Folks, it’s been almost six months since I added anything to my series on how to get and develop killer story ideas. There’s a reason it’s been so long—I’ve been heads-down trying to develop my own stories.
I have allotted myself only so much time for writing each day, and when things have to give, unfortunately, it’s my blog that goes first. Actually, the social media goes first, which is why I have such a lame Facebook and Twitter presence. Of course, if anyone contacts me directly using the link in the sidebar or comments on a post, I always respond promptly.
Anyway, I wish I had more time, but I do have a day job. I also have wonderful wife and four daughters, and I simply can’t miss my opportunity to enjoy them while they’re here. For example, we just did an eight-hour roundtrip trek out to Roosevelt, Utah to attend the commencement ceremonies of my daughter who is graduating with her Associates degree from one of the state universities one month before she receives her High School diploma. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s all part of the concurrent enrollment program we have that’s a godsend for those of us who live in rural areas. That was also the day of my 23rd wedding anniversary to a most excellent and wonderful wife and mom, who would like to think of herself as a large cat, something like a jaguar, but who is more like a horse—sleek, beautiful, and good for something. Nellie’s a rock.
So all that blather to say I haven’t had much time, but I am happy to announce I’ve got something for you today. I think you will find quite helpful.
One of the problems new writers run into is that they don’t know where to start or how to proceed. This is the same with any complex endeavor. In my day job, I’ve been teaching some fairly complex things for a number of years, and I’ve found that when you give students a framework for learning, it makes everything SO MUCH EASIER. Show them the forest first, then the trees. When you give people a structure, a mental schema, it frees up their working memory so they don’t get overloaded.
But it’s useful for more than learning about something. When we try to do something complex, it’s so much easier when we break the task down into its parts and outline clear objectives, guidelines, and tools for each part.
I realized that I haven’t really done that here. I’ve given the general framework for the three things you need to learn to write stories—(1) what stories do, (2) how they do it, and (3) how to develop them. But I haven’t given one for development. So here it is.
There are three parts to the framework:
- The development OBJECTIVES.
- The development PRINCIPLES for each objective.
- The development TOOLS you use to help you with each objective.
Each post I’ve made about writing stories and each post I will make in the future will explain some part of the framework. For example, the 27-part series Key Conditions for Suspense that I wrote for SFWA explains key principles and concepts for character, problem, and plot. The post in this series on the Story Setup explains a tool that can be used to help you develop your story’s problem. And so on. What the framework should give you is a map, a guide to help you know what to do and how to do it.
The Development Objectives
Let’s start with the objectives. A story is made up of just a few main parts. I’ve found I’m most productive when I keep the objectives for those parts foremost in my mind and when I keep the list of objectives simple. Having too many objectives makes it almost impossible to move forward. Here are the objectives I have when I’m developing a story.
|GENERAL||Make the story come alive in my own mind|
|GENRE||Define the overall type of story I want to write|
|CHARACTER||Develop characters who move and delight me|
|SETTING||Develop a setting that interests me and feels real|
|PROBLEM||Develop a story problem that I find compelling|
|PLOT||Help the reader hope and fear for my character|
|TEXT||Evoke the story in the reader’s mind|
Your job is to develop the story, making it come alive in your mind, then write it in a way that will evoke it in the reader’s mind. You do that by focusing on the objectives you see above.
Note that I do NOT develop these areas in any special order because ideas for any of the six parts could come at any time. And because I’m focused on the objectives, I don’t get trapped into activity for activity’s sake. I don’t do character histories because a big name author said that’s what I should do. I don’t do outlines because everyone I know does them. I don’t do any activity just because it’s on some list. I work to accomplish something. And the things I want to accomplish are listed above.
Development Principles & Concepts
Once we know what we’re after, we need to understand the principles and concepts that will help us develop those things. For example, what kinds of characters “move” and “delight”? What makes a story problem “compelling”? What makes readers hope and fear for a character?
