#212: How to Turn an Idea into a Story
Thanks to dryadbucky for his question that inspired this post!
Ideas are weird. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Sometimes, you’re standing in the street, and you get this odd feeling that it would be a great place for a story. A person walks past; it seems that they would make a perfect character. Or you’re just sitting at your desk, asking a series of ‘what-if’ questions. What would happen if the human civilisation evolved to live underwater?
Sometimes, when you get an idea, it seems like that’s the whole story. Then you sit down to write and find out how wrong you were.
Stories are 🔥
Think of stories as fire. Ideas are the sparks. But you can’t start a fire with just sparks alone. You’ll need a whole bunch of sparks and some flammable material too.
An idea needs to be kindled and developed into something that will satisfy readers. But what sort of flammable material do you need?
The flammable material is story structure. To turn a bunch of ideas into a story, you have to have a good understanding of what makes a good one first.
Developing a story will be very difficult if you don’t know what you’re aiming for. It’s like asking someone who has no idea how engines work to build a car. Every car is different, but they all work along with the same general principles. Story structure is that but for writing.
When you know why stories can be broken down into three acts and what happens in each one; when you’re familiar with what makes a good character arc and what makes characters relatable; when you know how structure each scene, you’ll be able to turn almost any idea into a story.
Learning story structure
This will take some time. It certainly took me a while before I got a good grasp of it, and honestly, I’m still learning. I’ve read at least a dozen books on structure, and I’d recommend reading more than one to get different perspectives from various authors. After a while, you’ll realise that they’re all talking about the same thing from different angles.
My favourites include Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and Into the Woods by John Yorke, but there are many others that people recommend. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, Anatomy of Story by John Truby to name a few.
Keep working on stories while you’re learning the principles. Every time you get stuck or can’t make something work, learn more about that aspect of storytelling. Maybe your characters aren’t relatable enough? Or perhaps you’re struggling with writing scenes? Or your story doesn’t have a climax? There are many great online resources about storytelling.
How I do it
Here’s how I go from a bunch of what-if ideas to a developed story. I’m not saying this is necessarily the right way to do it. But that’s what I’ve got.
Step 1: Where do your ideas fit?
First, I want to take a look at what I already have. Do I have an idea for a character or setting? Do I have an idea for a specific scene?
The 'what if the human civilisation evolved to live under water’ idea from above isn’t very specific. There aren’t any characters or detailed settings. It’s more of a theme.
In this case, I’d do a little more world-building to gather more clues. Maybe there are two factions — one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific Ocean? Each should have an ancient capital city. I’d probably try to make these factions oppose each other — maybe they’re competing for resources? Maybe they’re having a cold war situation going on? Any conflict that you can get will be a fertile ground for more story ideas.
Step 2: What’s the climax?
I like to think about the climax first. The climax is the most important bit — that’s what the entire story will be building up to. If the climax falls flat, your readers won’t be happy regardless of how amazing the rest may be.
When you have the climax and resolution figured out, find ways to connect it to the other aspects of your story.
In this case, let’s say the conflict between the Atlantic and Pacific factions develops into a full-on war. One side is about to destroy the other’s capital city. If things go that far, there will never be peace.
Maybe the protagonist is a secret agent that knows that the conflict is actually stoked by a small, elusive group that wants to cause chaos and take control when both sides are weak. That’s the twist.
The climax of the story would be a scene where they’re about to nuke the city, but the protagonist just manages to stop it.
In the resolution, the two factions would start talking to each other, and there would be a pathway to peace or even reconciliation.
Step 3: Work backwards and fill in what’s missing
I like to work backwards from the climax. What would need to happen for things to end up in that place? How does the agent learn about the conspiracy? How does the war escalate this far? Who are the people running the secretive organisation? How is the protagonist affected by the story — what’s their character arc?
At this point, you can layer in subplots as well. Maybe the protagonist has a private life too? A partner that dies during the sieges?
And what’s the story of the villains? Are they just straight-up baddies, or is there more to why they want to take over the two oceans?
Keep doing this until you have everything you need — from the inciting incident to the resolution. That’s why understanding story structure is so important — you have to know what’s missing.
Step 4: Iterate
At this point, I’ll have loads of notes, lists, character profiles and whatnot. I’ll also have a bunch of mind maps (those to help me think).
Sometimes, plot holes or conflicting ideas sneak in as I’m building the story up. Now is the time to fix those and clean things up. For longer projects (like a novel), I’ll go back to some of my favourite story structure books to re-read some passages that I’ve highlighted to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
The whole process feels like a balancing act. I’m rarely happy with everything, but I try not to get caught up on anything for too long.
Step 5: Create a list of scenes
Before I start writing, I like to create a detailed list of scenes from all the notes that I’ve captured — that’s my outline. Again, understanding how scenes work and how to structure them will be invaluable at this stage (I learned this primarily from Story Grid).
Some will be easy to figure out (the ones based on your major plot points). Others will be a lot more work (some scenes will have to do multiple things — it’s a one big balancing act). The goal is to have a sequence of scenes that tells the story you want to tell while hitting all the right plot points at the appropriate times to make for a satisfying read. You may choose one or more POVs. Each scene should have a turning point of it’s own and move the protagonist either closer or farther away from achieving their goal.
For me, this is when everything I’ve learned about storytelling really comes together.
And then, I’ll start writing.
There’s no right way to do this. I’m sure other writers do something entirely different and create amazing stories. Storytelling is an art form. The tools and rules that we use are helpful guides, but if you can pull it off, you can do whatever you want.
Anyone can have an idea for a story. Your ability to turn that idea into a story is one of your core skills as a writer.
If you’re reading this and wondering wtf am I talking about, that’s ok. It can be pretty overwhelming. People go to university to study creative writing. It isn’t something you can learn from a single blog post.
Keep writing, and do pick up a book on story structure. Don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense the first time. There was a time when I had no clue what a crisis was, and now I do. If I could learn it, then you can too.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Radek 👋. I’m a writer, software engineer and the founder of Writing Analytics — an editor and writing tracker designed to help you beat writer’s block and create a sustainable writing routine.
I publish a post like this every week. Want to know when the next one comes out? Sign up for my email list below to get it right in your inbox.
(I won’t spam you or pass your email to a third party. You can unsubscribe at any time.)
#211: Writing Every Day, September 2021
#210: Ed Sheeran on Writing, August 2021
#209: Good Writers Copy, Great Writers Steal, August 2021
#208: Write Like a Painter, August 2021
#207: On Being Stuck, August 2021
432 notes · View notes
Villain Dialogue Prompts
“Darling, your effort is commendable. Really. But you should stop before you get hurt.”
“Do you want to play a little game?”
“You should accept the loss humbly while I still allow it.”
“Bloodlust was never a good look on you.”
“I want them to see you how I see you, because they have no idea what you’re really capable of. Do they?”
“Well, aren’t you the little trickster, pet.”
“I hope you die in a fire.”
“That looks like it hurts.”
“Come now Hero, such things aren’t in your nature.”
“Play with me.”
“You’re more like me than you realise. How long do you think it’ll be before they see it too?”
“I don’t want to kill you but get in my way again and I just might have to.”
“How unheroic of you.”
“You look good in my colours.”
“I’m almost tempted to let you live.”
“What’s a little torture between friends?”
“It would be so much easier to kill you if you weren’t so cute.”
1K notes · View notes