From Spark to Draft: How to Take an Idea and Develop It Into a Story
The road from story spark to finished manuscript is long and rocky. Often we stumble at the first pothole. The first gate. Or we get so far and the landslide of life kills the story idea before we manage to finish a first draft. Even a short story or a picture book needs a mountain of perseverance to come to completion.
How many times have you had a spark of an idea for a story and then not known what to do with it? Do you keep an ideas journal? Or like me, do you clip little bits from newspaper stories or save images? It’s rare that we come up with a whole story in one attempt, from spark to story outline to draft. Usually what we have is an idea that interests or excites us, but we’re not sure where to take it next. Is it really that original? Is it even a story yet?
Mostly the answer to both of those questions is NO. The most exciting and original stories come from … waiting. Waiting and thinking and asking what if, and thinking some more. Part of that waiting and thinking process is to add more sparks. If you go about developing your idea and adding more things to it, you may well end up with something far, far better. One idea is OK, another idea that crashes into it and creates sparks is what you’re after.
Often writers get so excited about their initial single idea that they run with that and can’t understand why the final story is flat or uninspiring. Our brains tend to offer us the most familiar options first. A brain is like a massive filing cabinet, and the drawers at the back are dusty and rusty. The drawers at the front that we use all the time run smoothly. But they do so because you’re constantly calling on what you already know. Even if you think it’s new, it’s very likely not to be.
If you have ever done any free writing, particularly the methods espoused by Natalie Goldberg in Wild Mind, you’ll know that feeling that hits around the ten-minute mark (she recommends writing for a minimum of 20 minutes). It’s as if your brain has poured out all the usual stuff, and then it starts drawing on a whole other world of material you didn’t even remember or know was in there. That’s what these steps below are working from.
Like any kind of writing, your idea is only the first step. It’s what you do with it after that that counts. You may find all of these helpful, and use them at different times — or use all of them in a progression. It’s good to start with a spark or idea you’ve had that you like — but haven’t done anything with yet.
- Write down your idea — everything you think you know about it so far. (Apart from anything else, that way you know you won’t lose your original impulse and thoughts.)
- Brainstorm all around your idea — use diagrams, word lists, word maps, pictures. Fill at least one whole page with whatever comes to mind. Push your idea as much as possible, and don’t censor yourself — no matter how weird or unconnected, get it down on the big page.
I use A3 sketch pads for this. Don’t rush it. Come back to the page several times over a day or more. Add more pages if you want to. Add ideas about your characters and your settings.
- Use a highlighter marker and mark anything that connects to your initial idea in an exciting or different way. Keep a look out for anything that creates a little buzz in your brain.
- Now go back to your first idea and be open-minded about what you can add from your brainstorming. You should look first at the things that created the buzz. How do they connect to your idea? How will they add to your idea, make it more interesting, more original? Most importantly, how will they add depth to both your characters and plot?
- Think about structure. Yes, right at this point! You need a story that has a central “problem” or conflict, and this may well have been part of your initial spark. You need the conflict to increase, and you need the tension to increase throughout the story. If you’re not sure, look at your brainstorming. Are there ideas in there that can be used to increase conflict?
- Who is your main character? What is different about them? How do their character traits help to both increase the problem and create the solution? These might sound like formulaic questions, but they are the basic structural elements that so many people ignore at their peril. The story you build on top will be yours alone, and original as you want it to be, but without the structure to hold it up, the story will falter and maybe fail.
- Where is the highest point of action in your story? Is this the climax? (It should be.) Is it going to come about ¾ of the way through the story, or near the end? If it’s in the middle, it needs to move.
- How does the story end? Does it bring the reader back to the beginning in some way (circular) or does it take the reader to a new place? What do you think the theme is — what the story is really about? Is it layered underneath? If you don’t think you have a theme, can you see where you might add a little more to suggest it?
- How will your story begin? Can you start with a great sentence or two that sets the scene, starts the action, will lead to the problem (or introduce it straight away, perhaps)? For some writers, once they have these opening sentences, the rest of the story will flow. For others, they will have to start with a “holding place” sentence or two and come back later to rework it.
- You will start to feel as if you want to write the story — now! Hold off until you have such a strong sense of the ‘whole’ of the story that you know you can write a first draft. This doesn’t mean you should outline it, but that the story feels fully realised enough to write it all now without getting stuck.
This won’t work for everyone. True pantsers who like to just write and write until they have something to work with probably won’t like this method at all. But if you’re tired of half-finished stories or stories that dribble away from your ‘spark’ and never come to fruition, give it a try.