8 Ways to Expand a Story Idea into Something Usable

Good morning, squiders! Back to ideas for today, and then I may leave the rest of the subject for the book and accompanying workbook and move on to something else.

Today we’ll talk about how to take your inkling of an idea, whatever it is, and expand it to the point where you can make a story of it.

In some cases, this is easy. Some people don’t need a lot of information to get going–they can get started with whatever their original idea or inspiration is and find the rest along the way. (These people, in writing terms, are called “pantsers.”) If this is you, hooray!

However, most people need more than just an idea like “people can tell their soulmates by matching birthmarks” to get a story going. They need characters. They need a world. They need a plot.

How do you build those out of your initial idea?

In some cases, you’re lucky. Your inspiration comes with a lot of information, including the basics of plot, character, structure, etc. which can be expanded upon through outlining or brainstorming. Other times you just have your idea, staring you in the face, with nothing else coming.

Fleshing Out Your Story

If you’ve got nothing but an idea and nothing else seems to be coming, you’ve got some things you can do to help.

  1. Go back through your idea file. Sometimes what you need is already written down. If you have a plot but no characters to populate it, you can focus on your character ideas, or if you need a world, you can look specifically at those ideas. Sometimes smooshing two ideas together can bring delicious results.
  2. Identify your core conflict. Each idea will have some aspect that makes it attractive to you. If you can identify what specifically it is, and build off of that for your core conflict (i.e., your main plot problem), you’ll be able to find something that really interests you, and you may find that the rest of the story builds naturally.
  3. Ask yourself questions. This can help you expand your characters, world, plot, etc. What is interesting about this character? What do they want? What can I put in their way to stop them from getting it? What sort of world would allow this to be a problem? What sort of people would live this way?
  4. Look at tropes and conventions. People talk negatively about tropes, but the fact of the matter is that different genres have their own conventions, and readers of those genres expect certain things. Romance readers expect happy endings, mystery readers expect a murder, science fiction readers expect some scientific marvel. If you break your genre’s conventions, you may lose your readers. There’s a lot of leeway in how you can use said conventions, including purposefully breaking or bending them, but it helps to know what your baseline is.
  5. Research. We talked earlier about how your research can generate inspiration. If you’ve hit a dead end, it may help to pick a prospective topic and do some research to see if anything clicks to help you expand your idea.
  6. Outline. The mere act of outlining forces your to expand your story. What happens here? Why is it important? What is your character’s arc? See the outlining posts for more information on outlining and how to do it.
  7. Look at structure. How do you want to tell your story? Is it multiple viewpoints? First person? Third person? Maybe you want two plotlines from different times/places woven together. Sometimes it can help to consider an idea from different angles (“How does this change if I write it first person rather than third person?”) to see what fits it best. And sometimes, once you’ve gotten your structure in place, some of the rest of the logistics (number of characters, chronology, world) fall into place.
  8. Freewrite/brainstorm. Freewriting is an exercise where you just let your fingers wander where they will. This can be a good way to brainstorm ways to go with your initial idea. Other forms of brainstorming, such as talking to a friend or mind mapping can also be beneficial.

And, of course, you can always let an idea percolate in the back of your mind. Think about the idea before you go to bed, while you’re in the shower, or while you’re taking a walk. See if the bits you need will come on their own while you’re doing other things. It may be that, over time, the story provides you everything you need. (Be sure to write everything down as you get it.)

What do you think, squiders? Do you have other methods that have worked for you?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. It’s probably just a another take on outlining, but have you ever tried this mind mapping thing? I don’t understand it, personally, but I just think in terms of flow charts. It comes from my work documenting internal controls.

    Reply

    • I use mind mapping when outlining nonfiction things–it doesn’t work for me for fiction (too freeform, I think). Flow charts seem like they could be a form of mindmapping, honestly.

      Reply

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