How do you take your idea from spark to story?

Let’s say you have an idea. Maybe it’s a character concept, maybe it’s a setting or a major event. Maybe it’s just a visual.

What is your process for taking that initial spark of something and turning it into a full-blown story? How do you test your idea to see if it can carry you through 50,000+ words?

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First to plan the story a bit in my head and then just start to laying into words and trying to see where it wants to go.

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I try to do one line summary of it. Then maybe expand on it. If it leads nowhere, it’s probably not meant to be :frowning:

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i really hate writing things down before they feel reasonably solid in my head, so my ideas stay firmly in my brain while i mull them over and poke at them. i slowly add details to the character/setting over time, fleshing it out as much as i can without a context to put them in. the more solid the character/setting, the easier it is for me to figure out what context fits them and what doesn’t. especially with characters, i can form a sort of set of parameters that the story will have to fit within as i develop the character.
so, like, i have a character: setsuna sato. he’s very very fake, fairly stupid, and too powerful for his own good. his emotional range is very limited and he has basically no understanding of his own internal processes. he is full of demons, which he can control to some extent.
i decide later that was recently released from a looong sentence served in juvenile detention. he killed his parents, maybe, because of the demons. his name used to be something else, but it was changed for his protection upon his release so he could start fresh. he is technically homeless but doesn’t generally sleep on the street - he crashes on couches. he works lots of part-time/odd jobs to make ends meet.
so, now i have a setting and a tone as well as a character! it’s urban fantasy, dark comedy (my favorite), set in a city. there’s magic, but maybe not a lot of magic.

i keep it in the back of my mind while i’m going about my day. when i see something inspiring, i think about what elements of that inspiration i’m most interested in and dissect it a bit - what about it appeals to me? what could it mean? what do i want to recreate? what do i want to expand on? - and whether i can bend them to fit around my already-existing idea.
i read a story that includes a character going running on his university campus; he’s alone, it’s dark, and the world is quiet and empty. i’m really taken with the mood and imagery of that scene, so… yoink! now there’s a university campus in the story that someone will go running in when it’s dark out. setsuna isn’t a university student… but that’s not necessarily a problem.
i live near a pretty big college campus that i often wander around playing pokemon go and listening to music on my headphones. since i look like i could plausibly be a college student there (early 20s, dyed hair) i don’t feel like my presence is going to seem Weird. so i take that and stick it on setsuna; maybe he spends a lot of time on the university campus. colleges often have buildings unlocked late at night, sometimes 24 hours a day; maybe he sleeps there sometimes.

i slowly acquire elements and notions like that, sticking stuff onto the idea until it feels like it has a good weight and shape to it. usually in the process of adding things, i’ll need to add story to stick disparate elements together.
after a while i should have a good chunk of raw material that’s more fully-formed than a vague notion, and when i feel like i have a pretty good grasp on the mood and the setting and the characters i have to start bullying myself into constructing the actual story. what happens? what do the characters do? this part is the hardest one for me and takes the longest because it’s not as much fun for me… usually this is when i start writing stuff down, because it’s easier for me to work on story outlines if i have a physical thing to look at and rearrange.
once i’ve managed to pry at least a vague idea of a plot out of my reluctant brain, i start hammering it down. what’s the beginning? what’s the middle? what’s the end? how do i hit all the points i want to hit over the course of this story? what would be the most fun?
i work chronologically from beginning to end, because i have a lot of trouble making my brain skip around. then about two-thirds of the way through outlining i get bored of outlining and just start writing the thing, which goes okay until i get to the parts i didn’t outline and then i get stuck hahahaha.

if i stall out, lose interest, have trouble adding ideas or finding inspiration during the planning phases, i know i’m not gonna go anywhere with the idea and either drop it or take it apart and rebuild it into something that i like better!

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Following this because this is my first NaNo in a very long time starting from the bottom up. I’ve been doing second, third, fourth drafts, or converting existing stories into full novels or interactive novels, so I forgot how to start a story from the beginning.

All I have is a rough image of a character! I know I want to do something new with him, but I have no idea who he is, or what story he’s going to fit into.

Where do you all find inspiration for compelling plots? Is it possible to start with something so vague as a blobby character? :joy:

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When I get an inspirational spark, the first way I nurture it is by asking important questions. Even if I come up with a decent number of questions but no answers, that still may promise a potential novel due to the potential complexity of the spark. But if I don’t have a satisfactory number of questions and/or answers to justify a novel out of the spark, I still keep that spark in mind until newfound inspiration strikes me.

