Note: This is also available as a live video on my Instagram IGTV: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CGyby3snLwt/. I believe you should be able to watch it even if you don’t have an account.
Since National Novel Writing Month starts a week from today, I thought for my first writing tips live I’d talk a bit about how to develop an idea into a story.
Now, this is going to be aimed primarily at writers who are feeling a little stuck. You have a simple idea or basic concept, but you’re struggling to turn that into an entire book. I’m going to attempt to talk about it in ways that both pantsers and plotters can use, so you can think about these points before starting or as you write.
If you aren’t familiar, the basic concept is that a pantser writes by the seat of their pants. They make it up as they write. A plotter has a plot outline and detailed character analysis before they start writing the first draft. Now, in reality, most writers fall somewhere along that spectrum. A writer might do a little pre-planning or a lot. I want to clarify really quickly that neither is wrong. They’re just different approaches. However, it’s a good idea to be flexible. If you usually pants but you find you keep getting stuck and never finishing a story, maybe try outlining more. If you outline, it’s okay for your outline to change as you write. And even if you’re pantsing, it’s a good idea to do some pre-development, even if it’s just in your head.
Alright, so back to turning your basic concept into a story.
This entire presentation could be summed up in as ask these questions: What if? How? Why? What results? There you go, we’re done.
Kidding. Let’s dive in, shall we?
First, it’s important to know what kind of story you’re writing. This totally can change as you write and develop further. But think about: what genre will it be? What age of reader will I be writing for? What do I want my reader to feel or what type of story will this be–fun and escapist? Dark and gritty? Humorous? Having an idea of the genre and vibe and target audience you’re going for will help a lot with answering some of the questions we’re going to look at. If you want to really dive into the concept of a target reader, Jenni Sauer (@ivorypalaceprincess) has a great IGTV video on that topic.
Alright, I want to mention that I am what in some circles is referred to as a plot-first novelist. So when I get an idea, it usually is at least part of the plot, and as I think about it, I develop most of the plot typically pretty quickly. I kind of tug on a thread and the whole ball of yarn comes crashing down, except for details. But I’m going to try to break that process down into steps.
Other concepts you might start with might be a single scene, a character or group of characters, a world or setting. These are all valid, and whatever your core idea is that you’re starting with, I hope some of what I talk about here will be helpful to you to turn that little piece of a story into a full story. If you’re having trouble even getting an idea, or you feel like you only have part of an idea, ask what if?
What if there was a character like this? What if there was a world like that? What if there was a situation like such? Then we’ll ask okay, if there is…why?
I’m going to use my first published novel, Prince of Shadow and Ash, as an example of how I moved from the initial idea to a full plot. If you haven’t read it and don’t want spoilers, don’t worry; I’m not going to give any twists away. Also, Prince has two MCs, but I’m going to focus on Regulus, as he’s the primarily MC in Prince and also just for the sake of brevity.
As well as I can recall, my original base concept was: what if a good guy was stuck in the role of a bad guy? The next step is to ask yourself some questions. I’ve found a lot of story creation can be done by honing in on a few questions: how, why, and what result does that have?
I asked myself, why would this good guy be a bad guy? I decided he’s serving the villain. Okay, why would a good guy serve a villain? I decided he doesn’t have a choice. My next question was, how does that work that he doesn’t have a choice? And this is where I came up with the magical bond system, where Regulus has a mark on his arm that the villain can use to control him through pain and by literally taking control of Regulus’ body. I further strengthened the how and why of this situation with threats against Regulus’ close friends if Regulus disobeys. Why is that motivating? Because Regulus values connection and loyalty. Since I couldn’t have Regulus just asking for help, I made sorcery or affiliation with a sorcerer a crime punishable by death. How Regulus got this mark became part of the backstory, which informed the plot – he had sworn an oath to repay a debt, and the mark will be removed when the villain decides Regulus has done enough tasks for him.
Basically, I decided what the situation is at the start of the story, how it came to be, why it must be this way or can’t just be easily changed, and what repercussions this situation would have. This helped solve plot holes before they happened, but you can also do this as you write or as you discover plot holes.
