Posts Tagged ‘book post’

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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Where to Find Story Ideas: Old Stories

First off, squiders, I know that I originally scheduled our discussion of Undersea, the second book in the Finnbranch trilogy, for today, but I’m going to move it to Thursday, both because I’m not quite done with the book (which has almost unequaled levels of unnecessary confusion) and because this is the last post in our where to find story idea series, so it makes more sense to do it first and then move on to other things.

Perhaps one of the best places to scrounge inspiration from can be your own, older stories. Ones that you abandoned, for whatever reasons. Ones that never worked quite right. Ones where you had to cut a character you loved because they didn’t fit into the plot you had envisioned. Ones that you wrote ages ago that don’t necessarily have anything wrong with them except that you were fifteen and still couldn’t consistently spell “probably.”

Let’s face it–it would be nice if every story you started ended with a complete, usable, readable draft, one that required very little editing before it was ready to go out the door to whatever its end goal is, whether it was just for fun to post on your website or intended for publication. But that’s not how stories work. Sometimes you get a near perfect draft, but sometimes you get a draft that, despite you trying fifteen times, cannot find a suitable ending. Sometimes you need to do a full rewrite, pulling subplots and characters and inserting new ones in their place. And sometimes, you’re just not capable of writing a particular story.

All that’s fine. That’s how the creative process works. Some things work better than others. Some things deserve to be stuck in a drawer, never to see the light of day again.

But just because a story never went anywhere, whatever the reason was, doesn’t mean that there weren’t aspects to that story that were good and interesting, and it doesn’t mean you can’t scavenge those aspects and move them to new stories, where they might be the perfect fix for whatever is ailing it.

As an example, let’s take my first novel, Hidden Worlds. I’d had two characters I’d been playing around with forever, named Cass and Nick, but I could not get their story to gel. I knew their relationship to each other (Nick had died, and Cass was willing to do anything, literally anything, to get him back) but I couldn’t ever seem to get anything more out of my story planning. So when I needed a story to add into the main plot of Hidden Worlds, I took Cass and Nick and added them in, and the rest, as they say, is history. Hidden Worlds wouldn’t be the story it is without them.

(Ironically, three or four years after Hidden Worlds was published, Cass and Nick’s story did finally come together through the simple action of me moving it into a world that already existed in another of my novel drafts, which is actually another good example of using bits from other stories to get your new one to work.)

Maybe you had a subplot about faeries that didn’t work in your paranormal romance but fits perfectly into your new MG fantasy. Maybe that spiky female friend that didn’t work as a sidekick would be a great main character. Maybe that neat worldbuilding that you couldn’t figure out how to smoosh into your science fiction action adventure would be perfect for the short story you’re writing for that anthology.

These aspects already interested you once; in the right place, at the right time, they could be exactly what you need.

There’s also something to be said about connecting your stories together. If a reader is a fan of one of your books, you might be able to pull them into another novel or short story if you can play up on their interconnectivity. This doesn’t have to be a straight series, but can be a spin-off where a minor character in the first book is a major one in the new one, or can simply take place in the same world, or can follow the same events in another place from another point of view. The possibilities are wide and varied, and you can do whatever feels best to you.

Anything to add, squiders? Ever find the perfect fix in a shelved story yourself?

Where to Find Story Ideas: Travel

The world is a fascinating place, Squiders. Every bit of it has its own traditions, its own stories. This can include everything from the urban legends of your hometown to the intricate mythologies to a country halfway around the globe. By traveling, you gain exposure to new places, new ideas, new legends, new experiences.

I’ve gone dog sledding in Alaska, climbed a mountain temple in Japan, camped in the ruins of an Incan city in Peru, hiked through a German forest to a castle that hasn’t ever been captured in its 800-year history, stumbled through the catacombs of “Hamlet’s Castle,” touched the stones at Stonehenge.

Travel can be one of the best ways to open your mind to new ideas to use for stories. It allows you to see and experience new things that you can then apply. You can see how other people live, what other cultures believe. You can go new places and see how they work.

This isn’t just true when visiting other countries, though that might be the most extreme example. You can learn things by visiting the historical and cultural landmarks in your area, by going a few major towns over and seeing what remains the same and what changes. And even going out into nature can be beneficial in the same manner. In fact, many authors routinely hike in order to gain inspiration, and some even compose their stories out in the wild.

WARNING: Unfortunately, we can’t really talk about using traveling for ideas without also discussing the idea of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a sensitive topic, and many people have strong feelings on different sides of the issue. At its core, cultural appropriation is whenever someone takes elements from another culture and claims them as their own. It is mostly applied to a majority (white people) taking elements from minority cultures, which can be done in a superficial or disrespectful manner, with the original meanings being lost or distorted.

