How to Write: Getting Ideas for a Story

(Part 1 in an occasional series of rambling blogs from an amateur author)

Closed notebook and fountain pen

Introduction

This article may seem a bit selfindulgent from someone who’s not yet (as at 05/06/2021) published, but one of the things I’m asked most often is “I’d love to write, but where do I get ideas from?” And this is usually from people who I know have more than enough skill and capability to create a novel, and, who do have a smattering of ideas, however thin.

So, this is an attempt to explain how I go about writing my books. And please note, this is the way I go about things – it is far from being the only way, and certainly will not be the best approach for everyone. There’s plenty of advice out there if you browse around, but the important thing is this: Pick up that pen / keyboard and start writing.

By way of disclaimer, I now have some six books fully written and in different states of play on the road to pulication, with two on the way to completion, and three others ‘storyboarded’ – so at least in terms of getting the ideas for your your story together I can hopefully offer some tips.

It’s all about the story

Hmm, where to begin…?
Once upon a time a man had an idea for a book. He wrote it up, got it published, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Except that never happened, not to anyone, ever; there’s a lot more work to it than that! I’m assuming you already have some idea of what type of story you want to create, even if at this stafe it’s only the vaguest of ideas.

When I start to create a story – and it is just a story at this stage – it is firstly about scenes. I come up with a minimum of three scenes, reflecting the typical story arc of a beginning, a middle(s), and an end. And when I say ‘scene’, what that actually is can very hugely. Maybe the scene is almost a still, with someone traversing a landscape; maybe it’s some people having a particularly significant conversation; maybe it’s a piece of action such as a chase, a battle, a car crash. with lots going on. Whatever, it should be something important in what you want to tell.

The first scene can be the most important, for it (often) determines the type of story you are telling, sets the tone, and establishes at least some of the key characters. But then, the end scene is almost as important, it helps you think about what your are driving towards. You may well come up with a multitude of ‘middle’ scenes, and that’s fine. Some scenes may present key events in the story, others may just help to portray the world and the people you are telling a story about. And some scenes may not even get used, perhaps being part of a prelude.

Personally, I always start with the opening scene, meeting the key characters just as the readers will; but this is your story, that might not work for you. Perhaps you’ve a grand finale in mind, and you need to work backwards from there. Or maybe your story takes a dramatic swing mid-way, and that crux point is what you want to flesh out first.

Note, you are not fixing anything in stone here – this is your story. As you write you can create and flesh out the scenes more, maybe some scenes won’t even appear in the final story, and you may find the ending scene changes completely! At this stage all these scenes are just a hook to get you going.

So, for all your scenes ask yourself the following… What is the setting (time and place)? What has just happened / is happening? Who is in it and who are they (and what is their role)? How did they get to the situation they are in? What are they doing and what do they want and what do they plan next? Or, here’s a slightly different way of thinking about it: You’ve got a blank stage and you need to fill it. And critically, things have gone on before your characters come onto the stage, and things will happen to them when they leave it. When you know all the above and more about your scenes you are well on the way to crafting your story; there’s more work in store but we’ll deal with that later.

The point of a scene is not about answering a mass of facts like above, it is about creating a setting you should be able to imagine yourself stepping into. A scene is not an event, it is the way you imagine and present that event. Open your eyes and look around: What does it feel like? What can see as you look around you? What do the people’s voices sound like? How do they behave… (but perhaps more about them later). I find being connected to the scene helps me write the story.

But how do I come up with a scene?

Now, that much I can’t tell you – that is down to your own imagination and inspiration; after all, writing is not a mathematical formula! But maybe the following – very different – pointers will help.

  • Maybe you already know in general what type of story you want to tell; “it’s about a person called a, who meets b, and together they want to x, but the end result is y“. Start by thinking about that. Imagine a few parts of those events in more detail. How did they meet, what was special about it, where was it? And bingo, there’s some of your scenes.
  • If you’re doing a historical story, then you should have a feel for the span of time you’re going to cover; what happens in the bigger world during this period that will affect your characters? There’s lots of research you can do to get a better picture of the settings and likely action, and maybe you can use that for your scenes.
  • Perhaps your story is heavily focussed on a person and their life. There’s more on dealing with characters below, but in terms of your scenes, think: What part of that person’s life will your story show, and what are the key things that happens to them in this period? Maybe your first scene will show them in a happy carefree life (with ominous overtones), or maybe you want to start with something traumatic.
  • And inspiration is all around us. That person opposite you on the train (when we’re allowed to travel again!) – what’s their story, are they on an important errand, not just the 9-5 commute? Take a place you know well; what unexpected events might happen there? That story on the news that interested you – is that something you could research and develop into fiction? That old lady who stops and stares thoughtfully out to sea – what past events might she be dwelling on? How different might the world look if x happens?