Alright, now I had a good guy serving a bad guy because he has no choice. This still isn’t a story because it doesn’t have a plot, it’s just a concept. So I asked: what result does this have? Well, it caused two of the major things that drive a plot forward: it gave me a goal and a conflict.
A big part of any plot is: what does this character want and is what is preventing the character from getting that?
Regulus’ goal is to repay his debt so he can be free of his bond to the sorcerer and not serve him anymore. However, he’s also a good person, who doesn’t want to do the things the sorcerer is asking him to do, so there’s an internal conflict there. He also wants to avoid pain and more importantly, to ensure his friends aren’t hurt. There’s some tension that “in order to protect my friends, I have to do things I hate.” Externally, we have the conflict between Regulus and the sorcerer, as well as another layer of conflict since Regulus has to keep it a secret.
So we have a character, we have a goal, we have some conflict, and we’re starting to have a bit of a world as I develop the magic and rules to explain the situation.
Briefly on worldbuilding: A lot of the worldbuilding can come from the question: what kind of world would produce this situation or these characters? What setting would make these characters or this plot make sense? What rules–whether actual laws, culture mores, or rules of magic–need to be in the place to make the plot plausible and manufacture conflict? Kaz Brekker would NOT turn out the same way if he was raised on a farm on Tatooine. Caraval would lose all its allure in a world without magic. The X-Men movies would look way different if humans weren’t afraid of mutants. Your world and characters and plot should all inform each other. If you’re starting with a concept of a world or setting, you can turn this around and ask: what kind of characters would this world produce? How would this environment or these cultural norms affect the plot? Don’t have your characters doing things that make no sense in the world you’ve created. For more worldbuilding, I’m going to cop out and tell you again to check Jenni’s IGTV for a great free video with some helpful worldbuilding tips.
Okay, going back to Prince, I could have just focused on only Regulus, and that would have been a vastly different story that would have started in a different place. A nice bonus to this is it gives Regulus a competing goal, which increases the conflict.
So, I decided Regulus would meet a girl, he would like her and want to court her, but he would also be aware that the sorcerer could target her. Plus, he can serve the sorcerer easier if he has no other obligations. There’s some fear that the things he’s done make him unworthy of courting this girl. So Regulus both wants to serve the sorcerer and doesn’t, and he wants to court this girl and at the same time, he is afraid to. At least in his mind, serving the sorcerer and loving Adelaide are incompatible.
You are by no means required to give your MC (main character) opposing goals or desires, but they do need to have at least one goal or desire. If you MC doesn’t want anything, they’re unlikely to make choices. If you’ve ever heard people talk about the concept of character agency–that is, characters actually making choices that affect the plot, and not just the plot dictating what the character does–there’s a good chance it’s because either the MC doesn’t have anything they want, or what they want and why they are making the choices they are wasn’t clear. So you don’t have to have all the details of what your MC wants and why before you start writing, but it will be helpful to have a general idea. If you ever get stuck or are unsure what your character would do next, you can go back to “what do they want?”
Sometimes it can also be what your MC doesn’t want, what they’re afraid of. Whenever Regulus needs to make a choice, it’s going to be informed by his fears and desires. He fears he’s unworthy of love, but he also craves connection. He wants to protect his friends. He has morals that he tries to follow, lines he doesn’t want to cross, which can be difficult when you’re serving the villain. He values personal connection, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. This all motivates his decisions, and his decisions affect the plot.
Honestly, a lot of problems can be solved both in planning and while writing or editing by going back to your character’s motivation. If a scene isn’t working, ask what your character wants in that scene? Or what are they trying to prevent? How do their values dictate their reactions? Not sure where the story should go next? Depending on where you are in the story, have the character or your antagonist do something that will either move your MC closer to or further away from having their desires or their fears realized.
Okay, so we have a main character who has goals and fears and is in a situation that is going to generate conflict. For major side characters, especially love interests or additional MCs, you want to ask the same questions.
Who is this person? What role will they play? If they’re a main character, what conflict will they be facing? Personally, I like to see love interests–whether they are a point of view character or not–who have a life of their own. They have their own hopes and desires and fears that exist before they meet the MC and they will continue to after they meet the MC.