This can be a bit of a gray area for fiction writers, who routinely portray people who are not like themselves in places they are not from, doing things they have never done. It is probably best to use specific things, such as legends and mythology, as inspiration rather than trying to stay close to the original. And remember to treat your sources of inspiration with respect, rather than using them for shock value.

Still, outside of the topic of learning about other cultures and their stories, there’s the simple fact that by traveling, by trying new things, you add to your own experiences, which you can then use to give better life to your stories. A person who has never ridden a horse has a harder time explaining the gait under their character’s saddle, doesn’t quite understand the way your body aches when you climb off. Someone who has never stood on a beach doesn’t know how the breeze blows your hair around or how bright and clear the sky gets.

Yes, you can pick up quite a bit from other media–television, movies, books–but there’s no guarantee that you’re not picking up stereotypes which, in some cases, may be incorrect or misleading. And there’s something to be said to being able to put a more personal spin on things, to separate it from the same ol’ same ol’ everyone sees everywhere else.

What do you think, squiders? Have you used your travels as an inspiration? Do you find a certain type of trip or place tends to whet your creative whistle more than others?

Where to Find Story Ideas: Music

First of all, squiders, I want to let you know about this site called Fighter’s Block. Along with sites like Write or Die or Written Kitten, it adds in a little twist to offer some motivation for writing. In this case, you get an adventurer to go up against a monster with HP equal to your current word count goal. As you write, the monster takes damage. If you don’t write, the monster damages you. Not sure what happens if you lose all your HP, but it’s been a fun boost this past week, and if it sounds like it might help you, go for it!

Moving along with our idea generation series, today we’re going to talk about music as inspiration.

Music can inspire in a number different ways, but it works differently for different people. Whether inspiration hits is always individual to the creator–something that gives one person shivers down their spine could do nothing for someone else. But music tends to be even more so, because some people find it too distracting to use in their creative process. Some people can only listen to instrumental music, whereas others require complete silence.

(Me? I’m listening to Adam Lambert’s Never Close Our Eyes as I type this, so I’m good with whatever.)

Music has a lot of different aspects that can be used for inspiration, however. Even instrumental music can be used to help establish tone and mood. I’ve found it useful to listen to appropriate instrumental music when I need a specific mood for a story, which is essential for some genres.

Some aspects of music that can be used for inspiration:

  • Melody/musicality
  • Lyrics
  • Attitude

Melody/musicality

As we mentioned above, the feel or tone of music can help provide you with the inspiration for the mood of your story. This can be very broad. Music has a lot of emotion to it, and you can manipulate it to be what you need. I find this works best for short stories, which tend to have a consistent tone throughout due to their length, but I’ve also had specific songs that have inspired scenes in novels. If you’re writing a sad scene, you can listen to music that says “sadness” to you. If you’d like a heavy, Gothic feel to your story, there’s music for that as well. In fact, if you know the tone or mood you’re going for, you can just go to YouTube and type “sad songs” or “mad songs” or whatever into the search bar, and someone’s probably made a video for it.

Lyrics

Lyrics are perhaps the most versatile way to use music as inspiration. A single line from a song can spark a scene, a character, a relationship. Whole songs can inspire plots or premises. A lot of them have a storytelling aspect to them that translates well for inspiration.

NOTE: Some genres may be more useful than others depending on what you’re working on and what genres you tend to write. I listen to a lot of symphonic metal, which I find very helpful for my main genre of high fantasy. If you’re not having any luck with what you typically listen to, you might try something else that may be more appropriate. I tend to switch music when working in different genres.

Attitude

Sometimes a song matches the exact attitude of a story or a character even if the tone or the lyrics aren’t the best fit. These can be helpful because they can help you round out ideas and get a better feel for what you’re going for.

An example of this: This song (For Your Entertainment, Adam Lambert) matches the attitude for one of the characters from Shards even though the music genre/lyrics aren’t exactly appropriate.

If you find a song that works for you in whatever manner, write it down somewhere. You can always make playlists on services that offer that option, but these are controlled by third parties, and sometimes songs become unavailable or services go out of business, and you lose what you’ve put together. It doesn’t hurt to have a list of songs/artists somewhere. If you keep a story organization/planning document, this can be a good place to keep track of what songs you’re using for inspiration (and for what aspect of the story the song goes with, whether it’s character, plot, a specific scene, etc.). If the inspiration is unrelated to a current story, you can also make note of the song in your idea file, with a link to the song on YouTube if applicable.