For me a range of different things lie influence that initial scene creation. So, for Sunset, books 1 and 2 were inspired by fleshing out a dream (or a nightmare), with books 3 and 4 influenced by trips to Berlin and Belfast, placing history in the setting of other worlds. The Rescued Year very much came from my angry response to populism such as Brexit; Hamefarin started by thinking how someone who had never been to Shetland before would react on their first visit; Marquis of the Southern Vale is inspired by the WW2 Shetland Bus operation; and Once Upon a Valley came about through thinking what a future-day fairy tale might look like.

It’s all about the people

Now, with those inital thoughts in place it’s time to switch to thinking a bit more about the people, rather than dealing with the rest of the story. (There’s more about that in the next section.)

So, let’s bring in the cast. (There’s that stage comparison again!) You already have some of those from the scenes you’ve developed, but maybe there’s others you have in mind who haven’t featured yet. You will have your ‘key characters’ and those who are of less importance. Just concentrate on the key characters at first, whether protagonists or antagonists., but that’s not to say others won’t also feature.

There’s the basics you obviously need to think about with a character – what is their name, their age, their physical appearance? Is there anything unique about the way they move or speak, the way they dress? That’s probably easy enough to draw together for your characters. But think a bit more, for there’s at least two more things you need to work on, unless them to end up resembling cardboard cut-outs.

Firstly, what is their history – what is their background? What has happened to them up to the point where they appear in your story? Not just what skills and abilities they bring with them, but also their experiences, which probably influence how they behave. And as part of this – which may be critical to your story – what are their desires, what do they want?

Secondly, what is their personality like? That covers a whole range of things. Are they the sort of person who reacts to events or tries to shape them? Do they tend to speak up or keep quiet? Do they tend to trust others or regard them with suspicion? Do they think ok themselves first and others second? Not forgetting to what quirks they bring with them, what their likes and dislikes may be.

That may sound like a lot of work, but I like to get to the point where I know the characters well enough that I can imagine how they would react in any given situation; what it would be like to sit down and have a beer / coffee with them. (Granted, not every characters may be someone you would want to converse with…!)

All this work you put in on scenes and characters may not end up on the page – but it will help you in your writing, and mean that you end up creating something that has more depth to it.

Starting to stitch it all together

OK, so by now you know your key characters; you know how your story starts and how it (maybe) ends, and some way-points you think it will pass through on the way. Now it’s time to start gluing an outline of everything in place. Obviously make sure your scenes are in the right order, then ask yourself: How do the characters get from one scene to the other, and what goes on in between? This “How” is an important part of guiding your writing. Sometimes its obvious (to you at least) how the story will flow from one scene to the next, but you may find you need to start planning extra scenes to fill in gaps! I’ve said it before… you’re not setting anything in stone in the above, as you write you may well want to change things.

There’s a number of ways of how you arrange all this. You could be very organised and create a set of ‘storyboards‘ – essentially detailing not just the scenes you’ve already created, but each step in between, so you know exactly what you’ll be writing about. Some storyboards can be quite detailed – listing events, people involved, key items of dialogue to cover, maybe even a visual ‘mock up’ of each board. Others may be more a guide in the shape of just bullet points arranged in draft ‘chapters‘. Some may use logic maps or diagrams – have a browse around, see what you think works best for you, and that may change over time.

For me – and this may not work best for you – I use the broad road map provided by the different scenes I’ve created, I have a file with notes on characters and places, and then just start writing. There’s certain events highlighted that I need to ‘hit’ on that road map, things that are probably going to happen… But I also go with the flow in terms of how the characters are reacting to the world around them. It starts with what they are doing, saying and thinking in that opening scene, and just carries on from there. So for example, part way through Once Upon a Valley I make a pretty big change to the flow – I didn’t plan that, it’s just the way the characters led me.

Remember what I said about getting to know your characters? Let’s say there’s a storm. Depending on which character is your focus in the story, they might hide until it’s all over, spend a lot of effort making sure everything is secure, venture out into the winds to make sure their neighbours are safe, or use it to leave without anyone noticing. And your other characters will react to this according to their own personalities. All this will help shape the story.

