Being a Better Writer: Fleshing Out Ideas – From Idea to Story

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday post of Being a Better Writer! Sorry for the delay. As many of you likely guessed, I was given a morning shift at work to deal with. Half-shift, but even then there’s the prep time around it, afterwards, travel time, etc … Hence why I’d rather sell more books. But that’s a case for another post. Being late, better I dive right into today’s topic!

Now, I don’t actually remember the circumstances by which this topic came to be on the list (could have been LTUE), but either way, the topic is a good one. Hang out in a writing-centric thread online or attend a writing workshop—sands, even look in the comments of a public page for an author or attend a panel—and eventually, probably fairly quickly, you’ll hear a question or  comment that’s a lot like the following:

I have this great idea/concept/story/character, but the moment I try to sit down and write them, I just run out of steam. I can’t get it/them written. How do I do this?

Now, the exact phrasing may vary, but trust me, you’ll here the sentiment, echoed from a number of beginning writers. And you won’t even have to wait long. It’s a question that comes up all the time.

And you know, to be fair, it’s not exactly a bad question. A poor one, maybe, but not a bad one. And it’s one that’s often reflected by the faces and situations of many more in whatever assorted audience is present than the one who asked. Crud, I’m certain that it’s a question that some of the authors who have been forced to scramble for an answer themselves once voiced, though perhaps internally.

But … it’s still a poor question. I certainly wouldn’t call it a good one. Not poor enough that it isn’t worth tackling in this post, but not the best question either.

Why? Well, let me answer that before I get into the deeper-roots behind the question. The question is a poor one because 90% of the time the individual asking it is asking for a silver bullet. A solution that doesn’t exist. I entirely suspect that if, when asked this question, whoever was asked responded with “Well, are you using X program?” or “Are you sitting in this kind of chair?” there would be a massive sale of said product in the audience that had asked.

Again, I shouldn’t batter these poor souls too badly. After all, they are beginners. But as beginners, when asking this question, the answer they get is hardly the answer they want (and sometimes, they’ll tell you). They’re inexperienced enough to think that all it takes is an idea, a pen or a keyboard, and a little bit of writing, and boom! Story! And the problem with that is that, as all writers know, there is no silver bullet. There’s no magic “thing” or element that anyone can just do to take a story from an idea to a finished product (or at least a halfway competent one). And in that regard, the question is poor.

Now, that said, it wouldn’t take much to “fix” it so that we can give it a real answer. If we rearrange it a little, tweak a few of the words a bit, we get something much more workable. Something like:

I have a good idea/story/concept/character, but the when I sit down to try and write it, I start having trouble. How do I take it from an idea to a finished work? What are the steps there?

Believe it or not, I’ve also heard questions like this asked by aspiring writers, and right away, there’s a small but subtle difference in the way they’ve asked. The former, poorer question just asks “How can I make my idea a story?” While the second? It asks “What do I need to do to take my idea to being a complete story?”

This is a much better question because as I said earlier, there’s no one simple thing you can do to transform an idea into a finished product. It reminds me, actually, of a lesson taught in the scriptures (minor religious moment here, readers, duck and cover!) where a man who wanted to be given the power of God to perform a miracle couldn’t, and asked the Lord why he couldn’t. The answer he was given was that he’d given the matter no thought outside simply asking. He’d done no study, no effort. He’d just seen what he’d wanted and asked for it, expecting that no further effort would be required on his own.

Creating a written work is a lot like that. You can’t just expect to sit down with an idea and create a finished product. You need to go into it expecting to expend a great deal of personal effort, thought, and commitment.

It’s going to be work, plain and simple. You will expend effort. You will learn tips and tricks, ins and outs. You will study, you will practice, you will fail, and you will expend more energy than you ever thought possible. Developing an idea into a finished product is not something that happens overnight.

Now, there’s one other thing I want to say about this before I really start to dive into the guts of how we go from point A to point Z (or whatever it is). One more bit of lead-in, like the reminder of work, that helps set the stage, especially for those who still aren’t sure where the stage is: good ideas are a dime a dozen.

Yes, I know, we all value our ideas and hold onto them. Some authors carry around little notebooks that they can jot story ideas down into. Others probably use phones, or note cards, or whatever. But you know what?

