November is nigh, and writers everywhere are in full panic mode.
We’re loading up on caffeinated beverages, bidding tearful adieus to our loved ones, and willing our brains to come up with The Idea.
You know the one, the idea that hits like lighting from a clear sky, the one that will make you a literary sensation.
For those of you still looking, never fear! I’m here to help you slop one together.
Misconception One: Story Idea Come to Us Fully Formed
Cartoons lie. Ideas don’t spring from our heads, fully formed and crackling with electricity.
Ideas are ugly, malformed creatures, unpredictable beings that hide from us when we go searching for them and gnaw on our brains when we’d rather they leave us alone.
But with the right amount of coaxing and patient daydreaming over the course of several grass-mowing, dish-scrubbing, and dog-walking sessions, you’ll have your ideas potty-trained.
Misconception Two: Ideas are Precious
Ideas aren’t precious. The value of an idea lies in its execution.
I’ve met writers who won’t talk to me about the story they are working on out of fear that the idea will be stolen.
Here’s three reasons why that’s a load of baloney:
- Someone too lazy to come up with their own story idea is also too lazy to actually write it.
- Story ideas are weaker when deprived of constructive criticism.
- Each writer’s unique life experiences and interests will determine the focus and shape of their story. So, in the unlikely event that someone steals your story, it’ll be vastly different.
Don’t believe me? Remember a few years back when Hollywood inexplicably put out two comedies starring bumbling mall cops?
One report had this to say about Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report:
“Tonally, the films couldn’t be more different than powdered sugar and battery acid.”
Misconception Three: One idea Makes a Story
You’ve got a malformed idea that’s been gnawing on your brain. It’s time to see if it plays well with others.
What do BLTs and Quidditch have in common? Their individual components band together to make something new, something better.
Basketball + Bubble wands + Broomsticks = Quidditch
Bacon + Lettuce + Tomato = Delicious Sandwich
A story is made of well-balanced, complementary ideas. You’ll need to cull some of the parts that don’t fit the story arc.
Because nobody wants this.
And in truth, you’re lucky if at the end of November, you manage to write a “puppy-monkey-baby” story.
Four Easy Steps to a Story
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still October.
Right now, what we have is an ugly, brain-gnawing creature masquerading as an idea.
It’s the sort of half-idea that you won’t want to share (and not because you’re afraid someone will steal it, but because it’s embarrassing).
But don’t worry, we’ll whip that idea into shape in no time!
And to prove my earlier point about ideas being cheap, I’m going to walk you through my process.
Hang on tight, Alice! You’re about to descend into the weird rabbit hole that is my mind.
Step one: Find Your Story Starter
My malformed half-idea: Don Quixote in space.
Come to think of it, most of my ideas end in “in space.”
Pro Tip: taking a character, organization, etc. and reimaging him, her, it, into an unexpected setting is a great trick for thinking up a story-starter.
My story starter alone isn’t much to go off of. We don’t know if it’s a time-travel story where Don Quixote is transported to the year 2060.
It just as easily could be about a quixotic future character who has deluded herself into thinking she is a space cadet.
But for now, this simple story starter will do.
Step Two: Research Your Story Starter
And yes, “Don Quixote in space” has been done before.
But that’s okay too.
Look at what’s been done before and learn from it. Ask yourself:
- What are some common themes in similar story starters?
- What do they do right?
- What could you improve?
Make a list of cool themes, plot points, conflicts, images, etc. found in your story-starter. Here’s my list:
- Trusty sidekick
- Chaste Love
Step Three: Make Your Own Puppy-Monkey-Baby
Every writer should have a folder for half-formed ideas.
Often ideas that, at first glance, seem disparate and contradictory pair beautifully. Like fried chicken and waffles.
I raided my story folder and came up with some potential story parts:
- Elder Care Robots
- “Werewolf” Plants
Shrubs that produce sugary liquids to attract insects on nights with a full moon.
- Space RV
Of Spaceballs fame. This just seems like it should be a thing.
Okay, here’s the tough part. How do these all fit together? How do they relate to the themes I want to explore? And how can they transform Don Quixote into a space adventure?
Try to pair themes you want to explore with ideas from your folder.
When in doubt, ask yourself, “how I can make this more sci-fi?” On a scale of one to sci-fi (or fantasy or romance or insert genre of your choosing here), go full sci-fi. You can always scale back later.
Protagonist’s job is to mine energy from windmills on a very windy alien planet.
An alien disease that eats at the protagonist’s cognition.
- Trusty sidekick
An elder care robot.
- Chaste Love
Loved one is out of his mind from progressed state of disease, and the protagonist must love “pure and chaste from afar.”
Or…the loved one is an alien with incompatible genitals.
There’s some sort of mystery that the protagonist must uncover before losing her mind.
Or…he knows a secret, but no one believes him.
As you may have noticed, after my first pass, I only found a spot for “elder care robots” in the story. But it’s shaping up.
Time for RVs and “werewolf plants” to earn their place in the story.
Let’s see…she drives an RV from one windmill to another.
Why? Why not hang out at the same windmill?
The wind currents follow a predictable path. She follows the wind. Okay, that’s doable…
- “Werewolf Plants”
They could grow along the path of the air currents which help spread their spores.
And what if the plant spores cause the disease?
Let’s make the disease similar to lycanthropy, but instead of a wolf, the disease slowly turns you into a plant.
My space Don Quixote mines windmills for energy in an RV. It’s dangerous work because of the nearby plants whose airborne spores can transform you into a plant-person and eat away at your mind.
Space Donnie’s buddy is an elder-care robot. Donnie’s love is either delirious or an alien. Donnie uncovers some truth behind a deception. The truth will mostly likely relate to the plant-disease and have a serious impact on the loved one.
Step Four: Prep Your Pitch
Okay, let’s condense that to something simpler, a quick one-liner that will keep you focused and give you something to tell other wrimos when they ask what you’re writing. Here goes nothing:
Don Quixote in a space RV with werewolf plants.
Once you have your line, ask if it sounds like something you would want to read. Let’s hope so, because you’ll have to endure at least a whole month with it gnawing on your brain.
And go ahead, share your idea with other wrimos as I’ve done here.
Hell, take my idea if you’d like. We can compare notes (and word counts) at the end of the month.
So, as you may have noticed, there are still quite a few questions that need to be answered before I can write this thing.
But I have a skeleton upon which I can flesh out my story.
My next step is character development. And that’s a doozy of a step. The goal is to create characters who will be most acutely tormented by the world you’ve created and the conflicts they’ll encounter.
Once the characters are in place, I tend to do a slapdash job of world-building and outline assembly.
Throughout planning and well into the writing and re-writing process, I’ll reassess how each of the idea components are working together.
Your ideas will misbehave. They’ll muss up your plotlines, wreak havoc on your world, and traumatize your characters.
But it’s going to be okay. Your story is salvageable. They’ll be time for red pens and worry on the other side of next month.
Until then, bring on November!