This question came from my Facebook feed awhile back, from Tracy: “I’m curious about your process of going from initial ideas to outline (or if you outline).”
It’s a good question, because it’s one of the more arcane bits of the writing process. We end up talking more about the mechanics of writing after we actually get the ideas into prose. But how do we prepare ideas before we actually start writing? What turns an idea into a story?
There’s a new-writer mistake, especially in short story writing, one I committed quite often myself early on: You’ve got this fantastic idea, you want to tell it to the world, so you write a story about it. Bam! But no, because if the story doesn’t deal with the implications, the consequences, the effect that idea has on the character, the world, and so on, then it actually isn’t a story. What this new-writer story looks like: “Hey, everyone, what if there was a secret race of intelligent, space faring duckbilled platypuses? Ta da!” (I don’t know what the plural of platypus is, I’m sorry.) It might be a good description of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, and an interesting idea, but unless something actually happens, or the story has something interesting to say about the existence of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, it isn’t going to go anywhere. (Lest this idea seem too crazy, a while back Charles Stross wrote an award-nominated story about space-faring lobsters. But that idea is, as you might expect, a small part of a much larger story.)
“Idea, ta-da!” is really only the beginning of the process. This is what writers mean when they say ideas are the easy part.
A few months ago I wrote a post where I pretty much brainstormed a story real-time. The idea was: What if all children in the world under the age of ten vanished? A newer writer might depict the event itself, what it would be like to watch the children vanish, and end the story there. But the really interesting stuff happens after, doesn’t it? It’s harder, digging into the implications of that event, seeing what the world would look like ten years later, and so on. It takes time, it takes thought, it takes thinking about some traumatic and uncomfortable ideas and scenes, but you have to go there and include that emotion if you want the story to affect people. (Children of Men is one of the best science fiction movies of the last ten years. It’s about a world where no children have been born in 18 years, and does a great job depicting the cultural implications. One of my favorite scenes shows an elementary school that has been abandoned and is going derelict, overgrown with weeds and falling apart. It’s a gorgeous, true detail that really added punch to the story.)
So, idea isn’t story. What do I do to turn an idea into a story? I brainstorm. I think about it, I write stuff down, think some more, write more stuff down. I try to figure out who my main character is early on — who will be most affected by the idea. I follow that person around for awhile.
Eventually, a scene will emerge from this muddle of ideas and scrawled notes. It’s not always an important or climactic scene, it may just be an image, and it may not even make it into the final story, but it will be important for the brainstorming/outlining process because it finally takes the idea and puts it in a context, puts it in a world. Once I have a scene, I can start imagining what came before that, and what came after. If I’m doing this right, by this time the initial idea is part of the background noise, because the real story involves the characters, settings, events, and scenes that have emerged from all that woolgathering.
For example: The idea behind my Kitty werewolf series is that a world with vampires and werewolves would need its own talk radio advice show because Dr. Laura wouldn’t be able to help these beings with their problems. By the time I got to the first story — about a werewolf radio DJ being stalked by a bounty hunter while she’s on the air — the initial idea had moved firmly to the background. Exactly where it needed to be. It’s a wonderful background, but I needed a character like Kitty to tell stories about for the idea to really go anywhere. The novel didn’t happen until I imagined a very specific scene: Kitty at a nightclub, dancing in celebration of her first little victory. That scene appeared early on in Kitty and The Midnight Hour, which is a book about a young woman learning to stand up for herself.
And that’s how I go from idea to story outline — “werewolf radio DJ” might be a fun idea, but it took writing several short stories and doing a lot of thinking to get the novel-length idea of “young woman learns to stand up for herself.” That last theme gave the structure to the outline I subsequently wrote.
I’d be interested to hear about other people’s processes. Like I said, it’s a stage people don’t often talk about, and I’m curious to hear how similar or different my process is from others.