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How to Develop an Idea Into a Story

Last week, a subscriber to the Inkling Creative Strategies newsletter asked me the following question:

“Once I have an idea I think is really good, what do I do? How do I go from having an idea to actually having some words down that I’m happy with?”

We have all asked ourselves this at one point or another. After all, one mark of great writers is that they never stop looking for raw material. They never waste intriguing observations, conversations, people, or settings. They are observant, take notes, and seize every opportunity to put those observations to work.

But starting to explore that idea in words? That’s complicated stuff. And the hard truth is that there are no hard and fast rules for how to do it.

I know that in middle school, your English teacher probably told you to make an outline of your main points, research your points, then follow your outline as you write, and BOOM!­—your piece is done.

Maybe that worked in seventh grade and on those writing prompts for the SAT, but most of the time, they don’t work in real life.

So, what do you do once you have an idea? I will do my best to answer the reader’s question and provide all of you with some lessons I’ve learned throughout my career so you can better handle how to get your writing idea out of your head and onto paper.

Formulas Are Guidelines, Not Requirements

Many formulas out there promise easier writing, better storytelling, and more successful stories in general. You may have heard of Freytag’s Pyramid (the fancy schmancy academic name for that triangle of rising and falling action), and there are many books that lay out different plot structures and formulas for creating works in different genres.

Then there’s that axiom about how there are only two types of stories: a stranger comes to town and a person goes on a journey.

I’m not smashing these books or saying there’s no truth to the story outlines or basic plot types. But, if there were no use for them at all, we wouldn’t see so many people using them.

Some people find formulas to be an inspiring way to get started, and if that’s your thing, I think that’s terrific.

But many writers feel constrained by the idea of having to put their work in a box and make sure that all the required plot points happen at the prescribed moments. This rarely happens in an early draft of something, and that can cause people to get so frustrated that they give up.

I find that formulas become most helpful in later drafts after you’ve figured out what your story is really about.

By the way, this is true for essays, too. Essays may not require the action structure that fiction does, but you still have to organize your ideas in a way that unfolds for the reader in a logical and engaging way. Often, that structure comes later down the line, not when you are first getting started.

Who Are You Writing For?

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in, you need to think about who will ultimately be reading your work. If you already know what kind of story you’re writing, you probably know what expectations your readers will have. In this respect, fiction is a little easier because it comes with prescribed conventions.

Nonfiction is a little harder because you must consider what you want to teach or reveal to your readers. For example, if you’re writing to educate readers on a particular topic, you need to think about what they may already know or what their existing attitudes about the subject might be.

Suppose you are writing a memoir or something about personal experience. In that case, you need to consider why your experience will be useful to readers or what they need to know about you to understand why what happened was so important to you.

A large part of the writing process in any genre is knowing what information you want to convey and how much to give your reader at a particular time. This can help you at least get an idea of what tone and language to use as you start writing.

I have a friend who starts each of her projects by writing a letter to either her ideal audience or to a character in her story. This exercise is helpful because it often jogs loose some of these notions of what the audience needs to know.

Another useful exercise is to ask yourself, “What is the most important thing my reader needs to know?” Again, this can be a good starting point for at least beginning to flesh out your idea.

Start with an Anecdote

Sometimes, stories come from a particular detail or event that strikes a chord with you and seems interesting but is not a story in and of itself. For example, a story that your family has told for years or something funny one of your friends said once is likely not a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.

But you can still write that anecdote down. And often, doing so can cause you to see how the rest of the story might be developed.

I did a lot of this in my novel-in-stories, The Goodbye-Love Generation. Each of the stories had some real-life inspiration, whether it was a story my dad told me about playing in a rock band during the 1970s, an anecdote someone shared on Kent State’s archive of testimonies from the shootings on May 4, 1970, or a cool place or feature of Northeast Ohio during the era.

None of the stories based on actual events recount the entire event as I’ve been told about it or as it happened. So instead, I built a fully developed story around it and used it as the core of what I was writing about.

This works for nonfiction, too. You can take whatever experience or fact you are working with, describe it, and then see what conclusions you are naturally led to about the information’s significance.

Don’t Be Too Judgmental Too Soon

When writing a first draft, you must lock your inner critic out of the room. It’s never going to be perfect, and you’re likely not going to know what you want to say until you’ve revised it.

Flannery O’Connor famously wrote, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” This sums up the act of writing an initial draft—it often isn’t until you get your ideas down and set them aside that you see what you want to tell readers.

But if you immediately begin critiquing what you are saying as you’re getting it down for the first time, you short-circuit that developmental process. And if you do that, you will never get to the point of knowing what you are saying.

Need Help with the Writing Process?

Often, one of the most challenging parts of being in the early stages of the writing process is knowing whether you are on the right track with a project.

My No-Frills Manuscript Review is one of the most popular services I offer through Inkling Creative Strategies. I will read a copy of your project, then use the Inkling feedback formula to tell you what captured my attention and my imagination, as well as where I felt confused or wanted more information.

My answers to these two questions naturally give authors direction about revising their work.

It will give you not just feedback about where you currently are with your project but also the momentum you desperately need to get unstuck and start reaching your full creative potential so you can impact and inspire your readers.

Want more information? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation to talk about your project and my services.

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