Writing Process–Developing a Story Idea

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile000502489881

When I spoke to students recently,  they asked a lot of questions and some very good ones.  Naturally, though, one of the questions, which won’t surprise any writer who talks about his writing, was ‘where do you get your ideas?’  This question is practically mandatory any time you mention writing to anyone…whether you’re speaking at a conference or telling a stranger at the grocery store what you do.

But as I thought about it, the question has another angle too, one that was asked later on by another student.  How do you develop a story–a nearly three hundred page, finished book–out of a tiny spark of an idea?

Because I write genre/commercial fiction, the following will be heavily skewed toward anyone writing for a particular genre’s readers. 

The genre itself:  What do you enjoy reading? I read mysteries all the time and it’s what I’m most familiar with as a genre.  It makes the writing a lot simpler because I know the genre’s specifications inside out.  It’s also important to know, if you’re writing commercial fiction, what the readers of the genre enjoy.  What’s popular in your specific genre?  Amazon makes this type of research easy by ranking books by popularity by genre.

The spark:  This is whatever idea was the seed for the story.  For me, it’s always the murder victim, since I write mysteries.   I start with the seed of the story, fleshing it out by asking what about this person would make four of five people want to get rid of her. So, for me, it’s genre-specific.   What is happening in your story world to make everything change for the worse?

Characters:  If this is the first book in a series for me, I keep this part fairly basic early on, so I don’t get overwhelmed.  I brainstorm a protagonist, making the character as complex as possible.  What makes this protagonist special or different from other characters?  What skills does she have?  During this process, I’m also considering flaws, and what the main character desperately cares about and fears.  How could this character grow during the course of the novel as she navigates all her obstacles?

I brainstorm characters to create minor conflict for the protagonist, apart from the murderer  (maybe a relative who demands a lot of the protagonist’s time and attention or who the protagonist really cares for).   Or someone who  stands in the protagonist’s way or doesn’t believe in her.

I develop suspects who all stand to gain in some way from the victim’s death (in your story, this might be an antagonist).

Setting: Are you writing  a real setting or a fictional setting?  There are pros and cons to both.  If you’re writing an actual place, you’ll need to be very accurate and careful not to mention too many places that could date your book (businesses close, even successful ones).  If you make your setting up, you need to make it real by mapping it out somehow so that it stays consistent.  I do this by basing my made-up towns on real ones in two of my series. I just change the store names and the name of the town and get the best of both worlds.  And I make notes in a story bible.

Points to consider when evaluating an idea:

How much conflict can this idea engender on its own?  How could I increase that with internal conflict for the main character, antagonists, etc.?

Is this idea big enough to expound on for 75,000 words?

What sets this idea apart? What is different about it?  Is it too derivative…and if it is, how can I make it unique?

My process for the very start of a book, summed up:

I come up with a murder victim and the cause of death (you’d start with whatever your story spark is).  I ask who would want to murder the victim (suspects for me, characters for you).  I brainstorm complex protagonists (think flaws, strengths, what the protagonist desperately cares about and fears). I think of characters (not necessarily suspects or the story’s murderer) who might be able to provide conflict for my protagonist or put her in the position where she has to make uncomfortable choices.  I choose a setting.  I write back cover copy (which may never be used) to sum up the story premise.  Then I start my outline.

Everyone has different ways of developing an idea.  What works for you?








Image: MorgueFile: Kenn W. Kiser

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28 thoughts on “Writing Process–Developing a Story Idea

  1. Elizabeth – Thanks for sharing your strategy for developing your plots. I’m exactly the same when it comes to where I start. I start with the victim and then the people in her or his life. That’s the heart and soul of a story, really. Then later, once I establish who the killer is and what the motive is I can go back and figure out how my sleuth finds out. But to me it needs to start with the victim.

    1. Margot–For a mystery, the whole story revolves around the victim. Different from other genres, really, where the protagonist might be at the center of a story. The sleuth is vitally important to story likability, but I’m with you–the victim is the place to start for mystery writing.

  2. I usually see the ending first and start planning a way to get there. My current manuscript came from a single idea and a storyline from a song. Although I’m starting to wonder if I will be able to flesh it out into a book length story.

  3. My novel evolved organically without plotting or thinking about character development. Now I am having to go back and make sure the characters are rounded, that there is enough conflict, etc. I wish I could work from an outline – it would be so much easier. Thanks for this, Elizabeth.

    1. Karen–There’s nothing wrong at all with not planning or outlining…but you’re right, it can make things go a lot faster when you figure out the basics ahead of time. I’ve done it both ways, though.

  4. Hmmm…being a rather free type I tend to get a idea and then flounder about for quite a long time. The first mystery I wrote, for instance, didn’t start as one. I think that I tend to write somewhat backwards, hurling stuff down on the page and then going into the big mess of it and writing synopsis after synopsis, outlines, and mind-maps until I have it done. Really though, I think you can go either way, it takes the same amount of time to plan first or organize chaos afterward. No matter what though, characters drive the story for me.

    1. Jan–I’ve done it both ways, too, although now I’m more organized with it since I’m working on a few series. I could never count on whether the manuscript would be just a small mess or a big one, so I decided to do a little more work on the front end to prevent too much disaster from happening.

  5. Elizabeth–
    Along with much else to like in this post are your comments on setting. Taking a real town and then creating your own names for streets, stores, etc. makes a great deal of sense. It avoids “dating” the story when elements change in the real locale, and it also reduces or eliminates possible legal questions for the writer. Just now, I am trying to develop the storyline for a new novel. I had planned on having it take place in the same, actual Florida town as another completed (but unpublished) novel of mine. I think, now, I’ll go back and make that earlier story take place in a fictitious town based on the real one. It will take a little work, but doing this is going to make sense for me. Thank you.

