I often hear practicing writers ask, “What if I can’t think of anything to write about?” Sometimes they even have notebooks full of observations, but they feel like none of them are good enough for a full story, and they're not sure how to develop story ideas into amazing stories.
I’ve felt the same way, but there are more opportunities or seeds for story ideas in our notebooks than we think. It might be an image, a snippet of a conversation we overheard at lunch, or a social issue that grates against us. Once we have the seeds, how do we take those seeds and develop them into stories?
How to Develop Story Ideas
I love hearing the different ways writers develop story ideas into full length projects. It’s one part of the writing process that often remains cloaked in mystery. Sometimes, a writer isn’t sure how an idea develops, so they’ll say, “Oh I just write,” which makes the rest of us feel like failures when we sit down and nothing comes.
Sarah Gribble shared a great way to outline fiction, but what do you do in the space between “I noticed this thing” and “outline the story”?
Some might say, “Oh that’s the magic. You can’t teach that. It’s too formulaic. It just happens.” That might be true, but I can’t have my classes of fiction writers sitting around waiting for the magic to happen. I have to teach them how to make magic. (Do I have an amazing job or what?)
Here’s one way I help my students develop a story idea into an outline and draft.
Choose Something Specific
When students begin trying to find story ideas, they inevitably pick something too big.
“I want to write a story about the way technology makes us less human!”
These are all topics and themes that could yield great stories, but they are too broad and too general. We need to get much more specific to capture the humanity of these themes.
As I search through my notebooks, I look for a vivid image, event, or conversation. Here’s an example I found recently:
So good to have my sister here. Odd conversation tonight that stuck with me. She said her kids might not need to learn to drive the way self-driving cars are advancing. She said, “They use information from satellites, traffic cams and even other cars to minimize user error and fatalities.” It’s hard to imagine.
The thing that interested me was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash? I pulled the idea of self-driving cars along with that one phrase from our conversation: “Minimizing fatalities.”
Find the Heat
Once you choose a specific idea, find the hot spots in it or create one. A hot spot is a place where the temperature is higher or “a place of significant activity or danger.” It might be the inherent conflict in a conversation or the oddity in an image that could lead to or expose disaster.
Again, specificity is your friend. Some examples:
You overhear a conversation: “So help me if you leave with the hamster and espresso machine, I’ll …”
Or a headline from the news with an odd (and heartbreaking) image: “Woman who gouged out her own eye found standing next to church.”
Both of these moments hold immense potential for stories because they prompt us to ask, “Why?” and “What if?” The emotions behind these small hot places can be great places to develop an idea. If you can capture the emotion behind a moment, you can build any world you like around it.
A Character as a Hot Spot
Maybe your idea isn’t an image or event, but a person. If you start with a character, you can follow the same process by asking a few specific questions.
What does this character want from the moment we meet him?
How far is he willing to go to get it?
How can this character’s fears, anger, or insecurity get them in trouble?
You can short cut this by building from someone you know or using an actor or type. Then get specific. I can start with my Uncle John, because he is curmudgeonly and outspoken against technology, but I’ll need to change it up and give the character some details that belong only to him.
Also, remember you aren’t writing about a character’s life, you are writing about his or her problem. Specific, vivid details will make the character leap off the page.
The thing that interested me most in the conversation with my sister was this idea of minimizing fatalities. Who gets to decide which one person can be “minimized” to allow the others to live in a car crash?
I asked some questions: Who is responsible in a car crash involving a self-driving car? The driver or the car company? The tech company who built the algorithm? The satellite company reporting the data?
What if a new IT graduate buys a self-driving car and her grandfather disapproves? What if that same girl is in a fatal accident?
There are a number of hotspots in this idea that could create conflict, because there are so many emotions surrounding a crash and the element of responsibility. From here, I'm ready to outline the goal of my character, the conflict, and the climax that will guide my story.
Once you’ve explored the possibilities, you can outline the main beats of your story and get to drafting.
Do you have a method for getting from seed to draft? Do you have any tips for how to develop story ideas? Let us know in the comments!
Choose a specific image, conversation, or event you've recorded (or remember well). Take fifteen minutes to follow these two steps to create a scene based on that idea.
First, identify (or create!) a hot spot in the idea. Where is there potential for conflict or emotion?
Then, write a scene where the character experiences the hot spot in pursuit of their goal. It might be a self-defeating attitude, a social or financial problem, or another character, but be specific.
When you're done, share your practice in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.