Turning an Idea into a Story

Most published authors can’t avoid the interview question–where do your ideas come from?  The frequently give the simple  (often maddening to beginning writers) reply of “Everywhere.”

If you’ve read or listened to interviews, you’ll hear stories of inspiration striking authors while driving, taking a shower, mowing their lawn, eating lunch…insert mundane activity here.

But they’re right.  A person who is actively searching for inspiration, and dedicated to faithfully recording the inspiration when it strikes will find himself awash in all sorts of ideas.  But an idea isn’t a story by itself.  It’s still just an idea.

For example, I realized recently that I have a personal obsession with sad stories, tragedies, and general melancholy in life.  I am a cheerful person on the whole, but I have down-swings into depression at frequent intervals.  My highs are pretty high and my lows are very low.

I had the idea that an obsession with melancholy or sorrow would be an interesting focal point in a story, but I didn’t know where to go with it.  I could gather thoughts on sadness and grieving and tragedy together, but this just seemed like an essay without any fiction anywhere.

I have nothing against essays, but an essay wasn’t the goal.  I wanted a story.

My writer friend, Scott, passed along this information to me, which he learned through Neil Gaiman, an author I particularly admire.

Before writing a story, a writer should have to things.  A concept, and characters to go with it.  This might mean gathering together story concepts and story characters separately until two of them gel in such a way that they’ve ignited to start their own story.

Once you have both in idea and characters, you have enough to begin framing your story.  So I took my idea and started mulling over what kind of character might fit into a story about an obession with sadness.  A happy college student?  A tragic, homeless nobody? A clown?  An escape artist?  A bookworm?  An actress?

I felt my way through the kind of story my potential characters would create and after a while it hit me–what if I had a character that quested for a perfect experience of sadness, hoping to trap it forever?  Then I knew I’d hit something.  My story was a quest.

This was enough to start my thoughts cranking through character sketches and possible scenes and scenarios.

Recap: It began with an idea, I added a character to the mix, and then the story began to flow from the combination.  I was honestly surprised by how quickly it happened.  Scott told me this story-building technique less than 24 hours ago and I’m already running with it.

This can begin with characters, too, by the way.

Do you have a character who’s been haunting you and you need an overarching concept/idea to serve as your thematic springboard?  Do you have a bunch of crazy cool ideas that need characters to bring them to life?  Toss them up here in the comments and let’s see what we can come up with together.


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