    1. Barry–Glad the post helped. I chose that approach because it was just *so* easy. I don’t have the baggage associated with choosing an actual setting, but the fictional towns are actually towns I’m very familiar with…which means I don’t forget the way I described the town’s layout. Best of both worlds.

    1. Diane, a lot of my ideas come from dreams, too. Not only the basic story, but characters an even full scenes. I am working on publishing my first mystery in a series that takes place in Hawaii, so place names are real there. I use real hotels, real restaurants (I hope that’s legal). But in the second book of my series, one of the characters is a cozy mystery writer and I decided to write her series as well. The first one in that series is completed and takes place in a fictional town a couple of hours away from a major real city. And I never make an outline. My characters take my story where they want it. In my first book, I started out with 2 murders, but ended up with 7. In the first cozy mystery, I started out with 1, then one of my suspects ended up murdered, then I added a third murder before I even knew who the murderer was myself. It’s more fun that way. Of course, you then have to go back and make sure there are some clues.

  6. I tend to start with the protagonists if I’m writing one of my romantic suspense titles, because it’s expected that they’ll meet, solve some crisis, and fall in love. I usually start with either the hero or heroine, then come up with the partner, giving them those “these two are too different to get along” traits. For my mysteries, since I’ve already established the protagonist as a Police Chief, it’s more like “What problems can he have now.” Since it’s a small town, I try to avoid the Cabot Cove syndrome, which means figuring out ways to make the crime believable.

    1. Terry–The infamous Cabot Cove syndrome! I know what you mean. I loved that show, though, and I think I liked it better when Jessica wasn’t on the road…but there are so many other ways to make a story believable.

  7. I look at something theoretical that could be true, but it has yet to be proven. This offers limitless possibilities. Add in murders, and you have the makings of a very good story.

  8. Great summary! I tend to start with that spark as well – which usually comes in the form of a scene/emotion between my 2 MCs. it flows from there :)

  9. Great summary of your process, thanks Elizabeth!

    I am currently writing a supernatural thriller series. The first book evolved from a short story which was inspired by the number 17 scrawled in dripping red paint on a black marker stone on a sandbank in the middle of a lagoon in the Indian Ocean.

    Phew, that was a long sentence!

    These were the questions I asked myself to develop the story idea:
    What if my main character could die seventeen times?
    What kind of man would he be?
    What if the story started with one of his deaths, maybe his penultimate one? Who killed him and why? What does he do next?

    That short story made the top 5 of the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition a few years ago and eventually became the first novel in the series, aptly named Seventeen.

    I’m a “tweener” (term kindly borrowed from James Scott Bell and his fabulous book “Write Your Novel from the Middle” http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-new-approach-for-plotters-pantsers.html), i.e. someone halfway between a plotter and a pantser. Before I write a novel, I know who it’s about, how it starts, how it ends, and a few major “scenes” in the middle. The process I enjoy the most is seeing the story flow and the characters take it in directions I never anticipated. I never try to “stifle” their voices. The other process that helps me with plotting is the extensive research I do for my books. Very often, the ideas will come from what I’ve read.

    One thing to say about developing story ideas with a series with an end in sight. Mine will have 6 books, with the first four being novels that can be read as stand-alones, but the final two being books that readers will get the most out if they’ve read the others. By the time I finished Book 1, I had a brief idea what Book 2 was going to be about. By the time I finished Book 2, I had pretty much plotted out the remaining four. For a satisfying conclusion to the series, I had to know where I was taking it. This is the closest I’ve gotten to truly outlining and I tolerated the process better than I thought I would, to the point where I’ve already written the final “scene” in the entire series.


    1. AD—That sounds as if you have the best of both worlds! You get to plan and make it up as you go along. I like to ask myself questions, too…I think that’s a great way to get a handle on the plot and find plot holes, too.

      Sometimes it’s nice to skip ahead and write the ending. I’ve done that a few times when I’ve gotten stuck on a scene and wasn’t sure how to move forward. Nice way to know what direction you’re heading in, too.

  10. Hearing someone else’s process always inspires me. I use one similar to yours. Actual real life events often trigger the “what if” process and I rewrite the real story and have my premise. Coming up with ideas is actually easy. Choosing which ones to expand on can be more difficult. I keep many ideas in their own folders and add to them as ideas seem to fit. When a folder reaches “critical mass,” I open it and start shaping the story and characters. I find I have a theme that runs through many of my stories. It’s the question of identity. Who are we really? Externally and internally. Exploring that with my characters keeps me moving forward.

    1. Mahrie–I think coming up with ideas is definitely the easy part…evaluating which ones to spend time writing takes me a little more time. I like the way that you’re exploring theme with your stories!

  11. Elizabeth – Great post. Echoing Jan’s and A.D.’s comments: being the proverbial pants-style writer, once I formulate a general story idea I tend to start in the middle with a set piece – garden party, gala reception – that lends itself well to planting lots of suspects. Then I work outward. I guess that makes me ‘tweener’! This style of plotting is probably the result of being an old movie buff, thus I see and hear the individual scenes as, well, scenes in a movie in my imagination.
    I also like you comments on the importance of setting. In my case the setting is real in a historical mystery context, and thus it’s important, and a challenge, to get the details right.

    1. Bryan–So you’ve got almost a scriptwriter’s eye for creation…that’s really cool. I’ve had two books that I “saw” before I wrote them and I’ve never written so quickly or so well. Wish I could fine-tune that ability so that I could always use it.

      Using a real setting is tough. With the Memphis series, I’ve been very, very careful. As yet, I’ve only gotten supportive emails from folks in that town…I’d hate to hear back that I got everything all wrong!

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