Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why story ideas can feel too small

Today I'm continuing my post on why the dandelion story was too small of an idea. On Monday, I said it was partially because everything I'd come up with was backstory. The part of the story I'd worked out was all stuff that happened before chapter one, so when it came time to write the book, I fumbled around for a few chapters before retiring the manuscript altogether.

If you missed my Monday post, I'm going to copy and paste the story description below. If you've already read the story description, you can skip down to more reasons why the story idea was small.

The dandelion story is about a girl named Paige who had spent all her life living as a tomboy. When Paige is a junior (I think) she moves halfway across the country, leaving behind a close group of friends, and a very, very serious boyfriend. Who’s so ticked with her for moving, he refuses to talk to her after she tells him she’s leaving. (I’ve already told you I had some issues with character believability…) So Paige moves to her new home in suburban St. Louis, where she completely transforms herself. She doesn’t keep in touch with any of her old friends, she becomes a complete girly-girl, and even dates a new guy. Then for some reason I can’t remember, Paige’s family gets sent back to her original home a year later.

Here are some reasons why the story idea wound up being too small:

I was writing about myself.

I mean, not really, because it wasn't something I'd done, but in my head, Paige was me and she was fulfilling one of my life fantasies, which was to move away, become fabulous and beautiful, then return home and have everyone be shocked by who I really was. (One of the most crushing moments of my life was when my husband and I moved back to KC after living in Florida for 2 1/2 years, and a woman at church said, "Well, Stephanie, you look exactly like you did!")

I hadn't given Paige thoughts or preferences of her own because I didn't realize she needed them. I grew as a writer when I stopped basing characters on myself.

I was short on life experience.

A brilliant member of our community mentioned this last Friday, that they feel like they need more life experience before they can make much progress novel-wise. The same was true for me, but I wasn't smart enough to realize it. I needed to mature, to broaden my view of the world. And that's okay.

I hadn't read very much.

I had read a lot of stuff for school, which was great and necessary, but I wasn't reading many current releases. Which meant I didn't know what else was out there. Which meant I didn't know if my idea was fresh or not.

I didn't know how to ask "Why?" or "What if...?"

Those two questions are key to how I currently expand plots and deepen characterization. Why does her boyfriend stop talking to her? What's in his past that leads him to behaving that way? What if he did talk to her between finding out she was moving and the truck pulling away; what would the story look like then? How would she react differently during her time in St. Louis? Why does she transform herself during her time away? Did she previously think there was something wrong with who she was? What triggered that behavior?

And so forth. In my early writing days, I was under the false impression that ideas should just "come to me." I didn't think I should have to work for them. BIG IDEAS TAKE WORK. Stephen King likens creating a story to unearthing a fossil. You have to dig for it, work for it.

How do you "unearth" your ideas? Is it by writing a couple scenes? Talking to friends? Taking walks? Making a plot spreadsheet?

And don't forget - writing prompt entries are due today!


  1. I always say the best thing my college taught me was how to ask the right questions. =) That's how I expand my stories too, by asking those "what if"s and "why"s. I also love to explore different ways the story could go, even when I know where it'll end up. Often leads to a few great twists or motivation I wouldn't have known had I kept strictly to The Way It Must Be.

  2. Great thoughts here. I think I struggle with this too. I need to force myself to take a few days and ask those questions. I too have made the mistake of not wondering why it all just didn't "come to be"! Gosh, that would be a whole lot easier!! haha I do think that if an original idea just won't leave you, and you feel like something is there, you can turn it into something. (By the way, I kind of like that start...I think you could go somewhere with it!! :) Isn't that EVERY girl's fantasy!!)

  3. I had a "mary-jane" character just like yours - her name was Austine and she was small and dark and fiery, the exact opposite of lanky, stoic me. I loved her and her love interest so much that if anyone read my story now, they'd think "Enough with Austine already!" :)

    I agree with the whole life-experience thing. That especially works against homeschoolers.

  4. I develop ideas by thinking about them....a lot. Asking what if and why too.

    Ellyn - I both agree and disagree with what you said about homeschoolers and life experience. From my own life, I think I have had some great opportunities that someone in school couldn't have, that have led to some great book ideas.
    One in particular is being able to go through JFA trainings 5+ times ( After each training, I went out and used it, usually on a University campus. This has led to lots of life experience that will really play into my current manuscript.


