3 Steps to Turn Ideas into Stories

Don’t dwell on searching for something perfectly original. You’re unlikely to find it, and if you do, it may be too unfamiliar for editors and readers if you want to sell the story.

I’ve heard some authors say they can turn any idea into a story. Not always a great story, but a workable, fully functional solid story. How do they do it?

The Work Begins

I wrote earlier about finding ideas, or at least, priming our brains to make connections to discover ideas. These raw ideas aren’t usually enough to turn directly into stories. They may be a what-if, an interesting character, a situation, or a setting. We might immediately connect some of these like a character and a situation. A good start, but even for a short story, we need something more. Something has to happen; a realization made; some change in the situation or the character.

Then there’s the process to reveal the change. A beginning, middle, and end. Even in non-traditional, non-Western story structures there’s an entry into the story, things happen, and an exit. Maybe in three parts, five, seven, or a serial structure. Stories also have a tone, a voice beyond character voice.

“True alchemy lies in this formula: ‘Your memory and your senses are but the nourishment of your creative impulse’.”

― Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

So how do we find the story? Personally, I have to build the story. I rarely find it.* 

 3 steps to build a story framework

My process is to write these down on a piece of paper or into a note-taking app. I am less successful entering ideas directly into my drafting document.

1. Take inventory and ask: 
  • Is there a character? The story has to involve someone or something with recognizable human needs, wants, desires, goals. An alien protagonist in a science fiction story has to share some traits with readers if the story is to be comprehensible, even if many of the characters traits are, well, alien.
  • Is there a setting? Where will the story take place? My early drafts are often just dialogue in empty space, but I do have a rough idea where the characters are. I just haven’t taken the time in early drafts to work out the details.
  • Is there a situation? A problem the character must solve? This could be internal like wanting to change something about themselves, or external with an antagonist or force of nature. The more I read and write, the more I’m leaning away from the idea that stories must have conflict and into the idea stories need tension. This allows me to explore many types of conflict that result in tension, which is what keeps the reader reading, and less on the form of the conflict itself. I’ll delve into this in a future post.
2. Iterate

For me, this is where my best stories have come from. Once the questions in #1 have answers, I go back and answer them again. I Look for deeper, less obvious answers. My first answer is likely close to a cliché, if not actually one. I iterate through this several times until I feel my story has unique or at least an interesting, uncommon take. Don’t dwell on this searching for something perfectly original. You’re unlikely to find it, and if you do, it may be too unfamiliar for editors and readers if you want to sell the story.

3. Build Structure

From those base elements, I build the story’s structure. I’ll also look at structure in a series of posts because entire books exist on the subject. For now, all we need to get started are: an entry point into the story, an idea of what achieves the end of the story, and that exit from the story.

  • I find even if I think I have a beginning; I need the ending next. I need to know where/how to leave the story. Once I have that, I may revisit the beginning. I like stories where the end echoes the start. That’s not universal, but does often make for a satisfying ending.
  • When I know the beginning and ending, figuring out what happens starts with taking an understanding of my character(s) and checking how they would genuinely react to the situation, and in context with the setting. I note a general list of events or actions that need to happen between the start and end. This may not hold up once the drafting starts, but it can be enough to have the confidence to start.

Time to draft

At this point I have enough to draft. It may be all I need for a short story. Novels take additional work. Additional ideas, settings and characters, iterated through these steps and questions for as much breadth and depth as the novel needs.

Whether plotting or writing into the dark or a hybrid of both, having these basic elements defined helps keep us on track. Completing a full draft is often the most troublesome part of writing, especially for new writers. I think you’ll find using this process you can produce a draft you can work with through revisions. Revising is also a topic for another day, but go forth. Conjure ideas and write a first draft.

*Okay, full disclosure. I’ve had instances where all the elements of a story came into my mind at once. My brain made all the connections for beginning, middle, and end. The character, setting, and central conflict or tension were there at once. The mind can operate in amazing ways. But this is rare. Expecting it to happen is like expecting perfect weather every day for a two-week vacation in New England. It could happen, but it’s highly unlikely.

Kevin Fellows
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.