If I don’t understand the principles and concepts that underlie each of the objectives, I’m going to have a difficult time meeting that objective. So let’s add in the key principles and concepts I’ve found that help me meet those objectives.
|Area||Development Objectives||Development Principles & Concepts|
|GENERAL||Make the story come alive in my own mind||Focus on developing the 6 core parts of story (genre, character, setting, problem, plot, text) in no special sequence|
|Gather zing: use a drag net and hunt with a purpose|
|Generate my own zing|
|Develop in iterations|
|Practice farmer’s faith|
|Write what you care about and believe in: listen to your personal Spidey-sense|
|Make enough time|
|Relax and have fun|
|GENRE||Define the overall type of story I want to write||Reader expectations|
|Tropes and patterns|
|CHARACTER||Develop characters who move and delight me||Sympathy|
|Types and roles|
|SETTING||Develop a setting that interests me and feels real||How things work|
|PROBLEM||Develop a story problem that I find compelling||Hope and fear|
|The 3 main types of problems|
|Problems that speak to the reader (theme)|
|PLOT||Help the reader hope and fear for my character||Suspense|
|The 3 phases of a story’s problem structure|
|The story cycle|
|TEXT||Evoke the story in the reader’s mind||Telling to evoke|
|Working memory limitations|
|The story cycle|
|Scenes and summary|
|Point of view|
|Beginnings & endings|
|Poetic devices, Sound and rhythm|
Now let’s see how I’d use the framework. Let’s say I want to work on developing character. Sometimes my drag net pulls in great character ideas without much effort on my part at all. But sometimes what I drag in needs some development. And sometimes I don’t have anything in my net at all and need to generate something from scratch.
When it’s time to develop character, I’ve found that if I focus on the key things that trigger my sympathy for someone, my feeling that they deserve reward or punishment, and my interest in them, it’s much easier to develop a character that rocks, one that moves and delights and thrills me. It also helps me to think about the roles my characters play. So I’ll apply the principles one way when developing a sidekick and another when developing a villain. Finally, there are only so many words in a novel. I need to manage my stage time. If I have too many characters, I might not have enough stage time to develop any story in a satisfactory way. If I have too few, I might run into problems with structure and plot.
Let’s say I want to work on my story problem. Well, I’d focus on the things that make readers hope and fear for my character. I’d brainstorm options for the three main story problem types. I’d make sure my I knew what the goals were for my protagonist and antagonist.
Do you see how this works?
Once you get enough material developed in each of the story categories (character, setting, problem, plot, and text), the story will come alive in your mind. And then it’s just a matter of finishing the text so that it evokes the story in the reader’s mind.
Some may wonder why I included text as part of development. Don’t you develop the story first and then translate it to the text? No. A lot of development happens as you write the text. For example, it’s hard for me to get my character’s voice and attitude without putting him or her on the page.
If you go back and look at the list again, you’ll see that the principles and concepts supporting the objectives for genre, character, setting, problem, plot, and text have a lot to do with how story works. On the other hand, the principles supporting the general objective of having the story come to life in my own mind focus on how we develop stories.
In this series, I’ve been focusing on the principles of how we develop stories. But you’ll also want to continue to enlarge your understanding of how stories work. For more on the principles for character, problem, and plot, see my 27-part series I wrote for SFWA on the Key Conditions for Suspense.
Now that we’ve identified what we’re supposed to develop and the principles that support those objectives, it’s helpful to see the different types of tools we can use to help us meet our objectives.
A tool is just that—something we use to accomplish some objective. Chimps use sticks to help them fish termites out of holes. Bakers use beaters to help them mix batters. Mechanics have tools to help them turn screws and nuts. Writers have tools to help them do what they need to do.
I’ve listed the tools I’ve found useful. I know you may not know what a number of them are. That’s okay. In the series I’ll explain what each is and how to use it. For now just look over the list. And because I can’t figure out how to make my blankety-blank tables look snazzy with the WPress template and controls I have, I’ve provided a PDF of the framework here instead. Click on the link below to download it.
Did you notice that for each set of tools I also list “Other . . .” That’s because there are many tools that authors find useful. Try them. Keep the ones you find productive and toss the rest. This isn’t an exhaustive or mandatory list.
And remember that the key thing isn’t the tool. The objective is. The tool is simply a means to help you meet the objective. And so you don’t have to use all the tools. You don’t have to use any of them. Because the goal is NOT to use a tool. The goal is to develop the story.