For instance, the first idea that led to the novel I’ve been working on for the past few years was if someone tried to permanently kill a phoenix and succeeded. This led to three questions. What kind(s) of character(s) would want to kill a phoenix and why? How would one prevent the phoenix’s resurrection? And what kind of conflict would arise? The answers to those three questions led to the novella I wrote surrounding that spark and also the for the novel that followed.

The best part about those kinds of questions is that there could be multiple answers to them. Depending on the answer, the resulting story could turn out very differently. Drawing from the same example, I could very easily draw up the conflict coming from the death of the phoenix to a curse that the protagonist must reverse. But instead, I went with a conflict of social paranoia in the wake of abnormal terrible events following the phoenix’s death.

When it comes to questions, the first one I think should be asked is what would make this spark interesting to read/write about. If my spark is an event, I ask about the conflict. If my spark is a character, I ask about their ambitions and/or troubles. If my spark is a setting, I ask about the most alluring parts of its lore/history. Answering one of these questions will lead to a chain of questions whose answers will flesh out a novel.

At least, this is just my own understanding of how I nurture my inspirational sparks. I never really thought much about it until this topic was brought up. So thanks.

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I don’t have time to go cite my sources so I’ll search and link later, but someone always posts the “sticky note wall of doom” method and it’s really fleshed out my idea this time. Basically, use alllll the sticky notes and put up words and phrases that pertain to your story, like images and emotions you want your reader to feel. The method then says to organize them but I kinda like the chaotic mess of a wordy mood board lol.

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I like to plan a few scenes in my head and then get a feel for it by making a pinterest folder, a playlist, a moodboard. It helps!

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I take a lot of time with it.

Usually I start with a inciting incident and a dramatic event and start working out who the major players are what their jobs are and why they’re involved in it. Then it’s a process of working out how they get from point A to point Z. I create supporting characters, might work out backstories and relationships as I come up with them as they might help push the plot forward.

Depending on how well this brainstorming is going I might make a project file for it and start loading some character names and board concepts into it, but I usually don’t write much down until I think I have the story mostly mapped out in my head.

FYI This takes months. I brainstorm on the idea whenever I have free time and even when I don’t. Driving to work, Doing something repetitive at work. Going to bed, etc.

Finally I’ll write out a rough outline and start to fill in holes. I have a sense for long much space on the page each line in the outline will take so that gives me an idea of how much I need to add to make sure I get to fifty thousand words.

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When I get a spark, I play around with the characters and the setting that is the spark by placing them in a scenario and playing that out for a bit. If I like where it is going that is when I start to add details, such as character information like names, age, gender, background stuff. Then I move on to the plot. After I have a rough idea for my plot, I drop my newly named characters into their world and let them go. I rarely write an outline because it is easier to see where the characters want to go themselves.

If after a few hours the characters don’t seem to run in a good direction or lose interest in where it was going, I drop it and move on. Sometimes, I take a character or detail that I did like and carry it over to a new scenario and if that is any better.

That is how I formed most of my stories!

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I just… start to write. Everything else follows after that. And I mean everything.

I start by writing things down. Starting with little things, like maybe the MC’s name or some lines. I also make a pinterest folder for the story. Down you can see one I made for a Wild West story earlier this year. It helps me understand what kind of aesthetic I want for the story. Also playlists! Pictures and playlists are mainly to keep my spark alive long enough to actually start writing.

After that, I write the basic idea of the plot down. One sentence is usually enough. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have the whole thing yet. I probably now my MC’s name or I know something about the place the story is taking place.

I started planning the plot of last year’s nano with these words: Lieke doesn’t want to get married. And that was basically it. After that it’s just writing more (important) things down and maybe after a while there is a whole story. I continued planning last year’s nano with these: So she has to run away and for that she needs money. And to get money she needs to kill a guy. Now I have 50k words and third draft going.

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I’m going to use the fic I’m planning to write during NaNo this year as an example here, but my process is pretty much the same for any story I write. This particular story was sparked by a prompt from a Twitter account I follow, au_idea_bot, the prompt in question being incredibly long cross-country trip au. I really didn’t want the prompt to give me any ideas, because I have way too many WIPs as it is and my track record for actually finishing stories I start during NaNo is absolutely woeful.

My brain latched onto it anyway. Not only did it latch on, it dug right into my memories of a camping/road trip my family went on around my home state in January 1992 to visit my great-grandmother, right before I started second grade. Which meant one thing in particular - this story was going to be semi-autobiographical.

