How to brainstorm your story idea into a working concept

Last time I shared my novel planning process with you, and promised I would look into the idea exploration part as well.

We all have different ways to brainstorm and develop our creative ideas, and we use different tools to help us track our thinking (from Moleskin notebooks and napkins, to mind-mapping software  and spreadsheets). But at the core of our different approaches, we find the same basic points that need to be covered. All roads lead to Rome, as the old saying goes, and all brainstorming processes must lead to a solid story concept.

For pantsers, this brainstorming bit might be a lot less detailed than for plotters and outliners, but it must be done nonetheless. Starting to draft without a single clue about the story, except that you want to write “a story about a woman stranded on an alien planet”, will definitely result in extreme headache and countless revisions.

Working your way from a general story idea to a concrete, practical novel concept is essential for your sanity.

Trust me.

Look at my eye-twitching.

So let’s cut to the chase. Those “basic points” that belong into every brainstorming process, are the following:

  1. Know your protagonist
  2. Know your ending — or at least the overall direction of your plot
  3. Know your approach

That’s it.

Let’s tackle them.

1. Know your protagonist

The best way to get to know your protagonist is by asking questions.

  • Who is the protagonist? What kind of person is she?
  • Why is she the protagonist, and not some other character? What makes her special?

Then

  • What does she want?
  • Why does she want it?
  • Who or what stands in her way?
  • What will happen if she doesn’t get what she wants?

OR

  • What is her problem?
  • Why does she have to solve it now, and not in ten years?
  • Who or what is preventing her from solving it?
  • What will happen if she doesn’t solve it?

These are all very basic, commonly known questions. You’ve already seen them everywhere. *yawn*

So let’s amp that up a little, shall we?

We’re not looking to write ten pages of character development here. We only need to understand the core of this character and her arc, so we can begin writing the story. Knowing too much about our people before we write, can hinder us in discovering their full potential, because we tend to go “nah, she wouldn’t do that, I decided she was like this-and-this”, and we don’t allow them enough room to breathe and surprise us.

Pantsers know what I’m talking about. I’m looking at you outliners right now.

*gives a crazy stare*

Writing extensive character interviews or sheets before hand might feel very useful and productive, but it’s offen just dead weight. All you really need to understand about your protagonist are the following things:

  • Where do you want your protagonist to be at the end of the novel?
    • Will she end up victorious, in a position of power & strength, or defeated, in a position of despair and destitution?
    • What kind of story do you want to tell about her? One of growth and success, or of failure and loss?
  • What do you want your protagonist’s big realization to be about? The Mirror Moment at the middle of the novel — what do you want her to understand?
    • Will it be self-reflecting or about something external?
    • Do you want her to realize that she has more strength than she ever thought? Or maybe that everything is actually her fault, and she must be the one to solve it?
    • Or do you want her to find out what the real stakes are? Who the real bad-guy is, or what he’s really after (not what she first assumed)?

Now that you have a good idea of these points, you can figure out exactly where your protagonist needs to be at the beginning of the story: in the exact opposite position to the one she will end up in.

If the story you want to tell has a happy ending, and the protagonist will end up victorious, a better person, and happy with the way she got there, then you need to start her in a point of weakness and lack, of being overwhelmed or lost. If your ending is negative, and the protagonist ends up in despair, facing a terrible loss (that is her own fault, or that she failed to prevent), or maybe even dead, then you need to start her on her story-path from a position of strength, happiness andstability.

If you brainstorm a little on these things, you will get a functional character arc skeleton to work with.

You don’t need all that CV crap, like where the protagonist grew up, what her favorite color is, or her most endearing flaw. Those are things you can discover as you go, and usually, you’ll find much better tid-bits to three-dimensional-ize your protagonist after you throw them into action, not before you ever see them move on the page.

Ask questions.

Ask critical questions, that pertain to the character’s evolution through your story, and don’t waste time focusing too much on her background info. That’s all just nice fluff to lengthen your wordcount in between scenes. It’s important, yes, but it’s not important for the development of your story concept; it’s not essential in your outline or very first draft.

2. Know your ending — or at least the overall direction of your plot

Usually, if you know the “end” of your protagonist’s transformation arc, you pretty much have a firm grasp of the plot ending as well. After all, if the arc has a happy ending, the plot must be positively resolved too. Unless your protagonist is a sociopathic freak who’s happy and content when everything around him descends into chaos. (Hm, there’s a nice story idea in there…)

Most pantsers hate to know the ending before they write, feeling that it limits their imagination. And it sometimes does, even to plotters. But you still need to understand what direction your plot will go in, otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of disconnected action scenes and decisions that are all over the place, never ammounting to anything substantial.

The best way to refine your understanding of the story’s plot direction, is to develop it in correlation with the character arc.

Now, some writers prefer to start developing their idea (and drafting the novel) with the plot, others prefer to start with the character. It’s irrelevant which goes first, or which gets more attention. All great novels have both — a good, gripping plot, and a satisfying character transformation. No good novel is ever just character-centered, or just plot-centered. (More on that in my next post.)

How do you use the character arc to plot your novel? Simple.

The major points of each character arc (the Golden Trio) are:

  1. Set up = the character’s life before the shit hits the fan
  2. Realization = the character’s epiphany around the middle of the novel
  3. Transformation = the end result of all her struggles and decisions

In terms of plot, then, you must hit the following points:

  1. Inciting incident = what exactly happens that throws the shit against the fan
  2. Pivot Point = what’s the great “turn for the worse” that triggers her realization
  3. Climax = what is the absolute worst that could ever happen, and the worst moment it could happen in

Now, you may only know two of these: the inciting incident that gets the story going, and the pivot point when bad turns to worse; or you may know the inciting incident and the climax (or the ending); or you may only have an idea about a terrible twist and the disaster that follows, but not where to start, what an appropriate inciting incident could be.

