When Does an Idea Become a Story?

I’ve got a theme for the week, and I’m going with it.

Several of my posts this week have been about getting ideas—from what you read, from what you think as you read, from a branding idea—but how do you know when an idea is right for a story?

I talked about this before in “Three Ways to Evaluate an Idea,” but I wanted to add a few more brief thoughts.

See, for me personally, I can come up with an idea, and think about it and start developing it. But at some point, I realize I’m thinking of it mostly in a vague, abstract sense—a series of static images, trailer-like visuals devoid of context, snatches of random nonspecific dialogue, etc. I’m thinking about having written it, not about actually writing it. It never gets beyond the summary or outline stage, because it doesn’t have that spark of life that a story needs.

But in some sense every idea goes through this stage, where it’s vague and undeveloped—so how do you know if an idea is going to get stuck there, or if it will go all the way?

I suppose everyone is probably different in this, but I’ll talk about what I’m working through at the moment. I’ve got an idea (probably the hundredth this week), and it has potential in a lot of ways. But do I actually want to write it, or just think vaguely about it?

The first step is to dig into the details. Test out plot points, even write scenes in your head, interrogate the characters and see if they come to life. If my mind keeps sliding away from specifics and back to pretty images or vague summary, then I’m probably not in a place where I can write that right now. The point here is that the specific details you come up with may or may not ever make it into the story—but just the ability to come up with them and be interested in the possibilities is the right start.

The second step for me is to try and start a detailed outline. As I’m coming up with cause and effect plot points, burrowing deeper into the details, I can start to feel whether my interest is engaged or slipping away. At some point in the outline, I realize I’d rather be doing anything else and that I definitely do not want to write this story out… Except with my one successful project, where the outline increased my interest and I was able to stay committed to it.

The third step (though it sometimes comes a bit earlier) is to start hearing the text itself. Can I start to hear the narrative voice? Dialogue? The shape of scenes and transitions? When it’s no longer just silent visuals or thoughts of the overarching elements, but specific words, I know it’s ready.

At least, theoretically ready. I can still talk myself out of it because that appears to be my one true talent, but if I make it that far, the idea at least has the potential to become a story for me. If it ‘dies’ before that, then it’s not over completely—but I’m just not there yet.

The one project I actually finished? I started and stopped at least a dozen times over a period of years, and each time I thought it was never going to work. Then one week, randomly, a new perspective on it opened up the story and it flared to life—and made it all the way. So never give up on an idea completely, because you never know when it might just click. 🙂


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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