So you have an idea. Maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a world, maybe it’s just a genre—or maybe you’re lucky and it’s a conflict. If you’re anything like me, ideas are everywhere.
But stories are harder to come by. How do you get from the vague concept of an idea to a story?
I’ve talked before about some tricks, about finding themes and the protagonist’s goal and basic plot structure, but none of these helped me recently as I’ve been working on my next project. I had a good idea of the beginning, and a faint idea of the end, but the middle was a swampy abyss of nothing. And it made me feel like I was not meant to write this story, or any story.
Trying to clarify the protagonist’s goal was a start, but it didn’t give me anything specific. Working on clarifying the ending gave me a better idea of the arc of the story, but for an arc to span an entire novel, it has to be large and detailed enough (without being too meandering). I can get to the point where I know the story is “investigation” or “journey” or “survival”… but what does that mean?
I tried to give up. Again and again, I told myself this story was just not meant to be, or that another version would be better. But there was something about this story, this world, this version that would not let me go.
So I tried something… random. And (so far) it has worked.
The trick I found is to just start throwing out random ideas for things that could happen in the story. Don’t try to go in order, at least until you lock onto a cause and effect pathway that makes sense to you. And don’t censor about what might work—something might seem like a tangent, or not great plotting, but just list as many different things as you can think of. List fun things, interesting things, things that make you want to write. Character relationships, places to go, mini-conflicts that complicate things, potential side effects of the choices you already know your protagonist makes, etc.
And something might start peeking through the mess, a single thread that you can start tugging until an entire plotline emerges.
Ideas inspire more ideas, and even though parts of the story are still a murky mess to me, I have a stronger grasp on the story than I did before. And that means it’s even harder for me to let it go, something that will serve me well when the next round of doubt hits.
Stare into the abyss long enough, and it stares back into you.