No problem.

You can always come up with things as you go, OR you can brainstorm some more, asking yourself:

  • What if?
    • What if… the protagonist herself throws the shit against the fan because she makes a mistake, misunderstands something, or believes she’s doing the right thing?
    • What if… the protagonist finds out that she’s been used by the antagonist all along?
    • What if… the antagonist actually wins, and the protagonist has only one last option, to limit the damage as much as possible (through a terrible sacrifice? or a terrible act?)
  • Why bother?
    • Why should we care what happens? Give us something (more) to root for. This will help you figure out what should happen next, how to keep the readers interested.
    • Why should the protagonist care? Why should she continue fighting these odds? Increase the stakes. This will also help you figure out how to take the plot to the next level.
    • Why does the antagonist care? Any good antagonist can furthen the plot, forcing the protagonist to react or make decisions which she would otherwise be incapable of.
  • How bad?
    • How bad can this situation get?
    • What’s the worst that could happen to the protagonist? (make the antagonist bring it about)
    • What’s the worst that could happen to the antagonist? (help the protagonist achieve that thing)
    • How much worse can you make things for the “innocent bystanders”? Escalate the dangers, am up the surrounding action.

You can use these questions to fleshen out the plot before you draft, or during drafting. There’s tons more you can derive out of the particularities of your story, but basically, as long as you have the three major tent-poles to hold up your story (preferably happening in correlation with your protagonist’s major arc moments), you’re well set.

3. Know your approach

Why is this point last, and not first?

Because the approach you take to telling a story is best chosen depending on the character arc and the plot type. You need to know what kind of personal transformation you will show, and what fights the protagonist must fight, in order to choose the most effective approach.

Is the story better told in first person, or third? Present tense, or past? One POV, or several? Chronologically, or with several time-jumps for a gradual understanding of the nature of events (or characters)?

You can start with saying, “I want to write a story in first person, and it’s about a woman stranded on an alien planet”, and then move on to come up with plot events. But given that you chose first person POV, you can’t show us events that happen when she’s not there, which can limit you in truly coming up with the best plot. You can also start with saying, “I want to write a multiple POV story with two interlaced time-lines, to approach a central terrible event from all sides, and that event is an alien invasion”, and then you try to figure out how your protagonist’s character arc fits into such a story, and you may find it very hard to develop a satisfying arc that fits that plot like a glove.

In my opinion, it’s best to understand your protagonist’s transformation arc and your overall plot first, before deciding on the best way to approach them.

What can help you decide what the best approach is?

Well, it’s mostly a matter of skill and taste. You might be more comfortable writing in third person past tense, because you have honed your skills for it in countless previous stories. Or you might want to try writing in first person present tense, because the last novel you read was written that way and it blew you away.

But whatever your choice, make it a conscious one in the service of the story.

All your preparation efforts, the brainstorming, character arc development, plot development, question-asking, head-banging, finger-nail-biting and Facebook-complaining must amount to a firm grasp of your story concept.

Know WHO does WHAT and WHY, and HOW everything fits together. In basic, simple terms. In a clear and straightforward order.

All the rest is detail — the real fun of drafting, of fleshing out, of discovering your story.

12 Replies to “How to brainstorm your story idea into a working concept”

  1. Loved this! Not least because it sounds more like the approach I’m most comfortable with. I’ve tried being a good little girl and outlining the sequel to my current w-i-p in between working on said w-i-p (I know I know, but I’m just trying to get ahead of the game) and it’s sort of worked – for some parts of it. But for much of the time there’s still that pantsy bit of me that goes “Ah sod it, I’ll figure how I get to that bit from this bit when I get there… ”

    Thanks for posting – I shall be bookmarking and making judicious use of this information 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks, Wendy! Glad you liked it. A patchwork of methods is the best option, IMO, because it leaves just enough room for improv to not go crazy. 😀

      Have fun with your WIP!

      Like

  2. Perfect, thanks Veronica! I’ve been looking for a clear and concise process like this for a concept I’m working on. Much appreciated! 🙂

    Like

  3. This was quite informative. I honestly think this is better than the mess they sell at SOME bookstores and pass it off as how to write books (writing fiction for dummies I’m glaring at you).

    Why don’t you write a book on how to write? I think it would sell. Especially if you can keep it concise as possible… since brevity is a lot better than pages if it gets the same result.

    I think too many writing advice books are out to steal your money without really teaching you much, then telling you to buy more books to read (steam MORE money) to learn more.

    I say any writer could do this in 90 pages or less and keep it concise. One does not need to know everything to write fiction nor does ANYONE. Just the essentials without all fluff.

    I don’t need anyone’s encouragement about writer’s block, if I did… I woudn’t even be writing… so don’t dedicate a chapter to that and waste my time!!! Not you… I’m just venting on some of the stuff writing authors do. That said… I hope you don’t do that : O

    Like

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  5. For the truest of pantsers (nice word) like me, an article like this is completely necessary as I rebuild (or possibly for the first time) real structure around my imagination, even if that sounds redundant. Not sure. Doesn’t matter much now.

    Either way, thank you for taking all the indigestible enzymes out of the process and leaving on the real nutrition. You also uncluttered it without affecting the vibe or mystique. Thank you.

    Like

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