It’s all about the setting

I’ve mentioned scenes and characters, but it’s also important that you think about where the story is located. This may be one place or a range of locations. It’s a lot easier to write your story if you know most of the details around where it is set. I said above you should be able to imagine sitting down for a chat with the key characters; just so, you should be able to imagine what it’s like to walk through your setting, completely independent of the scenes. There may be parts of the setting you don’t even visit in the story, but knowing they exist helps fix the places in your mind.

Maybe your story is set around a few households, in which case you will want to pay attention to a lot of the exteriors and interiors of buildings (really, they went with those curtains?). Perhaps your story revolves around a range of exotic locations, in which case you may want to concentrate on the stunning natural wonders, the glamour, and even the seedy underbelly. And those of you writing Fantasy and Science Fiction may have the hardest task of all, as you have to create whole worlds from scratch, which is not a task to be undertaken lightly.

In some stories the setting may just be that – the stage your characters walk through. But in some stories the setting itself forms an important component, as important to the story as your protagonist.

Sometimes a setting works best by using somewhere you’re familiar with and that you can easily convey to others, but by all means put in the effort to create somewhere new. Whichever way you go, you should be able to answer a number of things about the setting, including: What is its history? What smells are on the air? What does the ground feel like beneath your feet? What is the climate? What is any architecture like? Is it down at heel or elegant; heavily trodden or virgin soil? What is in the background (scenery, people, vehicles)? And importantly… what is unique about this place? (Or is its very averageness a factor in the story?)

As with your characters, not all of this may end up making it onto the page, but it’s about you knowing it all so that you can just get on with writing the story.

Hints and tips

The above may all sound like a chore – but it’s not (or shouldn’t be)! This is often a ‘fun’ part of creating a story, where you’re really having to flex your imagination. Sure, there is a lot od work to do, but it’s all good enjoyable stuff. The following are a few completely random thoughts on creatin a story which may help.

  1. When you’re at the very start, don’t be tempted to plunge into writing the whole thing just because you’ve thought up of one or two good sentences; you almost cerrtainly will hit a block a few paragraphs later when you’ve run out of that one idea! Scribble down what you thought of for later reference, and go back to finishing creating your key scenes / characters / settings for the story.
  2. Do create cards which describe your key characters – electronic or otherwise. Describe the things highlighted in the earlier section (because you will at some point forget what makes each character unique) so that you can quickly reference it.
  3. That particular bit of narrative or dialogue you thought of before – don’t forget about it, write it down (maybe like a scrapbook or more organised as an electronic file, whatever works for you). Maybe it will be something you can copy and paste in later, maybe it will be something you will end up using in a different story entirely.
  4. Make sure to keep anything that helps you plan out your settings or anything else, too – maybe photos of the actual place, or ones that just look like the town / building / mountain range you imagine. Perhaps you’ve done a rough sketch or drawn a map to help understand the layout (highly recommended). Whatever it is, make sure you store ir where you can find it!
  5. Do look for software tools to help you, whether that’s just making sure you know all the tricks of your word processor or getting specialist writing software. I’ve used both y-Writer and Scrivener (now available for Mac as well as Windows), and while they can seem cumbersome at first, once I got use to them I found them excellent tools to help both organise and write up my stories.
  6. Remember, this is your story, nothing is fixed. Add to your background notes as you go along, and make sure if you start writing a character or setting differently than what you initially planned that you update this in your notes. Too easy to make a mistake if you don’t!

And of course, get writing! Once you’ve done enough planning that you need, it’s time to stop putting things of and start the hard graft – imagination alone won’t get that book written. But writing is perhaps a subject for a different blog…

Conclusion

So, to give you the short version…

  • Know what type of story you are planning to write.
  • Imagine the scene that will form the opening; fix it so that you can picture it clearly in your mind.
  • Now do the same for your planned ending; and then for some mid-points.
  • Make sure you know the order of the events in your story – plan it in as much or as little detail as you need.
  • Get to know your characters, listen to them as you write and see in which direction they take things.
  • Go for a walk along the streets and hills of your setting, sit in the houses, try the local food.
  • Don’t let yourself get tied down to what you planned; if your story needs it, change anything as you go along, be it characters, settings or events.
  • (As above) Get going on the actual writing!

Good luck! Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the whole process; you are creating something, you are a storyteller – will you finish the task you have set yourself and become a writer?

3 notebooks used in The Rescued Year
Updated 07/06/21

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