Related: Music Videos

Music videos add an additional layer into potential inspiration by adding a visual aspect to go along with the musical aspects. There’s a trend now to add a story into the music video, even if the song itself doesn’t have much of a story aspect. (See Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood video as an example of this.) I’ve found that, if you like the song in general, you may find the music video may also do something for you inspiration-wise.

Music is highly variable and how it inspires you may be completely different from how it inspires me or the next writer over. Feel free to experiment and find out what works best for you.

Leaving anything out, squiders? What song has given you some inspiration?

Where to Find Story Ideas: Research

Good afternoon, squiders. Today, in our search for inspiration, we’re going to talk about research.

This is exactly what it sounds like–you need to know something (or know more about something) for a story, and so you research it. This can happen at any stage of the process, from when you’re still in the outlining/planning/expanding premise phase to writing the draft to revision.

Personally, I like research at the very beginning, when you’re still considering what sort of story you’re going to write.

If you do your research before you get going, not only do you allow yourself the opportunity to make sure you understand the world you’re creating, so that it feels alive and real from the first page, but you may find some neat things that you can tie into your characterization or your plot. Some research may be integral to the very essence of your story, and if you don’t look first, you’ll miss it.

This varies from story to story. Sometimes you come into a story with a good idea of the story you want to tell, and you only need details to make sure you’re not going to sound like an idiot. Sometimes you have a vague idea, something like “I’d like to write about death spirits” or “alternatives to werewolves in modern day” or “would it be possible to hide an advanced civilization in Central Park.”

Your research can directly shape your story with the latter type. With my novel Shards, for example, I went into my research with “immortals that aren’t vampires” and the research that followed gave me my characters, their personalities, my plot, and a lot of important mythology that’s woven throughout.

With another story that I’ve yet to write, my research has given me two distinct paths to take: death magic or dark magic, both of which are awesome. As I flesh out the story more, I’ll be able to decide which set of research will be more beneficial for the story I want to tell.

Now, you can use research for other story aspects as well. If your story is set in a real place, you’d better be sure you have the details right for it. I have some authors I refuse to read because they can’t take the time to pick up the map and make sure they’ve stuck things in the right place, and there’s nothing more distracting than reading a book where every time something setting-related comes up it throws you out of the story.

(Also: check weather patterns and so forth so you’re not making it rain constantly in a desert environment, etc.)

Same thing for dealing with real cultures, communities, etc. No matter how obscure you think something is, someone who knows about it probably will read your book, and if you get it wrong, they’ll be annoyed.

NOTE: Just because you’ve done your research on a place doesn’t mean you need to hammer that in. It can be off-putting to read things like “She continued down Park Boulevard and turned right on Harrison Avenue, passing Jefferson and Washington before arriving at the CVS at the corner of Harrison and 15th right next to the Bennigan’s.”

Research can be time consuming, and you do run the risk of over-researching, where it’s taking up all of your creative time and you end up with more material than you need or could ever possibly use. (This can be okay if said research can be applied to multiple stories.) It can be helpful to periodically look at the information you’ve acquired to see if you have what you need or to see if you need to focus on a specific subject to round things out.

It also helps to organize your research so you get something useful out of it.

WARNING: Research is like a spice when it comes to actual story drafting. You just need a pinch of it here or there to give your story added depth and realism (even in a fantasy or science fiction world). Just because you know all the polite rules of etiquette for a particular time period doesn’t mean your readers want to read that. Authors can sometimes get caught up in a subject and want to show off their knowledge of it, but this is almost always detrimental to the story you’re trying to tell. Remember: just a pinch, just enough for some subtle seasoning.

As for where to do your research, libraries can be your best friends. They have nonfiction material on any subject you could ever want, usually in multiple formats (for example, I find videos helpful when doing place research because it gives you a sense of the life of the place) for whatever suits your fancy. The Internet is another good place to look, especially if you’re looking mostly for inspiration and are less concerned with how accurate the information is. Interviews with people are also a great source, for when you have a character that has a career you know nothing about or has life experience outside of your own. There are also specific writing resources to help you present things accurately, and most writing forums have a place where you can ask questions and get answers from people who know better than you on a subject.

For organizing, I find it helps to have a specific document for each story. General research that can be useful in the future can go into your idea file, but if you’re doing research for a particular story, having it all in one place rather than mixed in with your other ideas and research makes a huge difference. I usually make a big long list of useful tidbits and then periodically free write some connections between the information to get an idea of how the information can be used.

What do you think, squiders? Anything to add? Favorite place to do research? Best example of how research has helped you with a story?

Where to Find Story Ideas: People

Good morning, squiders! It’s Wednesday, so I suppose we should get to work for the week.

