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Idea Development - From "Ehh" to "Ooh"

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Sun Oct 01, 2017 5:40 pm
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Megrim says...


Ideas are cheap.

You may have heard that, but if you're like me it may not have really sunk in yet. Some writers are overflowing with stories and characters, and there's not enough time in the day to write all the books they have in their head. Then there are those of us who wish we had that problem; idea-land feels like this vast desert, with the occasional oasis of good concepts interspersed between a whole lotta nothing. The good news is, it's only a matter of finding the right roads through your brain. Time to get out your machete and hack and slash through the vines that are holding you back.

Maybe you're not bursting with existing ideas, but that doesn't matter because the skill is actually about finding them. I've heard story ideas described as "like clues"--something you uncover. Everyone's going to have their own opinion on this, but I'm going to share my most successful method: working backward through questions.

Reverse Engineering Your Plot

A lot of times an idea starts out a seed. A tiny kernel that makes you sit up and think, "ooooh." But that one tiny piece has very little context, so how can we make it into a full story? Say we start with a single thought...

I want to write a story about ghosts.

I want to write this scene where the protagonist is betrayed by their best friend.

I want to write a deaf character.

Identify that kernel. Put it into words so you know, for sure, what the idea is (even if it's super simple). Think of it as the outline of a figure. Then we need to fill in the face and clothing, place the figure in a setting, and paint the background. The way I do this is through questions.


Here's a loose structure for how we might approach this:
1. Pick genre/style
2. Identify character roles
3. Look for the conflict
4. Set up the background

Every step will involve asking ourselves questions, and forming the next quesitons based on the answers. I'll use these three examples to show you the process as we go.

1. Pick Genre/Style

Usually we have a sense of what "kind" of story we want to write--you love fantasy, or high school dramas, or want to try a murder mystery. If you don't already, it's fairly easy to settle on something. Do we want it to be serious or lighthearted? Speculative or realistic? Action-packed or philosophical? Look for the "ooh"--this step is all about "what do I feel like writing?"

Do I want the ghosts to be frightening or friendly? -> Friendly, or at least neutral.
Will my protagonist be able to communicate with them? -> Yes.
How? -> I don't want her to be able to directly see them. I like the idea of using traditional gimmicks, like candles and ouija boards.

Is this betrayal a climax or an inciting incident? -> How about an inciting incident.
Should the protagonist end up physically injured or handicapped from the betrayal? -> Of course!
Is this story going to be about the consequences, or trying to set things straight? Revenge? -> I'd love to see the two characters divided early on, struggle against each other, and reconcile in the end.

What kind of world does this deaf person live in? -> I have an itch to write steampunk. Maybe a city in the clouds, powered by gears.
Are there a lot of deaf people here? -> No more than in our world.
Does she have any advantage from being deaf? -> Maybe since she won't be distracted by sounds, she'd be a good person to navigate through loud things. A type of airship with really loud engines? An airbeast that incapacitates its prey with a screech?

I tend to already have a leaning toward genre. If the last story I wrote was sci-fi, I might lean more toward fantasy. If it's been a while since I did anything in first person, I might do that instead of third person. This one starts out with my gut feeling, and then I poke and prod to see how I feel about tone and atmosphere. Sometimes I go into it with a predetermined plan, but a lot of the time, it unfolds as I ask those questions.

2. Identify Character Roles

Once you have the basis of an idea, the most important next step is figuring out your characters. People vary on how in-depth they go into this before starting to write, but no matter what, you need something. It's really common for someone to get so caught up in the set dressing and worldbuilding that they forget to structure it around any characters, and then when it's time to start writing, you realize you don't actually have a story. Don't let yourself fall into this trap: we read for characters, so they need to be a priority.

My favorite trick for developing characters is What WOULDN'T you expect?

Once we have that kernel of an idea, we need to help it blossom into something fun. And you know what makes fiction fun? Characters in trouble! So start figuring out why your protagonist IS NOT the best person for the role they need to play.

What makes this person not an ideal psychic? -> She can communicate with the ghosts, but she's a really shy, timid girl, so she hates actually going into haunted houses.
Then why does she do it? -> She needs the money. She's searching for something left behind from a dead relative. She's looking for a friend who's passed--oooh I like that one.
Who is this friend and why does she need to find them? -> The friend died under mysterious or dubious circumstances. Best friend. Recent death. She misses the friend terribly and needs closure.

Why does one character betray the other? -> I didn't pick a genre for this one yet. I love vigilantes, so how about a story about them--a secret identity is betrayed.
Why would the friend give up the protagonist's secret identity? -> The friend is in trouble and uses it to get out of trouble. No, even better--the protagonist is captured or grievously wounded, and the friend reveals or delivers them to the authorities so they can help/save the protag's life.
Are they both vigilantes, then? -> If yes, then that puts the friend's secret identity at risk, too. Perfect--more conflit!