Again, once you figure out your secondary characters’ situation, desires, and fears, you’ll want to look at how those circumstances, fears, and desires came to be, why their situation must be the way it is, and what the result of all of that is, especially as it interacts with your MC and the plot.
You don’t have to know all of this before you start writing, but as you’re writing you can keep those questions in the back of your mind. It can also help with going back to strengthen a side character who is a little flat.
Now, quick aside on backstory. This is all great for you as the author to know. Backstory will help you make sure your characters are making consistent decisions and can help direct the conflict and plot. But you do not need to put all your backstory in right away, or sometimes even at all. Write it down somewhere you can reference it, and put in little tidbits when needed. Don’t explain your MC’s childhood in two pages in chapter one. Only give the reader the bare minimum they need to understand. If you’re finding you have tell a lot of backstory for your story to make sense–you might want to consider whether you’re telling the right story and starting it in the right place.
Alright, so let’s talk about antagonists.
First of all, your antagonist does not have to be a person, it really depends on what type of story you’re writing. This is a helpful place to know your genre, tone, and target readership.
A person antagonist is great because there’s something physical there to focus on, but all an antagonist needs to do is make it more difficult for your MC to achieve their goals. A survival story might have the weather or wilderness or wild animals as the antagonist. A drama might have the MC’s inner demons or health as the antagonist. A concept or circumstances such as cultural expectations or loss of control can be an antagonist. A conceptual antagonist might be personified in a person. For example, in the Red Rising trilogy, the main antagonist is the social hierarchy and corruption in the ruling Gold class in general, but certain characters such as the Jackal are a stand-in for that larger conceptual antagonist.
Next, if your antagonist is a person, you want them to be realistic. This means you also need to know the circumstances, goals, fears, and values of your antagonist. What brought your antagonist to the point they are doing whatever they are doing? What do they want? What do they fear? How did they decide their course of action is the best way to get what they want? Again, a lot of this might not be spelled out on the page, but it will help you ensure your villain makes consistent decisions. And, again, it’s something you can figure out as you write if you’re a pantser.
Okay, now with all of those pieces, you’re probably going to start realizing what your plot is. But let’s talk about a few story structure points to keep in mind. This is going to be very basic.
Your plot needs a question, something that needs to be achieved. For Prince, that question is: will Regulus get free from the sorcerer and live happily ever after with Adelaide? Your plot question might grow out of your character development, or if you’re starting with a plot, that question will inform how you answer the what, how, and why questions about your MC. Your ending will either give a successful resolution to that question, leave on a cliffhanger, or have a tragic resolution.
In a successful resolution, the MC gets what they want–although, sometimes that can change as the story progresses and the MC realizes what they want isn’t what they thought. A good example of that is While You Were Sleeping, which I’ll talk about more later.
In a tragic resolution, either the character gets what they thought they wanted and it turns out it doesn’t satisfy, which is a tricky thing to pull off and not my favorite, so I don’t have a good example of that, or the character fails. Titus Andronicus is a good example of a character failing–but it’s also horrifying and honestly, look up triggers before reading or viewing.
For cliffhangers, I recommend resolving at least part of the question, or if your story has a few questions, resolving at least one of them. In A New Hope, Vader escapes and the Empire is still ruling, but the princess is saved, the Death Star is destroyed, and Luke is an accomplished pilot like he wanted. In The Empire Strikes Back, there are more threads that are unresolved, but Luke still has received Jedi training and saved at least some of his friends.
You don’t have to know exactly how the story is going to end when you start writing, but I personally find it helpful to know what I’m aiming for, at least approximately.
Going back to the beginning, you’re going to open with a hook. This is something interesting, unusual–even if it is normal for the character, unusual for the reader–and that establishes some things about the MC and the world.
For example, in Prince, the opening scene has Regulus in big black armor hunting in a Forbidden Marsh for a flower. Unexpected. Then we also have a scene where the sorcerer forces Regulus to kill a group of centaurs, but Regulus doesn’t want to. This starts revealing Regulus’ situation, his values, fears, and goals, as well as the main plot question of “can Regulus get free from the sorcerer?”
Then you want to establish some of the normal for your MC. What is their current situation like? We need to know, because the next thing is what is often called the inciting incident.
