I’m just starting work on a new novel, so this seems like a great time to talk about turning ideas into stories. Of course, there’s no magic formula, and if anyone ever tells you there is, you should be very suspicious. But there’s no harm in reading what other writers have to say about their process. It might help you figure out yours if you have no clue where to begin, or if what you’ve been doing isn’t working.
For me, there are a few stages to getting started. Without fail, these stages present themselves in this order, and I can’t really start writing the actual story until I’ve worked through them. The stages are: inspiration, incubation, exploration, and planning.
The inspiration stage is when the idea first pops into my head. I feel like that’s kind of obvious, but at the same time, I’ve met some young writers who don’t know that ideas are just ideas until you do something with them. At that point, I have no freaking idea who the characters are, what’s going to happen in the story, or if I can even pull a story out of it. My inspiration comes from movies, photos, bad dreams, what if moments, or sometimes just out of the blue. So wherever your ideas are coming from, my big advice is don’t judge it. And also, don’t try to hurry it. Which leads me to the next stage.
The incubation stage is where I just kind of let the idea sit there and stew in its own juices. Honestly, nothing happens on the surface during this phase. I’ve had ideas incubating for a decade, and not just because I didn’t have time to write the story. Some ideas just don’t ever mature into something worth spending six months to a year on. It used to bother me. I thought if I wasn’t actively working on something else, I should be digging an idea out of the incubation chamber and somehow urging or encouraging it to grow. (Incubation chamber. Listen to me. I can’t even.) I’ve learned to let it go. If an idea is going to turn into a story, I’ll start getting little nudges from the muse to do some exploratory writing.
So exploration is kind of the ride or die stage for me. I know it has arrived when I start hearing the narrator’s voice in my head, and she’s telling me some deep dark secret about why this story is so important to her. It’s confessional, powerful, and extremely delicate. Like if I don’t drop everything and go write it down, she will disappear and go talk to someone else. (Have you ever had an idea for a book, procrastinated or made excuses not to write it, and then noticed that someone else sold one just like it while you were being difficult? If not, you’re lucky. It sucks.) During this stage, I often write a pitch and a prologue. This pitch usually evolves over time, but I may or may not keep the prologue past the first draft. (Prologues, btw, want a post to themselves because they’re little divas that steal the show, but usually aren’t as necessary as they think they are.) In exploration, I ask myself some questions:
- Who else is this story about? Maybe I’ll write sample scenes, or maybe I’ll just start sketching characters and their backstories.
- What is the big black moment I’m tracking toward? I almost always know how the book ends before I even know how it begins. The end is my WHY. It conveys tone and themes I need to weave in from the start. I don’t have any idea what kind of a foundation I need to build if I don’t know what’s going on in the worst moment of the world I’m creating. I’m highly aware that not ever writer does it this way. But it’s my process, and I’ve come to respect what it does for me.
- What don’t I know enough about to tell this story? The answer to this question usually involves research, which is the heart of the next stage.
The planning stage is where I do the research needed to write the story. Research might include buying and reading books, internet time, and interviews (which I hate, to be honest, unless I know the person. It can be hard to ask a stranger for help, but sometimes you gotta do it). It can also include watching movies or documentaries, but do be sure that the accuracy of your source matches the expectations of your genre. You should do research on anything you don’t have direct knowledge of, but word to the wise: don’t get hung up on perfection. That’s a trap that will keep you from finishing anything.
The planning stage is also where I decide on the major plot points. If I were a real plotter, I’d probably do the entire outline at this stage, but I usually just figure out where major turning points are going to be. The book I’m in exploration mode with right now is going to be fairly complex with multiple narrators and storylines, so I think I’m going to have to stretch myself and do a complete outline for it. The stakes are too high for me to just try to wing it and pray it comes together. In my experience, seat of the pants plotting works fine for less complex novels, but the more complicated the storylines get, the more likely your rewrite process will drag on as a result of that decision. So bottom line is this: each story is unique and might require more or less planning, depending on what you discover about it in your version of the exploratory stage.
There you have it. That’s how ideas become stories in my world. Sometimes I think about the usual advice, which goes something like “just sit your butt down and start writing” and I wonder if it really is that simple for some folks. Maybe it is. If it’s yours, fine, because sitting down and writing is honestly the only way that words actually show up on your screen. But I want to let you know that if it takes YOU awhile to actually conceptualize a story—to bring it from idea to an actual thing on the page—you’re not alone. You’re not doing it wrong. Everyone’s process is a little different.
If you have an idea that’s been sitting around for a while, don’t sweat it. And don’t beat yourself up. Maybe it’s just not ready to be written yet.