Since half the panelists including the moderator didn’t bother showing up for one of the panels I was on this weekend, here’s a write-up of the notes I didn’t get to use for “Turning Your Idea into a Story.” I don’t have a lot of stories to my name, but I’d like to think the ones I do have were at least wrought from some pretty odd ideas. Here are three suggestions I’ve used when stuck with an idea that wasn’t quite ready to get written. Suggestion 0.5 would be, “Salvage your unused scraps to make something else out of ’em.”
1) Overthink your idea.
There are always new approaches you can take to old stories, and if you’re the kind of person interested in writing fiction in 2018 then odds are you’re at least a little bit neurotic. So put that tendency to good use: trap yourself in your own head with your fledgling idea and over-analyze it until you’ve teased out some specifics.
Say you wanted to write a story about a pirate raiding ships and discovering buried treasure. Not the most original, but you can find a new angle on it if you look hard enough. What is it about the basic idea that makes you want to write it? Maybe it’s the romanticized freedom and self-determination of piracy that attracts you. Maybe you’re actually really interested in the nuts and bolts of seafaring, to the point where you’re annoyed that I think nuts and bolts were used on pirate ships. Occupy your hands by doing the dishes or dusting so that you’ll have nothing to do but think your idea to pieces, then pick out the ones that still look good when you separate them.
2) Have you tried… two ideas?
I have a list of things I’ve been meaning to try writing about in a Google doc. Nothing developed, just a three or four word description on each line. When I find something new I want to add to the list, I’ll go through the list and see if my new thing could dovetail with any of the old ideas.
For example, I’d been interested in the physiology of Baba Yaga’s hut for a good while. Was it a chicken whose body she turned into a hut, or an existing hut to which she added legs? Are the legs made of chicken meat? Does the house have blood? The line “Baba Yaga hut meat?” sat near the top of my list for about a year. Then, after hearing a friend of mine talk about his experience on a Food Network game show, I thought that might be a neat little story idea. I took it to the list, paired it up with the Baba Yaga idea, and then this happened. So throw something totally unpiratical at your pirate if he still isn’t going anywhere.
3) Figure out your characters.
Ideas are static things, but stories aren’t. I mean, there are experimental ones that are, but if you’re writing one of those then you’re already beyond the realm of general advice.
How your story progresses depends on the choices characters make, and the choices they make depends on who they are — their temperament, approach to problem-solving, Myers-Briggs type or zodiac sign or whatever you use to figure out how your characters tick. Is the specific pirate you’re writing about the sort who’d go looking for a map with a giant X on it, or just run their ship aground and start digging on any island they come across?