I’ve been writing for the better part of twenty years. Granted, it’s always been low-key. I haven’t published any novels. The only publishing creds I have to speak of are for poetry. Still, I’ve been writing novels since I started writing at all. I’ve taken dozens of ideas and turned them into full-length stories, often times even sagas. I’ve had practice at taking a tiny idea and developing it into something grand. I’ve been asked – semi-frequently – what process I use to do this.
It seems that a lot of new writers don’t know where to start when they begin tackling a novel. Granted, it’s not really something that you can just whip together. Things don’t simply fall into place all at once and make perfect sense. Sometimes, it does require a bit of a knack. And, seeing as some of my favorite parts of writing are the beginning stages of development, I might have some tips to offer.
This is part of the method I use to develop ideas into a finished story. Consider it stages One through Three, of Five.
i. The Raw Idea (Stage One):
What do you have to work with? Keywords, half-ideas for scenes, the description of a character? Write it all down. Use the keywords to form a brainstorming cloud. Write what you can of your scene ideas, and beneath it, ask any questions you have. How to get your characters there? Who are the characters in the scene? What are they to each other? What does the scene represent or what are the themes developing in it? The more questions you ask, the better. Keep yourself thinking by constantly asking questions until you have more than just a few keywords. Find yourself stuck? What other ideas have you had lately? Genres you’ve wanted to dabble in? Ideas that have struck you that you didn’t have another place for? What can you combine to give yourself a more exciting idea? Once you’ve developed a single-sentence synopsis, you can move ahead.
What is a single-sentence synopsis? Your one-sentence synopsis should give you the broad-stroke plot arc. For my example, we’ll do a small romance plot because it’s what has come to mind first. Example: Matilda is a wealthy lawyer who finds it hard to commit to one man, but when she meets a pair of brothers she learns she doesn’t have to commit to just one.
ii. The Three-Act Outline (Stage Two):
The simplest way to start, in my experience, is with a three-act outline. Taking your one sentence synopsis, break it into the three pieces. Example: Matilda is a wealthy lawyer, struggling to find satisfaction in her love life (Act One). She meets a pair of brothers (Act Two). Together they explore a new kind of relationship dynamic (Act Three). Bam! You’ve got your starting point, your moment of change, and your end goal. This is where I typically try to pinpoint my primary research topics. What elements of the story are things I am unfamiliar with? What may come up as I investigate these topics? Knowing a little ahead of time gives me a chance to do some cursory reading and possibly get some fresh ideas to work with.
iii. The Second, Third, and sometimes even Fourth Revisions of the Outline (Stage Two: Part Two)
From here, you’ll break these individual acts down again into one sentence summaries (one sentence per act). This will give you the opportunity to further flesh out the general idea of your plot. You’ll need to begin thinking about your big character motives and brainstorming about some of your subplots. Your one sentence synopsis for each act should give you the same basic structure as your original one sentence: meaning, it should show the general story arc involved in making that specific act happen start to finish. Example: Matilda is forty, recently divorced, and hunting for a renewed sense of purpose and excitement (Act One). While at an elite jewelry auction, she meets twin brothers who both stir up different feelings – and for once, Matilda’s non-compliance in monogamy isn’t a deal breaker (Act Two). The three of them, intrigued by the opportunity presented, take a vacation to somewhere tropical to explore the possibilities of their relationship (Act Three).
You can develop your outline this way infinitely, or at least until you’ve got an outline you can work with. Every time, simply break your one-sentence synopsis down into three new one-sentence summaries. Don’t be afraid to give your outline alternate paths; I’m a big believer in saving all of your inspiration (because stories can be formed organically, and sometimes, the answer to your current problem is somewhere deep in your original notes) so I recommend making note of any and all alternate paths that intrigue you. Develop them as much or as little as you’d like. My favorite part of writing is how things can change as you go along and the story you started with becomes something completely different and unexpected by the end. I love to explore this natural evolution, and alternate paths are one of the ways I’ve learned to do that successfully.
iv. The First Draft (Stage Three):
As I mentioned above, I save everything, so my First Drafts can be quite a mess. As I go along, I often make notes in the draft as I come up with ideas; my notes are usually stream of conscious style, full of questions and sudden answers and wandering theories. I always keep my outline open in a document while I write, to allow myself the ability to immediately make notes or changes. This type of loose planning allows for a lot of transformative growth.
My outlines will typically go through another draft (maybe two) as I write up the First Draft. By the end, I have a reasonable idea of what worked and what didn’t, what will probably need serious re-tooling or rewriting, and what will need to be scrapped entirely.