How to Turn an Idea into a Story
I often hear writers say, “I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”
That’s because an idea doesn’t equal a story. Ideas don’t tell us much about the story at all. Ideas often involve no characters, no conflict and no plot. They’re usually vague, and that means no direction. If we have no direction, can we really expect to sit down and be able to write a story out from a single, vague idea? Most of the time the answer is no, and trying this is usually going to end in our story stagnating and us screaming out things like “I’m stuck!” or “I have writers’ block!”
The solution is simple: don’t start with an idea.
Ideas come first, but then we need to develop these ideas into a concept. We then refine the concept into a premise. Then we can start writing.
An idea is something simple like What if wizards existed or What if the dead rose up to eat the living or What if there was a reality show about people killing each other?.
These have no characters, and sure there’s conflict in the last two, but in writing we usually refer to the conflict as the struggle of the protagonist trying to achieve something. And so: no characters equals no protagonist, which equals no conflict.
A concept is more tangible than an idea. A concept opens the door into our story so that we can start to see more of the story world and the bits and pieces that are going to make our book. The key to opening this door is to find a character, and to do this we start to brainstorm the kind of people and situations that might arise from our idea, like “Hey, what if all these wizards went to a magic school?”, and then we’d say something like “Well, there’d be teachers and students.” If you’re writing for kids, the obvious answer would be to write about a kid going to magic school.
Now we have the silhouette for a character, but to make this concept more concrete, we have to make it compelling. We have to keep digging until we find questions that we’re just roaring to answer. And we have to set this kid apart from all the other kids going to magic school. We ask more questions like “What if it turns out this kid wasn’t a wizard after all?” or “What if he didn’t want to go to magic school?” or “What if he didn’t even know wizards existed?” You want to narrow it down to a situation that you can relate to and can sympathise with. You have to find an entry point for the reader to care about your character.
What if wizards existed?
What if the dead rose up to eat the living?
What if there was a reality show about people killing each other?
These are all ideas.
What if a boy found out he was a wizard and went to magic school?
What if a guy woke up from a coma to find that zombies had taken over?
What if a girl was forced to participate in a competition where she had to fight to the death?
These are all concepts, and now we have an entry point into our story: a character and a situation we can explore further.
We could start writing here, but it’s better to refine this concept into a premise, which is what the story is about. This is where we narrow the concept down to a particular character, problem and course of action.
More brainstorming, more development of this concept, is going to lead you to refining your premise. We might ask questions like “Why didn’t this boy know he was a wizard?”, “What can go wrong at magic school?”, “What kind of spells would they use?”, “What kind of antagonist could we have? A teacher?” Maybe. “Another student?” Maybe. These are all pretty relatable things. “What kind of things can you do with magic?”, “What if bad people used magic?”, “What if there was a bad wizard in the story?”, “How could the boy become involved with this antagonist?”, “What does the antagonist want?”, “Why would the boy himself need to stop him?”. You’ve got to hash all this out until your character has a job to do, so then when you start writing you have a character, a situation and something to work towards.
You can decide to do more planning here, like finding the motivation and stakes for your character or trying to work out more of the plot, or you could just dive into it. Either way, now you have a sturdier springboard and a better view of your story world.
If you can’t get this far, don’t worry too much. Some people learn by doing. If you want to pants your way through this planning stage, that’s perfectly okay. The premise isn’t set in stone anyway. Just don’t expect to write a story from an idea. If you have to, hash it out with a proto-draft. That’s basically the long-winded way of finding all of these questions and picking out which ones you want to answer through your story. Using a proto-draft, which is messier than a first draft, you can develop your premise as you go along, and then when you find the premise, you can start your first draft.
The bottom line is: before you start your first draft, you should know who your protagonist is, what their problem is, and what they intend to do about it. If you don’t know these things and start with a vague idea, it’s easy to get lost and give up.
A solid, but flexible, premise is the key to keeping your story on track.
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