Handling the First Story Ideas

Every author has their own way of going about getting ready to write a story. Some outline in a bit of freehand, noting only vital plot points, character notes, and perhaps a few scenes that popped into their head; while others meticulously outline every scene and character point; and some don’t outline at all— they get an idea, a character, and start writing immediately, watching everything unfold as they go. There’s no right or wrong way to go about the storytelling process. It’s always a matter of what works best for each writer.

This week, I’m going to talk about how I handle the beginning of a story idea. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to expand on how I prep for a story, including which outlining process I use, and when. Some facets will depend on the type of story I’m telling (such as short story, novella, novella serial, or novel), and some parts are universal across the board for me. Not everyone out there is going to give a damn about my writing habits, but for those of you who are interested, or have contacted me over the past year asking about them, this week starts a return of those blog entry themes.

For those folks more interested in my RPG related writing habits, don’t worry: I’ll be jumping back and forth over time between fiction related posts, RPG related posts, and posts that could be applied to both styles of writing. Hit the RSS feed button if you don’t want to miss anything.

When a story idea first comes to me, it can come in pretty much any order. Sometimes it’ll be a random scene, like watching a teaser trailer for a movie. Sometimes it’ll be the introduction of a character, which is probably akin to meeting a person for the first time for me: the character piques my interest, but at this stage all I’m seeing is the external profile. I know there’s a lot more under the surface, in their minds and hearts, and maybe some dark secrets or tragedies in their past. It’s just a matter of time before I discover it all. Other times, a story will come to me as an idea, which can best be described as a What if? type of thing. Most commonly such an idea might see the original seeds planted from a book, movie, news report, snippet of a conversation I overhear in public— all kinds of points of origin.

Once any number of those things enter my mind, I make sure to record them. These early recordings are always put into Evernote. The reason being, it could be later the same day, the next day, or even a couple of weeks later, but more ideas and questions about that story are going to come up. And whether I’m at the computer in my home office when it happens, or reading on my tablet, or on the go with my smartphone, Evernote is my choice for being able to update and expand those idea files no matter where I’m at, while keeping them consistent across all my stationary and mobile devices.

During the early days, weeks, and sometimes even months, I don’t force the story seeds into expanding. I let it happen. I’ve been an author for over 25 years, and I know how my mind works by this time. While I might have any number of different story or character ideas brewing at any one time, I know that as things get real (as they say) and a story is forming at full tilt in the back of my mind, those seeds will expand themselves with more frequency. A character will reveal new facets of itself. A story idea will bring some twists with it. Or a scene will lead into another, either one that came before or that comes after.

And of course, brief notes go into Evernote.

Now, as a story starts taking on that type of early development speed, it also requires more note taking. While Evernote is great for my quick jots and such, when it comes time to really hit the development, I prefer to use Scrivener (but I still use WORD for my manuscript writing, old habits die hard).

For this example, I’m going to pretend the development is for a novella serial.

The first thing I do is open my Novella Serial template that I created in Scrivener, which looks something like this (you can click the image to enlarge):

Scrivener Blog Pic 1_zpsf0tpfneu

Where I go first will depend on what I’m developing at the time. It might be one of the major or minor character templates that are there if I expand the Characters or Places folders, or it might be notes that I place into the Story Arc Overview at the top of the listing, which would cover story points for the entire novella serial. Don’t worry, I’ll go more into the actual character and places templates that I use in an upcoming blog entry, which will also include some of the questions I answer during the character and location development process.

A story is not ready to write, though, until I have the Premise section completed.

The Premise is usually only a couple of sentences that tell what the story is about. This is also sometimes referred to as the “elevator pitch,” because it’s the type of story summary you would give in an elevator if asked what the story is about. It’s vitally important that writers get a Premise developed, because it brings a story into focus for both you and any publisher or agent you might pitch it to. Even if you’re self-publishing, a Premise is vital to getting the idea of the story out there during your marketing. Just as it should do for a publisher or agent, it has to hook the readers’ interest so they’ll buy it.

