Friday, March 27, 2020

How to Come Up with a Story Idea

PSA: Today is the last day to grab your free ebook copy of Colors of Fear! Do it now.

This blog post is going to be a little bit different.

I was going to simply tell you how to come up with a story idea, but we all know the saying.

"Show, don't tell."

So, sure, I will explain the story generating process to you. However, I will also show you how I personally would go about coming up with a story idea from scratch.

Yes, this means that I'm going to build a full-on story idea while writing this post. You're about to get a behind-the-scenes look at how my brain works, so grab some popcorn and strap in.

1. Start with the one thing you have. Chances are, you have one single, not-super-helpful concept rolling around your brain. When I was beginning to write Vengeance Hunter, it was "Vampires." A more recent project (This Pain Inside) began with me just really, really wanting to write an underwater sci-fi.

Take that concept that won't stop bugging you and write it down. You'll need it later. It absolutely, 100% does not need to be fleshed out in any way. It can be bizarre, random, something that you look at and think, "That is not a story idea."

You're right: It is not a story idea. But it will be. Have patience, my young padawan learner.

My idea is in blue:

Starting with: A monster that steals everybody's left shoe

2. Pinpoint what story element is particularly important to you as an author. Do you focus on character-driven plots? Are themes a driving factor in your writing? Maybe you like twisting tropes? Most writers have a specific focus in their writing. The thing that shines in every single one of their stories because they like writing it and can't help but insert it into their stories.

For me, it's theme. Theme is very important to me, so I usually pick a theme I want to explore at the very beginning of any brainstorming phase. I know other authors who pick a world-building element ("what if a ring had the power to rule them all?") or a character type ("traumatized chosen one boi").

Why so sirius, Harry?

Maybe you personally really like playing with plot-driven stories. Awesome! Write it down.

Story element: plot-driven

3. Pick a mood. Do you want this story to be funny? Sad? Intense? Dark (yes, please!)? Romantic (you lost me)? Pick a mood. It can be random if you like, though hopefully you can match it with your starting point.

For instance, my above starting point (a monster that steals everybody's left shoe) has the potential to be funny. However, it could also be tragic or scary, depending on why the monster is stealing only the left shoe. Do your best to match the mood with the starting point. But also be sure to choose a mood that you are personally drawn to, because why write something you aren't interested in? For instance, I'm in a bit of a what's-that-in-the-shadows mood, so I'm going with...

Mood: Scary

4. Pick your genre. You probably already have a genre you're prone to writing. Do you feel like writing that genre again? Or do you want to try something different?

Make sure that this genre fits the elements you already have. For instance, I currently have a left-shoe-stealing monster, a scary vibe, and a focus on plot. This doesn't really lend itself to romance or historical fiction. It maybe lends itself to sci-fi or fantasy or, if we get real creative, a thriller. It definitely lends itself to horror and supernatural fiction.

Genre: Horror 

5. Start putting the pieces together. Let's see what we have so far. We have a scary, plot-driven horror story that will somehow incorporate a monster that is stealing everybody's left shoe.

Get out a pen and paper and start seeing how many different ways that story can go. Here are mine:

Villagers that rely on trading animal furs find the severed left foot of a strange, unknown creature in one of their traps. A few days later, the villagers' left shoes start to disappear in the night. And then their left socks. And then their actual left feet. [insert scream here] The village must rally and hunt down the beast before it continues to exacts its revenge.  

A bit goofy? Yeah. But give it the right twist (a mysterious, fairytale kind of vibe, perhaps?) and it could be something. Besides, I could even ditch the "everybody's left shoe" part of my idea and just go for this: 

Villagers that rely on trading animal furs find the severed left foot of a strange, unknown creature in one of their traps. The next night, a trader tries to leave the village to sell goods at the nearest city only to be caught in a horrifying booby trap that robs her of her left foot. The villagers soon find that their village is surrounded by traps. To leave is to risk maiming or death, but to stay is starvation. And with each night the monster grows bolder in its quest for revenge. 

Okay, not bad. But let's try an entirely new route, just for funsies. 

There is a monster outside Character's house, and it wants to kill him. He's seen it staring at him outside his window, heard its vicious howl. The neighbors say he's imagining things, but he doesn't think he is. If he just stays inside with all entrances locked, he'll be safe. 

But then one of his left shoes disappears. Then another. And another. Each missing shoe is replaced with something unsettling: a dead bird, a painting of a woman with her eyes scratched out. The creature is inside his house, taunting him. Character must find a way to escape from the monster before it kills him or drives him insane.

I personally like this idea, so I'll stop here. However, note that I could keep going if none of the above three ideas struck my fancy. I could also go back to my very first idea and keep tweaking it. Or I could swap the genre to, say, dark fantasy and see if that sparks any new ideas.

Keep playing with it until you find something you like.

6. Keep building out. You may have a basic story idea, but it's not ready yet. There will probably be some fairly large holes. Make a list of questions you have about your story and try to fit the answer with your current concept.

What is the world-building in this story? Well, the monster could be anything. Maybe it's real. Maybe it's imagined because Character is a little bit bonkers. Maybe Character is part of a cruel science experiment to see how the human brain deals with perceived supernatural events. The possibilities are endless. I personally like plot-twist type stories, so I'm going with the science experiment one. 

What is Character's backstory? I'm a sucker for broken, underdog character types, so let's say Character has always been a bit jumpy. He isn't the most stable person. He use to have delusions of seeing this monster in his closet all the way up until the age of seventeen, but he's been making great strides since then. He's now in his 30s, has a job, leads a normal (if not somewhat unhappy) life, and hasn't seen the monster again. Up until the beginning of my story, that is. 

7. Find your ending. Story ideas aren't particularly useful if they don't come with endings. Write down the first endings that come to your mind and see which one strikes your fancy. 

Character has a full breakdown, ends up stumbling across the scientists who have been putting him through all of this stress, mistakes them for the real monster, kills them, ends up in jail. 

A bit dark and pointless for me, so I'll pass on that ending. 

Character ends up almost losing his mind, but holds himself together through sheer will. The head of the science department finds out about this unauthorized experiment and shuts it down. However, it turns out that the monster is real because the scientists were stupid enough to get their experimental design from an old folk tale they believed to be false. The monster follows the scientists home and begins to torture them with similar mind games. The head of the science department goes to Character for help. Character must face his fears and find a way to stop the monster once and for all. 

Yup. I like that one. It's weird, it's interesting, it's scary. It has all of the elements I had originally wanted, and it only took me an hour to generate (30 minutes, actually, if we subtract the time it took me to explain the process while also coming up with the idea). 

Pretty awesome, right? 

There are a lot of ways to come up with a story idea, but this is the one that I've found to be the most effective. 

Want to give it a whirl? Leave a comment below and tell me what you come up with! 

And don't forget to stop by for my first live reading of Colors of Fear this Sunday!

Related articles: 

7 Tips for Re-Writing Your Story
8 Tips for Developing a Strong Theme for Your Novel

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  1. when you accidentally click out of the window and have to try to recall what witty* thing you wrote in the comment box that is now missing (insert crying emoji)

    Heck, I love how imaginative that story idea is! It's so interesting to see how your brain moves through them. I love me a good monster story, though I feel that most of them are relegated to the cheesy Syfy sort of tales. Plz write a monster story sometime :)

    On-topic: laying out the steps with examples like this is really helpful to me. Being able to iterate through and make the choices in that deliberate way is a great road map.

    *I just dream of being witty

  2. Thank you for these tips! I've bookmarked your blog for future reference :)


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