations.
But how do you figure out the specifics? There’s no easy answer here; you just have to keep brainstorming. First, I would recommend that if you find something that inspires you, that you like thinking about, that creates further ideas—don’t think about it and just do it. But if you can’t think of anything or if you come up with multiple things, you might have to start evaluating your options. This is a very dangerous phase, since the more analysis you allow into the creative process, the more doubt you are letting in with it. However, when you have to make a choice, you have to think in order to choose.
Consider your priorities for your story; think about what you really want. If you want a lot of action and plot, then look for options that require a lot of action sequences. If you want romance, look for options that bring a romantic couple together. If you want character-based story, look for options that contain a lot of dramatic conflict and that focus on character interaction or backstory.
Eventually, you want to find an idea that has potential and that interests you. Think about the story that you would imagine coming from that idea without reading it, about the pacing and the structure and the various scenes that the idea suggests. Think about what would immediately happen as a result of that idea (if you’re looking for an inciting incident)—but also think about where it could lead. Try and follow the chain of cause and effect to different potential endings, and see if any of them feel right.
I know, generically, that I want a “challenging mission” for my character to undertake. But I also know from my personal preferences that I don’t want something too plot-based, so I found something that begins with a more character-based conflict. It’s going to be about a relationship developing, as well as the external conflicts and consequences of that relationship. Yet I know that it can evolve into action and plot fairly easily, which will raise the stakes and provide enough direction for the story to keep moving (versus getting bogged down in character drama, something I like but don’t feel confident attempting).
So I have found my inciting incident, though it’s still vague (as in, character “roles” but no specific characters or events). And I have no idea what happens after the inciting incident.
Up next—developing the details!