For example, if you already have a rocking problem, there’s no need to use a tool to get one. If you’re doing a character history and suddenly hit gold, you don’t have to finish all the prompts in your history document. You don’t have to because this is NOT about filling out forms. It’s about making the story come alive in your mind. Sometimes you need only a little development to get the ideas, sometimes you need a lot.
Bottom line: focus on the objectives. Keep developing material until you have enough in each of area that the story is bucking and kicking in your hands.
And, again, don’t worry about developing the objectives in a certain sequence because there isn’t a best sequence. With one story you might start with a little character, then a bit of setting, then some text, then more character, then problem, then plot, the back to character, then setting again, then something else, a bit here, an idea there. On another story you might start with a scrap of text or something somebody said and go to plot then character then genre and then back to each one again and again, building up line by line in some other way.
There is no golden development sequence! Just keep the objectives in mind, and keep your eyes open for ideas that you can use to meet each objective.
Where to start
Having laid the framework out, I know some might be wondering where to start, especially after I told you it didn’t matter where you started. You’re wondering this because the fact is that it IS nice to have some guidance.
And because it really doesn’t matter how you meet the objectives, and because most ideas come when you’re on the move, then there’s a great benefit in simply starting with any method you have at hand. So let’s not fall prey to an attack of dithering brought on by option overload. If you don’t know where to start, try this.
1. Take Stock
First, identify a number of slots this week and next when you can work on your story. Try to get at least ten hours each week. You may find your slots in the morning, during breaks, at lunch, late at night. Just find some times that work for you.
When that first time slot comes, take stock of the ideas you have right now, the zing you’ve gathered or generated to this point, and make a rough summary. Do you have any bits of character, problem, or plot? Have you delved into your setting? Do you have an idea of the story genre? Do you have any inkling about the type of story this will be, e.g. is this going to be a story about cyber security, love, friendship, vampires, spies, World War 2, two old fisherman and the mafia?
Summarize what you have in just one or two pages. Or maybe you only have one line. That’s okay too. Write it down.
2. 200 Words
When you’ve finished step one, ask yourself what genre of story you’d like to write. Maybe you have two or three genres you’re interested in. Maybe you want to write some mix—a cowboy science fiction, an epic fantasy comedy, a romantic thriller. Think about what kind of story you would like to read. Think about the kind of characters, plots, and settings you enjoy. The kind of experience you would love to have when reading. Write two paragraphs summarizing your thoughts. 200 words or less.
3. ID Some Patterns
Third, identify two or three other stories that are kind of like the one you think you might want to write. Write the titles of these stories down even if they’re only vaguely in the ball park. Now answer these questions about them:
- How many words or pages was in each book?
- How many chapters?
- How many main characters did each have?
- How many points of view?
- What did you like about the characters?
- What would you do different with the characters?
3. Problem & Plot
- What was the protagonist’s main problem?
- What did the antagonist want?
- What were the cool plot points or surprises?
4. What else was cool about the story?
Now go the extra mile and outline the plot in two pages or less. Just do little bullet points.
Did you get any ideas for your story from this? Anything you want to copy or twist? If so, write it down.
4. Go Zing Hunting
Fourth, identify the main character, setting, problem, or plot ideas that are drawing your interest. Decide to go hunt some zing with a purpose. Pick one of the ideas you think will be a big part of the story, go to the library, and get some books on that thing. Start with books for juveniles if they have them, then work into more hefty tomes. Identify some documentaries or films on the subject. Check them out. Or get them on Netflix. Read and watch, keeping your eye out for ideas that might work for your six core story objectives.
Is there someone you can talk to who has first-hand experience with this thing? If so, call or visit them and ask them some questions.
Can you go experience it first hand? If so, do it.
Did you get any ideas for your story from this? If so, big or small, write them down.
Fifth, review the zing you’ve captured to this point. Note anything that pops out to you. Can you write your story concept down yet (the character, the setting, the goal, and the main opposition and obstacle he or she will face)? Give it a try.
If not, no biggie. Review the seven development objectives to fix them in your mind.