Today, continuing on with our inspiration theme, we’re going to talk about an endless font of ideas: other people.

There’s a reason ‘people watching’ can be so interesting. Behind every person is a life, a story, hopes and dreams and relationships and problems. Sure, most of these are probably mundane, but you don’t know, and so you can make them anything you want. That girl more running than walking down the sidewalk? Sure, she’s probably about to miss her bus, but maybe she knows the government agency she escaped from is on her tail and she’s trying to move quickly without being obvious.

That man who seems to be looking around like there’s a weight off his shoulder might finally be free of an abusive relationship. The person wandering around like they’re not sure where they are might just have been dropped off an alien spaceship. The girl with the infectious laughter could be a fairy just stopping through on her way back to the Other Side.

People watching can be used for a variety of uses. If you’re making up an identity for a random person, why are they there? What are they doing? What are their goals? You can use it for plot or character purposes, for worldbuilding or even just to find a story premise.

Back when I was in college, we had an assignment in my acting class where, over a period of several weeks, we found someone through people watching (I hopefully inconspicuously stalked a young woman through the local Barnes and Noble), wrote down what we noticed about them (appearance, mannerisms, etc.) and over time developed a backstory for them, identified a conflict, and wrote out a scene, which we then acted out in class (as our final, more or less). It was very emotionally intense, but also very rewarding. This process is easily transferable to the writing process.

Characterization is perhaps the most direct and obvious use for other people. Aside from people-watching, you can always take aspects of people you know or people you encounter and transfer them directly into fiction.

NOTE: Be careful to not be too obvious when using real people as characters. Aspects are almost always better. If real people can tell your character is supposed to be them, and take offense, you might find yourself accused of libel.

You can also take aspects from a variety of people and combine them into a new person.

Along similar lines, conversations can be useful for story fodder. Have you ever passed two people in conversation and just caught a line or two, but what you heard made you wonder what possible context said conversation could have? While I don’t recommend purposefully eavesdropping on people (it’s rude and people tend to notice), if you catch a conversation here or there that seems usable, it doesn’t hurt to make note of it for later.

Conversations can be useful for characterization, but they tend to be more useful for premises or plots, or to flesh out subplots or conflict within a story. Why would someone say that? What’s the story behind the comment? Who would say something like that, and what could they possibly mean by it?

Unlike some of the other methods, these can be a little harder to use spontaneously. A good snip of conversation can be rare, which is why it’s important to make note when you hear one. People watching can also be hit or miss, and can also be time consuming. If you have an afternoon available to sit in a pedestrian mall and see who you find, great! Again, you can always make note of interesting people or ideas that come to you for later, even if they’re not relevant at the moment.

Anything you would add, Squiders? Questions?

Where to Find Story Ideas: Pictures

Continuing on with our story idea theme, Squiders, today we’ll be discussing pictures. There is a reason that they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

image of sunlit door

Pictures can and often are a great way to find story ideas at any point in the process. You can use them for basically anything, from helping you flesh out the way a character or world works, to figuring out the tone or mood of a scene, to adding in a plot element you hadn’t previously thought about.

Pictures can work in two ways: enhancing what you already have, or adding in new things.

Sometimes you have a basic idea of something, like, for example, you know your story is set in a forest.  A forest is a pretty basic setting, and you may feel that as long as you have trees and flowers and your standard forest-type creatures (deer, bears, squirrels) you’re good to go.

However, there’s a big difference between this:

and this:

There’s a ton of different types of forests out there, and knowing what kind you’re using, using pictures to help you get a better idea of what you’re working, can make a world of difference in your prose.

Many authors keep story-specific inspiration boards to help them use images to enhance their stories. They often include settings, characters, objects–or maybe just abstract images that remind them of a plot point or a theme.

(You can see the boards for Shards and City of Hope and Ruin here.)

Pictures can also be helpful for adding in new elements or starting a new story. We talked about adding images to your story idea files previously, but you can also go through your file and see if any of the images you saved can fit into your current story if something is missing.

(For example, I used this image to help me flesh out one of the characters from a 2014 short story, A Bargain Beyond.)

If you can’t find anything you’ve already saved that works, you can always go looking. If you have a general idea what you’re looking for, you can also do a search on Google, Pinterest, deviantArt, or flickr. Otherwise, websites like Pinterest and deviantArt, if you’ve set up an account with them, will give you a “feed” of images, based on what’s popular and what you’ve previously shown an interest in, and sometimes scrolling through there can give you some useful images.

Got anything to add, Squiders? Your favorite use for images in writing or your favorite place to find them?