Next, I had to decide what the prompt’s definition of long was - time or distance? I live in Australia, so for me (and probably many other Aussies) going on long road trips is pretty normal - I think nothing of driving a few hundred kilometres to go Christmas shopping in the nearest city, for example. The trip my family went on when I was a kid, according to Google Maps, is nearly 2,000 kilometres from start to finish, and took us two or three weeks (I went back to school on time that year, so definitely no longer than a few weeks). I ended up deciding that the midpoint of the road trip in the story was going to be clear across the other side of the country to me, on the west coast in Perth, and that the trip was going to take my characters all around the Australian mainland. So the road trip in the story was going to be long in both time and distance.

Now that my idea was nailed down, I had to decide on my characters. I generally write RPF for the band Hanson (usually with the lead singer, Taylor, as my focus), so that was one character sorted already. Next I had to decide if they were married (they were), did they have any kids (two kids - a girl and a boy), where they lived (a few hundred kilometres up the coast from me), and why they were going on this road trip (visiting family in Perth). I named my original characters (Maddie, Alinta, Luca, Melinda and Tony), figured out why Taylor lived so far from the rest of his family (he grew up in Perth but went to university in Sydney, where he met Maddie), and his job (music teacher at a local high school, and runs a surfing school on the weekends and in school holidays).

That’s pretty much what I have so far. Right now I’m working out the route of the road trip in Google Maps, which apart from working out a summary is really the last major thing I need to do. I still have plenty of time left, so I don’t think I’ll have much trouble getting things done. If it turns out I need to do more after I start writing (which is admittedly par for the course with me, as I’m very much a plantser), then I’ll figure things out as I go.

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For my several big projects it takes years, or more like decades now, when i don’t really do anything with that story, just think about it in free time and put together some threads. Can’t really tell about the method, bc there actually is none. I have notebooks where i write down any important information and worldbuilding, sometimes i segregate those informations when i have too much mess and slowly but surely the whole world and story comes to life. I do sit for planning or worldbuilding a particular aspect of the story, but it’s usually when i have a lot of things decided already.
As for projects i’m not as invested, i tend to write a short idea when it comes to me in another notebook, where i collect ideas that are not enough to create story on their own. Then i usually forget about it… and then when i’m going to write a short story or sth and have only a vague idea of what i’m writing i come back to that notebook and look if another ideas could fit into it. And then when i have two or more i think of the ways to blend them. Ideas per se can be a lot of things - a character, cool magic system, an event, overall plot concept, a world. Like, just anything really.
I’m a planner so before i start writing a story i need to sit down and write down a lot of things, but that’s late in the process when i have the idea. Planning is much more restricted for me, i need to fill up any plotholes, think of reasons, motivations, causes and effects, pacing, timing and all of this stuff and it’s way less creative than just coming up with an idea or mashing several ideas together. Ideas come to me when i’m daydreaming, reading or doing sth else, while when planning i need to actually sit down, revise any notes and concentrate at the problem.

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I will think about either a character or a scenario in detail. If I think I have enough details, I like to buy a separate notebook for it and start writing a first chapter, making a list of characters, or outlining - which, if we’re being honest, I only started outlining last year! I also have Pinterest boards of images for stories I’ve been thinking about but haven’t gotten around to writing. Last year’s outline, I mapped out each of my characters over the period of five days the story would take place, where they’d occur in the story, briefly say what would happen each day, make note that I’d like to reach 2,000 words per chapter, and once NaNo started, I logged how many words it took for me to finish the chapter. I’m still in Part 4 of that project, still have Part 5 to do (eventually…) but I reached my 50K by November 30th.

Oh, there’s many ways.

If I have some characters and at least a vague idea of setting: start writing a bunch of scenes as they occur to me, and then connect them all up later. (This is similar to Sir Terry Pratchett’s method.) This works if I haven’t figured out the major conflict of the story yet. After I’ve written enough scenes, I’ll go over them and see if a pattern Big Problem presents itself. If not, I’ll come up with something that will force the characters to face their worst weaknesses, and then watch them try.

If I have a starting event and ending in mind: write down the major plot points, arrange them to fit a (more or less universal) basic story structure, then figure out what happens in each big moment and what goes in between. Sort of a cross between Snowflake Method and Hero’s Journey. This works well if I haven’t figured out the setting and some of the characters yet. After I’ve come up with the major bits of the story, I’ll start sprinkling in more characters who can serve the various archetypal roles, and figure out a setting which will hopefully provide some interest. I will make an effort to throw in some odd details and flip traditional typecasts, for diversity’s sake.