Now, to clarify because sometimes this gets used incorrectly, the inciting incident is NOT the first thing that happens. It is the point where everything changes and the plot really starts, and will usually be at least in the second or third chapter, sometimes further in. For Prince, this is when Regulus and Adelaide meet and decide they want to get to know each other.
Another way this is sometimes talked about is as your character’s first door. This is a point of no return. Regulus and Adelaide write each other letters–they can’t take those back. Now, your MC might later try to get out of the situation later, but it’s going to be much harder now.
As another example, take A New Hope. The hook is the opening scene with Vader and then Luke getting the droids. Luke’s normal life is established. Then the inciting incident is when Luke’s family is killed by Storm Troopers, and Luke decides to go with Old Ben to save the princess. Sometimes it’s less a choice and more forced, such as Alina being sent to the Little Palace in Shadow and Bone.
There should be at least a couple more moments through the middle of your story where the character has to make a choice or where the situation forces your character to commit to the plot. Give your characters moments where they could give up on achieving the story goal–say, Regulus could stop trying to get free from the sorcerer or to court Adelaide–but their fears, goals, values, and/or circumstances result in them committing to the plot.
Before you get to “the end,” you’re going to need a climax and possibly a denouement or finale. Things should build as you move toward the climax, until you reach the moment where everything comes together. In a story with a villain, this will likely be the showdown against or confronting that villain in some way. If the antagonist isn’t a person, it might not be a confrontation. The culmination can be the guy running through the airport to tell the girl he loves her and doesn’t want her to leave, or a stranded man overcoming his last obstacle to get back to civilization.
Then you’ll likely have a finale, the bit after the climax where everything is wrapped up. The characters get married, the hero is given a medal for saving the kingdom, the bad guy is locked away in jail, maybe we get a glimpse of what the MC’s new normal is going to look like. Some stories will have a minimal finale. Some will have so many threads that need tied up it might take a while.
Let’s walk through all of this using While You Were Sleeping. If you haven’t seen it, spoilers incoming, but it is 15 years old. Okay, in While You Were Sleeping, Lucy thinks she wants to marry Peter–a man she’s never spoken to. Her fear is being alone for the rest of her life, living in her apartment with her cat and going to a job she doesn’t like and never seeing the world. Her deepest desire is to have family, love, and be able to travel. Her inciting incident is when she saves Peter after he is pushed onto the train tracks and Lucy is mistaken for Peter’s fiancé while he is in a coma. Peter’s family immediately accept her as one of their own, fulfilling her longing for family, and Peter is rich, so she would be able to travel. There are several moments where she is given an opportunity to admit she’s not his fiance, but her desires and fears prompt her to keep living the lie. While Peter is in a coma, Lucy falls in love with his brother, Jack–but now she’s afraid she’ll lose her new family if she tells the truth. When Peter wakes up and doesn’t know Lucy, his family decides he must have amnesia, and Lucy is able to keep up the charade. The climax of the movie is when Peter and Lucy are getting married, and she admits the whole thing was a lie and that she’s in love with Jack. The denouement is Lucy going back to her normal life with her cat and weird neighbor and her boring job…until Jack proposes and they get married and go to travel the world. Happily ever after ending!
Now, let’s say you have your characters, you have conflict, but it still feels like the story is lacking forward momentum. What you’re probably missing is sufficient stakes.
Stakes are what your character has to lose if they fail in achieving their goal. Your character has to have something they can lose.
There can be external or physical stakes. If Regulus doesn’t obey the sorcerer, not only he will never be free, not only could he suffer pain, not only could he die, but his friends could be killed.
There can be emotional stakes. If Regulus doesn’t obey the sorcerer and earn his freedom, he won’t be free to marry Adelaide. But if he doesn’t court Adelaide, he’s going to regret it and may end up alone–which one of his greatest fears.
There can also be existential stakes, such as the MC won’t achieve their full potential or find fulfillment or their place in the world.
The important thing to remember is you want a character with desires, fears, and values, who is pursuing the story goal and has something to lose if they fail, and that there is something that makes it harder for your character to succeed at achieving their goal.
To recap, some questions to keep in mind: why is this situation, world, or character the way it is, how did this arise, why must it be this way, and what effect or what repercussions does this have?
