As a fiction writer, you have lots of ideas in your head for stories you can write. But the problem with most story ideas is this: they’re not actually stories, they’re just ideas.
In order for an idea to become a story, there has to be certain elements in play:
- A Protagonist—one that readers will root for
- An Antagonist (or Antagonistic force)—something specific to oppose the Protagonist and provide conflict in the story
- Stakes—something must be at stake for the Protagonist
This is bare minimum. Without these three things you don’t have a story.
A lot of times writers confuse a “story” with what I call an “idea seed.” An “idea seed” is just the beginnings of a story. It’s a blip of inspiration—a character, a scene, a situation, a location. But it’s not a story.
To help illustrate the difference, let’s look at an example.
Let’s say a writer came to me with the following idea: a small-town girl who just graduated from college moves to the big city and has to deal with life in her new environment.
This writer has already written a good portion of her first draft, but then somewhere around the middle she got stuck. She wasn’t sure where else to go with the story.
The first thing I’d point out to this writer is that she doesn’t have a story. What she has is a character, a situation and an episodic timeline of events.
But it’s not a story.
Something has to happen, in order for it to become a story. An Antagonist has to be introduced, stakes must come into play, and there must be conflict.
What this writer has at the moment is an “idea seed.”
The story development process allows you to plant that seed and allow it to grow. You do that by asking a lot of questions.
- Who is this girl?
- What are her dreams?
- What made her want to move to the city after college?
- What does she want in her career?
- What does she want, in general?
Once we get to know the Protagonist a little, then we can ask things, like:
- What could potentially get in the way of her getting what she wants?
This will help you to come up with possible antagonists or antagonistic forces that could oppose the Protagonist.
To fill in the details and continue with the example, let’s say this girl has always dreamed of being a serious journalist, so she moved to the city to get a job working at a magazine. More than anything in the world she wants to write about things that matter, she wants to make a difference in the world through her words.
OK, great—we know who this Protagonist is. Now we need to fill in the details on the “something happening” in the story. Let’s say the “something happening” is she has a hard time finding a job in her field, and someone tells her that she has to “pay her dues first,” so she decides to take a job as an assistant to the editor of one of the most popular magazines in the world. Oh, and this editor (aka: the Antagonist) is a total nightmare, bitch-boss from hell.
Now we’ve got a story rolling. But we’re not finished yet, because we still haven’t put anything at stake.
So let’s say the Protagonist has been in a relationship with the most amazing guy for almost five years now, they’ve moved in together and are on the marriage track. But suddenly this new job of hers is getting in the way—she’s not able to spend as much time with him; she breaks their plans because she has to work; and he only sees her in passing now when she gets home from work and before she falls asleep.
You see where I’m going with this one?
This relationship means more than anything to her—but so does working at a magazine and getting to make a difference with her writing. This story now has inherent conflict built right in.
We could keep going with this, developing the idea even further, adding more conflict, a strong theme, and a subplot or two. If we kept going, we’d likely end up with something similar to The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger.
BUT—this idea is still generic enough that, if developed in a different way—a different Protagonist with a different desire, something else at stake, a different type of magazine, etc.—we could create a whole new story.
The choice is yours. You get to take the idea seed in your head and play with it, tear it apart, break it down, add things, take things away and ask questions. The deeper you go and the more you’re willing to move away from your original seed—in order to optimize the story— the better story you’ll end up with in the end.
It’s unfortunate, but many writers skip over the story development stage, and jump right from idea seed to first draft. In doing this you’re missing a huge opportunity to make the most of your story idea—by developing and planning it.
The Story Roadmap Workshop
My self-paced Story Roadmap workshop will help you take the idea seed in your head and develop it into a full-blown story. Then it will walk you through creating your story’s structure and building a scene roadmap that you can use to write a strong first draft.
Story Roadmap also comes with a bonus: a free 60-minute coaching coaching call with me, so you can get feedback from a pro writing coach on the work you’ve done using this workshop.