Develop Your Story Idea in Eleven Simple Steps
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You’ve the seed of a story idea stuck in your head, but it’s nowhere near ready to write.
How does one go about expanding a simple story idea into a fully-developed novel? It depends! Some writers prefer to explore their ideas by diving straight into a discovery draft, getting to know their characters and plot as they write, while others find it beneficial to first outline their characters, scenes, settings, and more.
The latter process, called pre-writing, certainly isn't easy. But if you believe a little plotting and planning may help you draft your next novel with confidence and clarity, have no fear. Today, we're walking through eleven simple steps you can take over the coming weeks to develop your story idea with purpose and power!
Exploring Your Story Idea...
To develop your story, we'll first begin by shaping and molding the idea that's captured your attention. Follow the first three steps below to begin expanding your story idea today:
Step #1: Write it Down.
A creative's freshly-forged ideas are often the most pure and enthralling they will ever be. With time, you see, doubts and disinterest begin to dull enthusiasm, while the details that originally catch attention soon begin to fade.
Writing ideas down as soon as possible is therefore the key to capturing the pure magic of your creative muse. Once you've made your idea manifest, the magic becomes real. Possibility becomes potential, and with potential, there's nothing you can't achieve.
Step #2: Identify an Interest.
Take time to mull over the idea that's caught your attention. What in particular about this idea piques your interest? Is is a character or a concept? A setting or a conflict? Identify that element, then begin pulling at its boundaries with a little brainstorming, diving deeper and deeper into detail.
You may find it helpful to ask yourself questions such as:
- How did this character find themselves in this situation?
- Do they want to be here? Why or why not?
- Who is this character anyway? What are they like?
- How has my concept been done before?
- How can I put a fresh spin on my concept's tropes and clichés?
- What is it that attracts me to this particular setting?
- What elements of this setting do I want to celebrate or confront?
- What kind of character or conflict would best showcase this setting?
- What is the character's goal in this scene?
- Why do they want to achieve this goal?
- Who or what stands in their way?
- What about this theme interests me in discussing it?
- What type of character would best engage with this theme?
- How might this theme play into my character's development throughout the story?
These ideas are meant to get your creative engines firing, but don't be afraid to go off script. Consider questions that pertain to your story idea, then expand your story idea as your imagination sees fit!
Step #3: Stretch Yourself.
Now that you've delved deep into the initial expansion of your story idea, it's time to use what you've built as a springboard toward crafting your story's premise. If you've yet to answer the following questions, now is the time to do so:
- Who is my protagonist?
- What is their goal?
- How do they plan to achieve their goal?
- What disaster will throw my protagonist off balance?
- Who or what will oppose them?
- What is the core conflict?
No need to develop these elements fully just yet. You're simply looking to gain a basic understanding of each element so you don't waste time developing portions of an idea that won't add up to a whole. When you have a basic premise in place, however, you'll know you have a story you can write.
Developing Your Story's Characters...
Because characters drive plot with their goals and their fears and their falterings, I believe it best to get to know your story's characters before beginning to outline. The following steps will help you identify and expand your cast of characters in a way that lends power to your plotting later in today's breakdown:
Step #4: Get to Know Your Key Players.
Now is the time to begin crafting these characters in depth. Consider them first as individuals, getting to know their personalities, backstories, and perspectives. Then consider your protagonist and antagonist as a pair. Do they play well off of one another's fears and insecurities?
For additional guidance as you get to know your story's key players, considering working through our Crafting Incredible Characters workbook.
Step #5: Identify Goals and Motivations.
Now that you know who your protagonist and antagonist are, it's time to get to know what they want, as identifying your character's desires will lay the groundwork for your story's plot. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:
How is my protagonist dissatisfied in their everyday life?
What lie does my protagonist believe about themselves, others, or the world?
What does my protagonist need to truly find satisfaction?
What motivates my protagonist to take action to achieve their goal?
What is at stake if my protagonist fails to achieve their goal?
Repeat these questions for your antagonist if your story has one, keeping in mind the goals and core conflict you defined for your characters when you crafted your story's premise in step #3.
Step #6: Craft Their Backup.
Life is not lived alone — unless that's your story's key concept, of course. Now is the time to bring your characters' worlds to life by developing their core relationships. Who are the characters who will stand by their side as they work to achieve their goal? Who will challenge them?