All of us know how useless those “ideas” usually are.

You’ve heard that old saying that “ideas are a dime a dozen?” Well, they are. Without someone willing to take that idea and flesh it out, the idea is worthless. Much like a teen I recall from years ago who said when Apple launched wireless earbuds ‘Well, I had that idea first.’

Who cares? He didn’t do anything with it. And neither did the thousands of other people who thought as their earbud cord tangled up again “Man, wouldn’t it be nice to have wireless earbuds?” Except none of them did anything good with that decent idea either, until at last someone did, and they’re the ones that reaped the reward for that idea.

Point being, everyone has good ideas. What separates the success from the “idea man” is the execution.

You have a good idea you want to turn into a story? Good for you. Go turn it into a story. And if it doesn’t work, don’t over-commit, double down, and throw yourself into a death-spiral over it. There are other good ideas. Thousands of them. The loss of one good idea just means that maybe it wasn’t a good idea, or maybe you aren’t skilled enough yet to tackle it (note the emphasis). So don’t be cagey about your ideas, or over-committed to them. Again, there are other good ideas.

All right, with all this lead-in said, and the stage set, how about now I get around to actually answering the question itself. How does one take an idea for a character or a plot and turn it into a finished item?

The answer is that you flesh it out.

Seem simple? Well, like many things with writing, it only sounds thus. But at the core of things, that’s what the young writer having difficulty with their story needs to do.

See, many young, beginning writers are asking this question and reporting difficulty specifically because they aren’t fleshing anything out. So when they sit down to write, what happens is that they tend to just write out their idea in long-form, rather than developing them further. And, like the earbud example given above, there’s a large degree of difference between the idea and the finished, completed set of functional, wireless earbuds. These beginning writers are getting stuck because they’re sitting down to write out their idea, not turn that idea into a fully-fledged story. So as soon as the idea runs out of steam … so does their writing.

What they need to do is stop thinking of the ideas as the story, and see it for what it is: An idea. From there, they can take the first step towards transforming it into something greater. To do that, they need to take the idea, and from it, build a concept.

Confused? Look at it this way, going back to the wireless earbuds again (man, that analogy is just the gift that keeps on giving). Thousands of people had the idea for wireless earbuds. But the first one to take it further moved past the idea stage and into the conceptual stage. By which I mean they probably started doodling concepts on a napkin at a restaurant or whatever.

No joke; don’t snicker now. You know those Pixar movies like Toy StoryMonsters Inc. and Up? Did you know that each of those, along with a few others, were initially doodled on napkins at a local restaurant the Pixar founders were having lunch at? I’m serious, Google it. They had a bunch of ideas over the course of the lunch, and right then and there they started sketching concepts on napkin paper (which I think they still have).

A concept, then, is kind of a workshop of making a workable piece out of an idea. A concept for the aforementioned earbuds, for example, might involve a few sketches detailing the initial idea, and from there expanding into possible ways to make the idea work, complete with problems, theorized solutions, and unknown variables. Nothing concrete mind, unless something really “clicks” at the conceptual stage, but it’s a start. It’s a way of expanding on the idea, seeing how it may or may not work.

Part of this process of conceptualizing is asking questions. Generally the basics—who, what, when, where, why, and how?—but other, more complex questions can arise based on those few. Again, the idea is to expand the idea and then fill in the blank spots.

Likewise, turning an idea into a story or a character undergoes much the same process. Someone starts with a good idea, but from there, starts “doodling.” You have an idea for a story about how a girl saves her town from a fire-breathing dragon? That’s a good idea, but ask yourself the questions above. Who is the girl? The town? The dragon? Do they have family? Friends? What is the point of the story? Or crud, the town? When does this story take place? Where does it take place? Why is it taking place? Why is the dragon threatening the town in the first place? Why is the girl the one that stops it?  How is she going to do about this? How is the dragon threatening the place? How is the town dealing with it? The girl’s family?

See where this is going? Simply by asking this basic questions and then trying to answer them, you’re taking an idea from … Well, an idea, to something conceptual. You’re building it up.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you’ll have all the answers up front. You may not know how the girl’s town is going to deal with it, or her family, when you sit down to start actually writing … but simply by engaging the conceptual process, you will be thinking about it. Somewhere, in the back of your mind, you’ll be considering it and weighing it as you move past the conceptual stage, and with luck, those thoughts will bear fruit.