If all I have is that feeling from a single emotional incident: then I sit and contemplate the character(s) involved and work my way outward from there. Who are they, and how did they come to this? Once I’ve got the kernels of the people involved, then I can work out what came before and after, and later on start tinkering with the setting to make it all happen.

If I’m going for the visual or “presence” of a specific setting, I’ll fetch some pictures and music/sounds related to that setting, and maybe watch a movie or two if I have time. If the setting is real or historical, I’ll read about it. If I can think of related foods, I will try to eat some of them. Then I’ll grab a notebook and start brainstorming Things, People, and Concepts that go into that setting, and scribble down stream-of-consciousness phrases and words and ideas and quotes until I get bored or interrupted. After a couple sessions of this, I’ll go over the list and try to come up with a plot that incorporates as many of the Cool Things as possible. Once I have a starting point, I can go to one of the other methods (sketch the plot arc, or start writing random scenes, or figure out how to create specific emotional incidents).

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I think about the idea a lot, see what scenes that comes to mind, and determine what kind of ending I want to head towards. Beyond that, there’s no need to test the idea to see how long it will carry.

I can sense the approximate length, even if a brand new idea might only give off the sense that “this will be at least one novel.” Last year’s project was that way, and it’s the first brand new idea I’ve started for years. First novel ended at 67k. Before that I’d spent a few years trying to finish the four series I’d already started. I’ve yet to finish even one storyline, so now I’ve got five, even if one might be done pretty soon, at least the first drafts.

I generally start with a concept I want to explore (i.e. “What if the constellations fought each other to become zodiacs?” or “What if we access a parallel universe through our dreams?”). It doesn’t matter how big the idea is, but I usually try and write a pitch-length or synopsis-length summary in a Word document and save it as its own file. If I’m feeling especially coherent on the idea, I’ll jot down settings, characters, and other ideas as well.

Then I pace myself. Right now, I have a backlog of stories that will basically get me to 2035 by writing one a year. With all that time to wait, I will often have “aha!” moments where a salient detail or conflict comes to mind and I’ll add it to the Word document. Judging on how coalesced the ideas are, I can sometimes bump a project up in the queue to work on it and let the others simmer for a while.

Before I start getting into writing the story, I do some “what happens next” analysis. I generally have an idea of the start and end state of the characters and story, so I’ll work from the start and ask myself how the character would react to the stimulus I give them. If I get particularly stuck, I’ll also work backward from the ending, figuring out how the character would get there and meeting in the middle with the other side of the plot.

Most importantly, I don’t throw away ideas. I know for a fact that many of them are too small for NaNo, but I do keep them for short stories and flash fiction, should a theme or prompt arrive that I can write to.

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I buy a new comp book every year. Sometimes I write random scenes ideas that come to me and brainstorm. This year the characters came before the scenes. I have outlined my MMC’s backstory and I’m working on my FMC’s backstory. Right in the middle of that, BAM I got hit with a major idea that I had no idea was lurking. So I got to write it down before I forget.

Sometimes ideas and inspiration come easily, sometimes I have to coax them out in the brainstorming process. I keep everything contained in my comp book. It’s an unorganized mess, but it gets me from point a to point z–the end.

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It depends on what the spark was. This year, it was a word. . . The name of a small town in Georgia. The name struck me as odd and I started thinking between what? The real answer is that it’s between two larger towns, but there is no story in that. I started writing a paragraph about the typical people I would expect to find in an old traditional small town and had the start of my story by the end of the paragraph.

Some years, the spark is a news story, or a situation or a random idea. I just play around with the spark until it leads to somewhere or if it doesn’t lead someone, I just write it down and wait for the next spark. Until I heard the name of the town, I was going to write a story based on local news event where a policeman was arrested for pimping–he owned an apartment building where several prostitutes live and was taking barter for rent in addition to finding his renters customers and protecting them. I started off thinking, “wow, what a bad guy, I’m glad they arrested him.” But then I thought. . .“what if he’s really a good guy or started off as an honest cop?” what if he inherited the building and started out trying to do the right thing and protecting his renters with the idea of helping the renters but got caught up in circumstances?"

I guess, I basically take the spark and if it is a word or phrase, I think about what it means. If it’s a situation that seems straight forward, I turn it around and think about how it might be a twisted situation after all. “What if?” Is one basic question to ask that can lead to lots of stories besides SF ones.

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