Before you get your Premise ready for prime-time, though (which I’ll discuss more about next week), you’re going to go through a series of “What if?” questions, with each subsequent question drilling further down from the last.

For example, in the novella series I’ll be launching later this summer called Prize Not the Mask, I tell the tale of a super-hero street vigilante named Night Sentinel. At first, I didn’t know a lot about him or the story, and actually the early version of the character that I thought was being developed in the back of my mind turned out not to be the character I ended up with in the end. The final character is actually a lot more interesting, and allows me to explore more facets of the super-hero setting throughout the serial.

Originally, I knew he was a street vigilante, but was not rich or powerful or highly trained like any sort of Batman archetype. He lived in a low to moderate income area of Sentinel City, and had an 18 year old son. The son gave him the same stress and trouble that most kids that age do— he wasn’t keeping a steady job, was out running around with friends until all hours (the typical stretching of the wings), was having girl drama, and all that jazz.

I knew that Night Sentinel would be framed for a high profile murder, and that he would end-up in Solitaire Island Federal Prison for super-criminals, where the story would show readers what life was like inside such a prison, with its own set of characters, interpersonal relationships, and rivalries.

As I was developing the Premise, and asking my “what if” questions (again, I’ll go into them step-by-step in the next entry), I also discovered a lot more about the character. I found out that he used to be a very successful hitman that worked for various criminal organizations on a freelance basis. I learned that he had once been hired to assassinate a Lunarian diplomat (a common alien race in the setting), and that not only did he fail, but his escape what thwarted by the diplomat’s entourage. Who he was, and what he had tried to do, was kept secret from human law enforcement, and the Lunarian diplomat (also a sort of priest/monk as many of his species are), got into the character’s emotions and convinced him to change— to become a hero and defender, to not only atone for his past but to also help build a better world for his son. This resulted in some training, and the gift of gravity-controlling gauntlets.

Okay, I know that’s a bit hard to follow, but I wanted to show how developing the Premise led to new character/story points being discovered, without giving away any spoilers for the upcoming story just yet. But you should get the idea. By developing that premise and asking “What If” questions, new facets of the tale came to light.

Naturally, not all the answers one gets from asking such questions will be used. Some will simply be too silly or too off the mark for the story.

Anyway, we’re out of space this week. Next week, I’ll go through, step-by-step, some of the questions I asked myself about those characters and that story, and show how some of the background and actual story points came to be. Note that it’ll contain a couple of spoilers, but I’ll keep them to a minimum and not reveal things that will ruin the story before you read it later this summer.


  1. Ge Beji   •  

    Interesting to get an insight into the inner workings of that creative process. I’m more of a “develop as you go”-type of writer, w/o much structure aside from the premise (my initial back cover blurb ;), but i’ll be following with interest 😉

  2. Lee Szczepanik, Jr. Lee Szczepanik, Jr.   •     Author

    My development style varies depending on the piece. For a short story, I just go at it. For a single novella, I like to map out the three plot points first. For a novel, it’s usually the three plot points and then scenes as they comes to me. I do a little bit of outlining for novels using the corkboard in Scrivener, which allows me outline scenes on digital index cards that I can then easily drag the order around in (almost identical to how we outlined screenplay scenes when I worked in that medium), because I don’t necessarily write a novel in progressive order from beginning to end. I’ll jump around in the story as I need to.

    For a novella series, it’s a strange hybrid. Each individual novella gets character notes, three plot points, and some scene outlining, but nothing major. The bulk of the outlining process goes into the “season outline,” which is akin to developing the season of a TV show. I have to map out where each novella (or “episode”) will go, the subplots and interpersonal relationships between major and supporting characters, and all that jazz. Then not only does each novella get its three plot points, but the season as a whole also gets three plot points for the main story arc.

    I’ll be covering all of that in the coming weeks.

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