What do You Do with an Idea?
Following on from Alex Rosa’s post on finding her story’s identity (What Does ChickLit Mean to You?
), I gathered other writers’ views on what they do with the initial idea for a story once they have it.
The initial plot idea – the premise – is sometimes an indefinable thing. You can’t always pin it down and say, “This is where my story began”, because sometimes it’s as intangible as a feeling or an emotional response to something you’ve heard, seen or remembered. However, just because that starts out as the reason to write, it doesn’t mean that your story will stick to that initial premise. When you come to try and define your story in ten words for a publisher, you may be surprised as to how far it has evolved.
I like to get the premise in my head, then I let it settle for a while. I may not write anything for days. When I do write, I always do it longhand – the old fashioned pen and paper way. I write all over the page, linking ideas, scribbling stuff out, and letting my imagination run free. Will it all go in? Who knows. But I end up with characters, the setting, the research I need to do based on said characters and setting, the basic plot, and various other miscellaneous aspects. I may leave it for a bit, lose everything I’ve written down, and then return to the plot later. If I can’t remember how to get from A-to-B then clearly my first thoughts weren’t all that great to start with. So I’ll plan something else that’s more memorable and makes more sense. If I can’t think of it off the top of my head, then it won’t stand out for anyone else either.
Eventually, I start to write when I feel that sense of enthusiasm rise in me for that particular plot. I only write (and can only write) when I feel tugged into the setting, or the need to immerse myself in that world with those characters. This means that sometimes I can’t write anything for days, weeks or months. That’s not a bad thing. I find that if I force it, what comes out is not my best work. It’s rushed, and often what I call my ‘thin’ writing. Very little depth, poor sentence construction, and just doesn’t read as well as it could do.
Sometimes, of course, I have to force it in order to get over the block that’s in my head. That can either result in tangents that make the story better, or the need to bash out a completely different story for a while, or something that I need to go back and heavily edit before it’s halfway decent.
I’ve asked around to see how others do it: this is what I’ve come up with so far.
Stories are about journeys; they don’t need to be physical ones, they can just as easily be about travelling from one thought to another, but they do require movement.
In the initial stages of planning a story, once I’ve settled on a concept, I decide upon a point of origin and a final destination, not necessarily in that order. Sometimes the climax or the resolution is actually more visceral than where it all began, and I can work retroactively to decide upon a starting point that will maximise the impact of the journey to the end.
It’s important to have a place of origin and a definite destination before you worry about the ‘how and what’ of going from one to the other; after all, you wouldn’t/couldn’t plan flights for your world trip before you knew what your ‘to and froms’ were.
There are many ways to plot the course of a story from one end to the other. Sometimes detailing an entire section using dot points is helpful, but a linear approach can feel a bit restrictive.
I like ask myself what NEEDS to happen in a story, for the character(s) to successfully complete their voyage. I may detail this as physical actions, such as going somewhere, talking to someone, reading a book, or as hurdles/achievements.
Putting these on sticky notes and pasting them to a blank wall somewhere, or a fridge, not only makes the planning process visible in its entirety, it also allows for easy sequencing.
After the NEEDS are taken care of, I plan the WANTS. These are things like, ‘the story doesn’t necessarily need a love interest, but I want one’. Scanning the sticky-note timeline, I can easily find the best/most logical place for the introduction of the love interest, and/or move things around to make it work without compromising the effectiveness of the story’s needs.
The beauty of planning in this way, is that you do not need to write in chronological order. With a full plan and all your bases covered, if you get bored writing a certain scene, or just aren’t in the zone, you can jump to any other scene in your timeline and write there; then it’s just a matter of going back and stitching the scenes together.
I’ll compare approaches from a few other writers in my next post. Stay tuned!
What is yours?