(This was originally posted on Curious Fictions on June 5, 2018 -- I am trying to rescue my posts before the site disappears!)
Perhaps you, gentle reader, are much like me, and generate story ideas the way other people generate dandruff! (Or perhaps you are like me in that you cannot generate a good simile to save your life.) And if so, perhaps you, like me, have a Story Ideas folder with 483 things in it and very few actual... stories.
So yes, this post is as much for me as it is for you.
My first step in fleshing out an idea is usually some quick triage. If there were an extra six hours in the day, and I didn't need to sleep or eat (or work, let's be real), I could write them all! In the absence of that (also, the presence of a job) I have to decide which ones I want to work on first or fastest. That might be for things like:
- Anthology calls
- Themed journal issues
It might also be for completely arbitrary writerly reasons, like:
- Shiniest and newest idea!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Most substantial idea
- Most controversial idea
- Idea I have an article, book, essay, or recent experience about
Practically speaking, what that looks like is that I run through that Story Ideas folder about once a month, and decide whether I like the look of anything that triages out into one of those categories. I'll usually pick one to three ideas and throw them into my monthly THYNGES TO WRITE spreadsheet.
Here's an example of an idea fragment or stub that I got way too excited about, having seen (I think) an image on Tumblr or something: "A DRAGON IN A BIG OLD VICTORIAN HOUSE WITH A LOT OF BOOKS."
That's... not an idea. That's a setting, at best. But if I were writing this one, this is how I might flesh it out:
- Usually the first thing I decide is the setting, because the where/when is always my favourite part of a story to create and write, and the thing I most like generating details about. Here, it's a Victorian house. But when? The Victorian era, when the house was new? Now, when it's a prettily haunted/charming abode for a rich bastard in the San Francisco area? The future, when it's a dilapidated wreck in a destroyed city? Or exhaustively preserved using high-tech nanomites and plastination techniques so that it can be used as a teaching tool for future kiddies? (Yes, this is the best thing about writing genre stuff.)
- Next, I would decide on a premise, sort of a 'what if.' In this case, it might be something like 'What if a dragon moved into a Victorian house with a ton of books in it?' and then start spinning off that to generate a clearer story summary. Why are there so many books in it? Is this a normal occurrence? Is the presence of the dragon a problem or an opportunity? Would its absence be welcomed? Whose house is it?
- This is where the fleshing out properly starts... here, I might decide that it's a newish house in 1890, and belongs to a scientist, which would explain why most of the rooms are lined with books.
- If this tells me anything about her personality, it suggests that she is extremely diligent, possibly to the point of obsession, about her science; that she's One Hundred Percent Not Here For That Superstitious Stuff, Thank You; and that she might be, at first, indignant to discover a mythical beast living in her home-slash-laboratory.
- If she is indeed indignant about it, how can this be resolved with a) her residency in the house, which is obviously not fireproof, and b) her scientific studies? Putting on my high school English glasses (plus English 101 in university, of course), I'm going to call her my protagonist, and the dragon the antagonist; it will contribute to the events of the story that she will have to resolve or not resolve to come to a reasonably satisfying ending.
- The next thing I would usually do is brainstorm a list of ways in which either the protagonist herself, the antagonist, the setting, other characters, society, or pure coincidence can cause the protagonist difficulties: Well, books are flammable, for one; can dragons control their flame to a nicety? PERHAPS NOT; beardy oldsters in the academy tut-tutting that women shouldn't be doing science anyway; her finances; her stubbornness; the close confines of the cellar in which the dragon has moved itself; teeth, generally; her latest experiment; the difficulty in procuring chemicals, simples, and supplies.
- Finally, I usually decide on the ending and what difficult decision has to be made somewhere earlier in the story to ensure that the ending happens? In this case, I would like the scientist and the dragon to get along, work on her science together, and definitely not burn down the house. (Being a dragon, none of these, of course, are sure things.)
- That should be enough! The fully-fleshed out story summary that I can use as an outline can go "In Victorian England, diligent researcher Agnes Higginbottom awakens one morning to discover that a dragon, of all the preposterous mythological nonsense, has taken residence in her cellar. As if she didn't have enough problems trying to convince the members of the Royal Society of Scientsticians to accept her work for the upcoming gala (science fair? science fiesta? look, i'll figure it out in post). After eviction efforts based on violence, then pleading, then finally bribery, fail, Agnes agrees to protect the dragon's secret — the eggs it's guarding under the cellar steps — in return for its help preparing her grand experiment for the gala. Through numerous near-misses and mishaps, they defeat the enemy who's trying to sabotage her lab and reputation, discredit the old guard of the Royal Society, and win top prize at the gala. They also, somehow, magically, become friends and learn how to work together. The end!"
- From there, it's all the great, fun stuff of writing! Naming enemies and societies, deciding where the house is, and where the gala might be, and what other people's experiments might look like; picking a voice and a look for the dragon, and explaining how it ended up in Agnes' cellar; inventing or choosing extremely hard-to-acquire things for her science (a prism made from the end of a unicorn's horn?); maybe some moonlit, derring-do chase scenes over some rooftops, or a book fire put out frantically at the last minute.
So that's my process! I dunno, are people interested in these process ones? Cos folks, I got a million of them. And I got a BOX. With INDEX CARDS in it.