And you don’t need to know all that for every little detail, trust your intuition! But they’re good questions to come back to if you get stuck.
And if you’re still stuck, you can always go all the way back to what if? What if they did this, or what if this happened? Why would it? What reaction would the MC have? How would that happen? What would the consequences be? I particularly like asking, “what is the worst thing that could happen next?” because I’m mean like that. 😉
A few general tips as you are starting to write:
Things that are TOTALLY okay to do:
-Skip scenes that you aren’t quite sure about and came back to them later. I know some think too linearly for this to work, but it’s okay to try it.
-Skip to scenes you’re excited about. Or, alternatively, make a note about that scene you’re excited about so you don’t forget what you want to happen in it, then use it as an incentive to write the prior scenes and get to it.
-Use placeholders. For example, don’t know a minor character’s name? Just put something like Mr. Landlord and keep writing. I often put things in brackets, so I can search for brackets and replace them later. Like [Name] or [insert description of building] or [snappy comeback].
-Write only dialogue. If you get an idea for a juicy conversation or heated argument and you’re dying to get it down, go ahead and just write the dialogue with just enough tags to remember who is speaking. You can add action beats and description so they aren’t just talking heads later.
-Talk it out with a friend, or even just muse aloud to your pet or the air. I’ve solved so many plot hang-ups by just working through the problem out loud.
Do what you gotta do to finish that first draft!
Alright, one last thing.
Someone asked me for tips on finding ideas that actually resonate with you. I do think it’s important to pick ideas that resonate with you, because you’ll be more likely to finish them. I don’t have a lot of advice on this, but here’s a couple things to keep in mind.
First, if you come up with a concept or idea, it’s okay to think about it. Make some notes as you come up with ideas. Mull it over in the back of your mind. Ask some of those questions, how did we get here, why is it like that, what conflict does that create, what effect will that have, how will these characters with these fears, desires, and values, interact with this plot? What would the goals and stakes be? What will the vibe be? Who will you be writing it for? If you find you get bored of it very quickly or just can’t answer those questions, set that idea aside. Maybe you’ll figure it out later and come back to it, maybe not, that’s okay.
Second, if you get fired up about an idea, consider writing down why. Think about why you love this story–or even what could make you love this story. For many writers, this will come down to theme or your personal goal for the story. A major theme of Prince of Shadow and Ash that developed as I wrote it is that you can be imperfect and hurting and have done bad things and have the world telling you that you aren’t worth its time, but you still have worth, are still deserving of love, and your life still matters. That was an important theme to me and was motivating. Having a why for your story, a reason you want to write it, something you want to say, a reader you want to help, is a great motivator to fall back on when the writing gets hard.
It’s not unusual to grow disillusioned or discouraged with your story. Writing is hard work and can take a long time. Try to remember why you were writing this story in the first place. Or if you’re just hung up on a chapter, go back to your story’s question and your character’s goals. Sometimes you can go smaller, ask what your character wants in this specific scene. If you’re bored, think about how you can ramp up the stakes. If you feel like things are just happening, think about your characters’ motivations and if you’ve written their responses in a realistic way. But I think most of whether a story resonates with you will be the heart that you bring to the story. It’s why even though there’s not really anything new in fiction, only you can tell the story you will write, because only you have your heart that you will put into your story. Your words and heart and the story you want to tell matter, and might be exactly what someone needs to hear. So don’t be afraid to tell the story that’s on your heart.
In the live, there was also a question about if theme and story question/plot structure is the same thing.
Short answer: no, mostly likely not.
Story question is related to the MC’s goal. For example: Will the dashing hero stop the villain from unleashing Armageddon? Or, Will the self-absorbed businessman learn to slow down and love before his life is over?
Plot structure is the beats the story will hit to move the plot forward. Hook, inciting incident, middle (with rising and falling action, building to…), the climax, and the denoument/finale.
Theme is more meta, like a concept or truth that is explored. For example: A hero is defined by what they value, not only their daring deeds. Or, Life is about relationships. The theme will come through in the plot, but it is unlikely to be the driving force behind the plot development (that will be the story question).
If this was helpful, you can (but are not required to!) buy me a Ko-fi.