Let's say this deaf character fights off screechy airbeasts. How and why? -> The airbeasts threaten the aircity. There's a small navy that protects the city.
Does her airship have a big crew or little crew--or just her by herself? -> Little crew. That way we have characters to play with, but don't need to go overboard with explanations and character development.
What's her position on the crew? -> Captain would be great. But if she's shouting orders, no one would be able to hear her over the screeching. Maybe pilot would be better--she can keep everything on course without getting disabled by the creature's cry. Also can do lots of fun maneuvering.

As you can see, I'm starting to spark more and more ideas. Every time one piece falls into place, more start clicking. It's slow at first--I had to wrack my brain a bit. But after getting a few ideas flowing, it's like opening the floodgates. For all three example stories, I feel like I have a solid foundation for tone and plot, based on how I developed my characters.

The key here is to question every decision. That is--why is it that way? What can the story gain from this? How can this fit into everything else? How can I create more conflict? Speaking of...

3. Look For The Conflict

I firmly believe that compelling fiction comes from conflict. This is why I (and many others) hate-hate-hate the "day in the life" openings. Characters waking up and preparing for the day have no conflict. A character waking up to an explosion--that's a bit more exciting. You want to know what happened, doncha?

I also firmly believe that when writers get bored of their own stories, it's because they're at a section low in conflict. You want to be going "oooh!" Conflict is what does that. And if you're not feeling that way, you end up bored. (Case in point - waking up, vs waking up to an explosion!) So--you know what to do! Question time!

Our psychic is looking for her dead best friend. She can either find the friend or not. If not, the story is about her journey. If she does, then the story is about what the friend reveals. That sounds more interesting. So what happens when she finds her friend? -> Friend reveals she's not the only one who died for the same reason--there's something bigger and badder going on. Maybe a bunch of people in one place and one time, or maybe spread around the globe dying off here and there. I like the first one.
What is that bigger and badder thing? This is a paranormal world, so should the thread be paranormal? -> I want our hero's skills to come into play, and I also want to push on her weakness of being fearful. However, I don't want to be cliche with something like demons coming through a portal. How about a mortal enemy, who uses paranormal means.
What and why? -> Another psychic--who's ALSO lost a dead friend! This psychic is trying to bring that dead friend back to life. Bad things happen. (Similar situation to our protag, but different way of dealing with it.)

One vigilante giving away the secret identiy of another is already full of conflict. How can we give it even more? -> Putting the friend at risk is a good one. Now the friend has to go on the run, while the protag is dying in the hospital. And because they were injured mid-crises, the baddie is free to further their plan without opposition. Then, the protag is going to be wounded and have a lot of trouble trying to stop the baddie!
Pretty straightforward so far. What wrench can we throw in the mix? -> Friend works for the baddie? Nah, cliche. Baddie works for the friend? Better. Friend doesn't realize it. Scenes between the baddie and the friend, where only the reader realizes what's going on. Then we can have other scenes where the baddie confronts the protag (maybe even in the hospital!), and the protag doesn't realize that there's a relationship between the baddie and the friend.

So far our deaf character is set up for success. How can we make her life harder? -> She's a pilot, so her career and rank is important to her. Perhaps there's a rival pilot who wants her position, and tries to sabotage her.
How would this sabotage work? -> Something to make the captain disappointed in her. A poor performance is a must, but it's going to be more gutting if it's on a personal level too. The sabotage makes it look like she did something in poor character--something selfish or ruthless, maybe.
So everyone's hunky dory flying around on their airships, with a bit of interpersonal drama? -> Time to have some airbeasts break through the defenses and wreck part of the city. All sorts of things we can do here--damage airship fuel supplies, destroy homes with relatives of the MCs, cause ripples in the navy leadership by killing the higher-ups, general mayhem leading to factions and protests and riots as everyone disagrees about what to do.

This is where the story comes from. Once you have a setup, it's time to find the tension points and twist that dagger deep. One thing leads to another and then another. And if it doesn't? Throw in a wrench.

4. Set Up The Background

All that's left is to flesh out the world you've created. Figure out where the characters come from and how that affects their personalities. Find the culture clashes and the class differences and the education levels. Look at the cities and think about the important motivators--where does the food come from, what industry makes the most money, what kind of black markets are there?

Going willy-willy and thinking up every detail imaginable will take forever and give you a headache. Don't worry about naming all the streets or determining every demigod in the side culture's religion. Focus on what impacts the character. Focus on what generates conflict. What resources does the character lack and why? What threats face the character's home land and/or current location?

I won't give examples for these because this is where you start going in depth. We've taken that seed, planted and watered it, and now we have a sapling. This step is tending to the sapling until you get enough "oohs" and "aahs" to have a story. For short fiction, that won't take much. For longer fiction, there may be a lot to decide.

However you approach it, remember these principles:
- Always ask "why" and "how."
- Focus on the characters.
- Look for sources of conflict.

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Sun Oct 01, 2017 7:39 pm
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Charm says...

this is the best! thank you for writing this!!!!

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Sun Oct 01, 2017 10:15 pm
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Mea says...

This is so great. Especially because I'm reading this as I'm in the planning stages and I realized that every time I've had a breakthrough so far, it's because of all the things you said - the why and the how and looking for sources of conflict among the characters. I'm definitely going to bookmark this. :D
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