Consider as well the relationships that have shaped your character into the person they are when your story begins. How did or do these relationships affect your character's perspective, personality, fears, regrets, and beliefs?
Discovering Your Characters' Stories...
Now that you've developed your story's key characters and the cast that will fill out their worlds, it's at last time to get your story underway. Explore and outline your story's plot with the next four steps in today's breakdown:
Step #7: Map Your Major Beats.
Plotting is often best completed in waves, each expanding and filling in the work from the last. Begin defining your own plot now by mapping out the basics of the following major beats:
• The Hook: shows your protagonist experiencing an everyday conflict, particularly one that highlights an inherent dissatisfaction, fear, or flaw.
• The Inciting Incident: the moment that changes everything for your protagonist, offering them the opportunity to assuage their dissatisfaction or forcing them outside the comforts of their known world.
Note: Sometimes, the Hook and the Inciting Incident are one and the same.
• The First Plot Point: the first act your protagonist takes to begin chasing their story goal, or the event that officially marks their arrival into new circumstances.
Note: Sometimes, the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point are one and the same.
• The Midpoint: a momentous conflict that occurs between your protagonist and antagonist or an opposing force that forever changes their journey. (As the name states, this moment will occur roughly halfway through your story.)
• The Climactic Sequence: the final and most intense conflict or series of confrontations that occurs between your protagonist and antagonist, or an opposing force.
• The Resolution: the scene or series of events that concludes your protagonist's journey, showcasing the consequences — both good and bad — of the story's climactic sequence.
By gaining a strong, if not perfectly detailed, understanding of these six major story beats, you've built the framework for a well-plotted, well-paced novel. Now, let's work to fill in the gaps!
Step #8: Plot Between the Beats.
Each of the major story beats you outlined in the previous step now serve as fenceposts to move between as you expand your story's plot.
Keeping in mind your characters' goals, motivations, personalities, and perspectives, what actions can you reasonable expect them to take that would move them from Point A to Point B? What are the consequences of their actions? How must they adjust their action plans following each conflict?
Take your time as you begin to move between beats. In some cases, you may brainstorm better scenes to take place during each beat as well. Don't be afraid to make changes. It's always easier to revise an outline than it is a written draft.
Step #9: Craft Character Arcs.
As mentioned in the previous step, actions have consequences — but not all consequences are external.
Conflicts have internal consequences as well, tempting your characters to change, preying upon their emotions, forcing them to confront hard truths, or changing their opinions and perspectives. And as these consequences continue to occur, internal character arcs are born.
Take time now to consider how your protagonist, antagonist, and any major secondary characters are affected by the conflicts that occur throughout your story. How do their inner transformations (or lack thereof) reveal and build upon the themes your story presents?
Step #10: Weave Threads of Tension.
As you've plotted your story, you've naturally raised questions that will peak readers' interests.
Typically, these questions deal with your cast of characters. Make readers care, and you'll make them curious after all — and ravenously so. Who will succeed in achieving their goal? What's that character's big secret? Will those two characters ever reunite?
Work through your outline to identify any such questions you raise throughout your story. Then double-check that you resolve each of these threads of tension by the time your story ends. You may also wish to leave some questions intentionally unanswered if you're crafting a series or an ambiguous ending.
Are you truly prepared to write?
As I've often said here on the blog, "Writing a novel is an endurance sport, a marathon of the mind."
You've succeeded in transforming your story idea into a fully-developed outline, but you'll struggle to transform that outline into a complete written draft if you don't also take time to prepare yourself to write. And so there remains one final step you must take before diving in:
Step #11: Establish Strong Foundations.
A writer's success hinges on two key factors: mindset and practice. A successful writer learns to embrace their creative process, work through doubts and fears, forge a consistent writing routine, and find confidence in their ability to rock their writing.
For guidance as you establish healthy mindsets and prepare your writing practice, check out the following Well-Storied articles:
- Ten Ways to Practice Self-Care as a Writer
- Breaking Down Five Keys to Writing Success
- Is a Daily Writing Routine Right for You?
- How to Create a Writer's Mission Statement
- Are You Struggling With Writing Overwhelm?
Set yourself and your story up for success, writer, and there's no doubt in my mind that you can achieve your writing dreams. Here's to drafting with the clarity and confidence we crave!