6. Generate Some Character and Problem
Sixth, flip a coin. Heads you’ll start generating character. Tails you’ll start generating story problems. Review the principles for the part of story the coin toss determined you’d work on, then begin generating as many options as possible for that part of story.
If you’re generating character ideas, list all the types of characters commonly associated with the big idea you’ve been researching. Try to get at least ten on the list. Maybe you’ll include some specific people you ran across in your research. Then list a bunch of types of characters not commonly associated. Maybe throw in a few people you know who might be fun to base a character on. Identify characters from each list you think might enjoy writing. Generate a few more. Let’s say three. Don’t be afraid to be wacky. If you have to, include Chuck Norris as the last one.
If you’re generating problem, list the threats, opportunities, and mysteries commonly associated with the topic you’ve been researching. Get at least ten. Make sure you include some big, significant ones that really speak to you. If you’re going for comedy, add in some smaller ones. Think of your favorite comedy show, e.g. Jerry Seinfeld, and ask the types of problems those characters might run into here. Now list problems that are not commonly associated with this idea. Try for at least ten. Identify problems from both lists you think might be fun. Generate three more. Don’t afraid to be a bit wacky.
Now switch. If you did characters first, do problems and vice versa.
Did you get any ideas for your story from this? If so, write them down.
7. Generate Some Plot
Finally, think about the type of problem your character is facing. If you have a couple of problems you’re deciding between, or perhaps a story where a character has a couple of story lines (maybe an inner one and an external one), choose one to work with. You can develop the others later.
Write up the character’s goal in 50 words or less. Now list out the steps people like your character would usually take to solve the type of problem you are working with. Try to avoid having your character do dumb things. Let them be smart. If you have no idea how anyone would go about solving that type of problem, go do some research. Talk to someone who might know.
Once you’ve sketched out those general steps, generate a list of at least 12 disadvantages, obstacles, conflicts, or surprises your character could run into that would make it really hard to solve the problem and reach his or her goal. Some of the items on your list can be small; others might throw the character for a major loop. Again, if you can’t think of any obstacles or quickly run out of ideas, go do some research. Talk to someone who might know.
Now look at this from the antagonist’s point of view. What’s his goal? Write up the antagonist’s goal in 50 words or less. What are some common steps a smart and determined (maybe ruthless) person like your antagonist would take to go about removing the problem the hero is causing?
Did you get any ideas for your story from this? If so, write them down.
At this point, you should be well into the development of your story. It’s up to you how to proceed. Maybe you want to write an exploratory draft of a few chapters to get the character’s voice and start defining the setting. Maybe you’ve discovered you need to research a bit about something specific like sharks or Cessna airplanes or the tactics of Napoleonic armies. Or maybe you feel it’s time to sketch out a general outline of the plot. Or maybe you want to review the principles and concepts of one of the story parts. Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe you want to watch or read some stories in your genre to see how they did it. There are a lot of things you could do.
Pick something and do it. There’s great power in simply getting to work. Continue to develop the various parts of your story. And if you feel ready to start writing a draft, then start writing the draft, even if you peter out after only one scene.
Remember the objectives. Keep working on them. Sooner or later, I guarantee you, the story will open its eyes and look up at you. It will not come to you fully fleshed out. But you’ll have enough to switch your focus to drafting.
When I get to that point and my mind is juiced with some interesting characters in an interesting and compelling situation, I usually capture the essence of the story by writing some form of the Story Setup. Then I write a simple working outline, which is nothing more than a bullet point sketch of how my character runs into his problem, his response, some of the obstacles he faces, and the results of that action, which leads to trouble, which leads to more action, etc. It also includes the same for my antagonist. This is story cycle stuff. I might include a few key details I need for the scenes I’m listing out. Or not. Furthermore, I might be able to envision the whole thing at this point and write an outline that reflects that. Or I might see only the first few scenes clearly and have to be satisfied with a general sketch of what happens later. That’s not a big deal because development continues as you’re drafting. The key is that the story is alive in my mind, and I know in general what it’s about and where I’m going. It’s enough to begin. And so I begin to write chapter one (if I haven’t written it already).
In the next post I’m going to explain how to generate your own zing using Creative Q&A. Hopefully, I’ll get to it before another six months has passed :O
For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas