Tip 2: How to find (and build up) your story idea

The second post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work.

Last week, I thought we would start with beginnings: specifically, how to find your story’s beginning. In doing so, I realised I’d skipped a beat: how to find your idea in the first place.

This week, we’re looking at how to find and build up your story idea.

Ideas are fickle things but anyone who has felt the itch to write has likely felt the mental knock of an idea.

There are, obviously, instances where you have the urge to write and no idea on the table, which is a painful situation to be in (and a situation I hope we can get rid of today!) but generally speaking, if you’ve felt the urge to write you’ve already had an inkling of what you’re going to write.

The problem is, ideas rarely come to us as fully fledged book plans (can you imagine if they did?) and when they do come, they tend to arrive in the form of crazy questions: what if time started to run backwards? What if sharks got swept into a tornado? What if you woke up one morning and you’d transformed into a cockroach?

Finally, once do you find yourself with an idea in your head you may start to wonder whether it’s even big enough for a book… or if it’s too big.

We’re going to tackle all of this today.

How to find an idea (if you don’t already have one)

I could start this paragraph with some witty quote from a long-established author on the elusive nature of ideas and how, if you’re really talented or really lucky, you won’t have to go too far to find them, but I reckon we’ve all had our fill of inspirational quotes (given I am writing this in the wake of 2020, for all you time-travellers) and frankly, ideas can be hard to come by.

Sometimes we’re lucky, and they fall on us from no-where. I got the idea for my first ever novel (which was absolutely getting rid of all my writing demons and will definitely not see the light of day) as I was stepping out of my Mum’s car to go to the train station in South London. Nothing special happened, there was no sunbeam of light, no ‘aahhhh’ moment, my brain just presented me with: What if there were people on Mars? And what if they were fugitives on Earth, because they were running from something?

BAM. Isn’t it lovely when ideas come to you like that?

Honestly: that is the first and last time (so far) that that has happened to me. But the good news is: there are other ways to find ideas.

As I write historical fiction I tend to find my ideas from historical events (it’s no spoiler to say that my brief foray into sci-fi didn’t turn out great) so for me, a lot of the ideation process is reading about historical people and following Wiki threads further and further back until I find a story or an element that I think I can work with (I’ll elaborate on exactly what draws me to different stories and what has me walk away from others once I’m done with current manuscript.)

If history isn’t your thing then fear not – there are plenty of ways to find an idea.

You could try:

  • Listening to music and trying to see what pictures form in your mind
  • Picking up a book, opening it in a random place and choosing a word. Keep doing this until you have a whole cloud of them!
  • People watching (somewhat harder now the world is in lockdown) – but try giving people that you see backstories!

When I’m trying to get my brain into a creative mode I tend to watch a movie and try to turn the plot into something completely unbelieveable (basically what they did with Pride, Prejudice & Zombies). Take a move you know and love (let’s use Forrest Gump as an example) and try and switch things up by asking questions:

  • What if Forrest was a girl?
  • What if, instead of being set in America, it was set in rural Romania?

Just let your brain run wild, let it be silly and come up with more and more outlandish ideas – because you just might strike upon one that makes you go “hold on a minute…”

Need help finding an idea?

Download my 11 page guide on connecting to your creativity!

Inside you’ll find:

  • How to find your creative zone
  • Tips to help you connect with your creativity
  • A [short] writing exercise to get your brain ticking

What to do once you think you’ve found your idea

Once you’ve found your idea, or once you at least think you have (sometimes we can’t be sure) this is what you absolutely have to do.

G i v e i t s o m e s p a c e.

Think of an idea like a good bottle of red wine. The longer you let it sit, the better it becomes.

Think of an idea like a good bottle of red wine. The longer you let it sit, the better it becomes. Take your idea around with you for a week. Go to bed thinking about it (you’ll be amazed how many plot holes you’ll fix with this technique but more on this another week). Mull it over in the shower. Make notes anywhere you tend to scribble: what if X? What about Y?

The trick, in these heady, early days of having an idea is not to limit yourself. Let your brain click through all the possibilities. Take the idea I had about the Martian fugitives. I might have asked myself:

  • What could they be running from?
  • How did they get to Earth?
  • What do they look like?
  • What if they could read minds?
  • What if they were green? Or pink? Or yellow?
  • What if one of them has disappeared?

Even if there’s a part of your brain thinking ‘this is silly’ write it down. All of it. And keep writing until you’ve exhausted all of the possibilities your brain can conjure. Then circle (or underline, or highlight, however you roll) any of them that have promise.

And then sit with them again.

What to do if you’re not a planner

Even if you’re a pantser, try not to dive straight into your writing when you get the spark of a new idea.

The first danger of getting a good idea, sometimes even a great idea is that we get so excited we immediately whip out a piece of paper and start writing. And that’s not, in and of itself, bad. But if there’s something I’ve learned from running an idea off the tracks is if you start to put pen to paper too prematurely you can find yourself starting to question how good the idea is.

If you sit with it for a few (days/weeks/months – your writing timeline is your writing timeline) then at least you will have fleshed out some of the basics, touched upon some of the doubts that sit at the back of your mind and shone a light on them.

When an idea feels too big

By now you should at least have some scribbled notes. The more you scribble, the more you explore some of the bullet points you wrote down in your ideation phase, the more you might find yourself thinking “perhaps this is too much for one book.”

My advice, in this instance, is to get a bit more hands-on in the planning before you make this decision (if you are a planner, if you’re a pantser then I would say wait for the moment where you realise you have too many ends to tie up in one climax. That’ll be a sure-fire way to know if you need a second book or not.) Once you start propping your ideas up on a structured plan you’ll be able to tell if you can achieve everything in one narrative arc, or if you’ll need a second (or even a third) book in order to do it.

Way back when I was starting my foray into the time period I’m writing about now, I had started with an idea. This idea turned into a series of post-it notes stuck onto a big sheet of cardboard I’d found. One of those post-it notes said “ten years’ war.” That alone was a pretty big hint that I wasn’t going to be able to cover all of the ideas off in one novel.

When an idea feels too small

If an idea feels too small then you simply need more time to think about it. Don’t forget, a single idea (e.g. Martian fugitives) becomes a lot richer when you start to think about it under different headers.

Characters: Who could my characters be? Would I follow one main character, or two? Would I write from one point of view, or many? What backstories could they have? How could those backstories fit into the plot?

Setting: Where does this story take place? Does the setting have any significance (and if it doesn’t, can I give it some?) Are there multiple locations, or a couple?

Conflict: What kind of conflict will my characters come across? Will it mostly be internal, coming from within? Or will it be external? Weather patterns, evil governments, secret agencies?

If your idea feels too small, don’t panic. A story begins with a question (usually) but it is not just the question. It is about all the people, places and things effected by that question.

In short: how to find (and build up) your story idea

There are lots of different ways to find an idea, and the trick is to try them all and see which one works for you! Music, writing prompts and observation are good places to start if you’re stuck. Once you’ve found your idea, try not to make it fit into a box just yet. Sit with it. Explore it. Write down every possibility you can think of and don’t judge yourself, don’t let the voice in your head say ‘that’s stupid’ or ‘that’s silly.’ Likewise, don’t let the voice in your head tell you ‘it’s too big an idea for one story’ – you’ll find that out later when (/if) you plan it out. If the idea feels too small – don’t panic. You’ve still got a whole cast of characters to explore, and if we know anything about characters – it’s that they tend to run off and do their own thing!

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2 Replies to “Tip 2: How to find (and build up) your story idea”

  1. What a comprehensive post. I love people watching to get ideas! I used to hang out in Starbucks (pre-pandemic) and put on headphones, though the music won’t be on and I’ll be creeping on other people’s conversations just to get ‘real-world’ descriptions for my characters. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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