Okay, so first in the process of moving from idea to finished product is the conceptual stage. Remember to be flexible in this stage. After all, nothing is set in stone yet. There’s still plenty of room to scratch down alternate solutions or even admit you don’t have a solution and come at things from another angle. You can even have multiple answers that may work to some questions. Don’t worry about it.

But now, with this done, what comes next? Well, you take those concepts you’ve jotted out, and you sort through them. Look at the answers you’ve come up with, the expansion you’ve done, and start looking at how they might piece together. Look at the gaps between two parts of this “story” you’ve assembled and think about how they fit together. It’s a bit like taking a single image with a fuzzy picture and expanding it into a puzzle. With the conceptual part you refine the image a little, choosing what parts to include in your image. Now you step back and look at the parts and ask yourself what works best where. Is the “picture” best with the girl as the main focus? Or maybe another character? Where do all these conceptual “portions” of what you’re building fit? What “image” takes place by shifting perspective and setting. Here especially is the place where you want to think about story form and the like. Climaxes, down points, the works. Research, too, if you’re not sure how something works, or maybe even more brainstorming.

Anyway, as you do this, and you start gravitating towards a “picture” that you like, holes will start to appear. That’s fine. This is normal. Move two subjects around in a picture, and you’ll leave gaps, after all. These gaps, rather than being a problem, will be the next step in “fleshing out” your story. As you settle on an arrangement for your concept that you like, these gaps will naturally occur. Let them, but take note, and start to think of how you can fill them as you move forward.

Recognize what’s happening here? You’re taking the concepts you expounded from that idea and you’re assembling them into a FrameworkA framework that will be the basis for a complete story!

But let’s not get excited and ahead of ourselves. As I said earlier, as you assemble your concepts into this framework, gaps are going to appear, both small and large.

You’ll want to fill in those large gaps first. And by large gaps, I mean something that needs something conceptual slotted into it. Something “large” in the context of the story, primary and central to its purpose. Going back to our “puzzle image” comparison, these large gaps are going to be instantly noticeable, so we need to fill them in. You will need to fill them in.

However, once that’s done, and your framework is complete, well … guess what? Now you’ve got the makings of a story! Your framework is complete … and you’re ready to start writing!

Well, almost. Remember those small gaps? You haven’t figured those out yet … but unless one of them feels like a large gap, you may not need to. These smaller gaps? You can probably fill them in with a quick-run through the framework of your story, adding small little pieces that fill in the cracks. If not, you will need to fill them in, but you also may be able to do that as you write your story.

What’s that? Write? Yes, you heard me. By this point, if you look back at your idea and what it’s become, you’ll see why, too. It’s no longer an idea, it’s a framework. Vastly expanded over that original idea. Now is the time to write.

And as you write? Fill in those little gaps. As you come to them … or even in advance as you think about them, fill them in. They’re small, so filling them in shouldn’t be that hard. Think of them as … background details, in a sense, if we go with that picture assembly analogy from earlier. Like what the main character’s status with their town is, or what their relationship is with their neighbor. Whatever it happens to be. You’ll fill it in, even if it takes you a bit.

So now you wordsmith. Build on that framework, shaping and typing and writing until you reach the end, and you have a story.

Of course, it’s not done yet. You’ll have a draft. There will still be editing and tuning. But what you won’t have is an idea. No, instead you’ll have something that you’ve developed and built into a full story.

So, how do you go from an idea to a finished story? Start with the idea, but don’t forget that good ideas are a dime a dozen. From there, conceptualize. Ask yourself basic questions about the story or idea. From there, take those concepts and arrange them into a framework. Fill in the larger gaps, and then, write and lay words around that framework. Fill in the small gaps as you go, and …

You’ll have a story.

Now, one last thing to mention. You can, if you’re a discovery writer, do this discovery style, by writing while asking yourself these questions and letting your mind answer them, then writing the concept, framework, and large/small gaps all in one go. But if you’re the type who already wanted to ask the question at the beginning of this prompt, maybe try things the slow way first.

Then sit back, and look with pride at what you’ve accomplished. You know, before the next step in the process starts (editing!).

Good luck. Now get to it.

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