  5. When I first started writing, I thought that the idea that I had HAD to stay the way it was. Then I'd write it, and then everyone would wow at my creative abilities... haha, not so.

    Asking questions sounds super easy, but for me, sometimes it the hardest part. I'll have thought about my story for hours and hours, trying to get a big enough plot for it, that sometimes I overlook things that could be questioned. It always helps me to write all my ideas out and look at them on paper. It's easier to recognize the holes that way. That, then talk to someone else about it a little bit too. Because everyone's brain works differently, someone else always can ask questions that you may never have thought of on your own.

    About the homeschooling thing, Ellyn I know totally what you're talking about. I graduated high school this last spring and had been homeschooled my entire life. You do end up missing out on some stuff that kids who go to school go through. But I also agree with you, Jordan. Because we're homeschooled, we get to do some pretty awesome things because we're not in school doing the same old same old everyday. :)

  6. In a way, I'm with Clarebear -- I figure out my plot best by free-writing. With my first book, I didn't plot at all, and it definitely came back and bit me. So the second time around, I wanted to switch to Team Plotter, but I had no idea how; the plotting scene-by-scene thing doesn't work for me. I found out that free-writing whatever thoughts I stumbled upon really helped me -- all the information was jumbled and completely out of order, but I was able to go back through and pick the pieces out. And I realized things I probably wouldn't have thought to wonder about in the first place.

  7. Jenna, what's Team Plotter? I'm unfamiliar with that.

  8. I don't know about the life experience for me. I haven't really done many of the things my characters do, and the only manuscript I've actually finished the first draft on is a fantasy novel, so I guess a lot of my "life experience" comes from my parents talking to us about things. That's one thing I'm really grateful for about my family: there are no taboo subjects. My parents may say we can't talk about a particular subject at the moment, but we always come back to it (if the person who brought it up remembers :D). I'm actually writing a courtship novel about a young woman who comes back to her hometown after nine years away and has to deal with the skeletons in her closet. There's a lot more to the story (including, of course, a courtship), but I'm only sixteen, so I've obviously never been involved in a courtship.
    Sorry, the above may sound really jumbled, but what I'm trying to say is, how much does life experience truly play into the story. I understand it's needed, somewhat, but fantasy writers obviously haven't had the experiences their characters have, so is life experience for everything your characters do needed?
    Again, sorry for the rather jumbled comment.

  9. This was a really great post! I have so many thoughts I don't know I'll remember all of them as I type. 
    My favorite part of this post if that you say "big ideas take work". Don't you hate it  when you read on authors websites "my ideas just come to me out of the blue".?

    Asking questions is so important but my lack of confidence seems to talk my answers out of forming. Like I come up with a what if? And then all I can think is "that'll never be good enough" so I don't follow through. I'm  really trying to bust through this one. I have to keep telling myself to get it written, I can change as much as I want later.

    I have a hard time with the life experience thing and writing characters that aren't me. Not every character can sound the same and that's a place I run into problems. Right now, I'm having a hard time figure out things a mean girl would say that would sting. I try to watch tv and movies with distinct mean girls and watch how they act and then sometimes I replay conversations I've had with people and ask " if I were this character how would I respond?" you really have to dig down for this one

    And Stephanie, I've TOTALLY had and still have the fantasy of going away and coming back all fabulous or just taking a great vacation and coming back changed. But it's never happened for me either, I'm still my dorky self. 

  10. I'm still my dorky self too, Tonya. We can use our pain in our writing, right? ;)

  11. Becki, that's an excellent question.

    When I say life experience, I mean perspective. I don't know if this example makes sense, but I used to hear about people who let their babies sleep in bed with them, and I said, "I will NEVER do that." And then McKenna was born. Sweet, perfect McKenna who only slept well if she was being held. And at 2:00 in the morning when we'd been trying get her back to sleep for an hour, and when I knew she was going to be hungry again before too long... I probably don't even need to tell you what happened, that she wound up sleeping snuggled up next to me.

    I had a very black and white way of thinking when I was younger. The older I get, the less I find myself saying "always" and "never."

    Does that make sense? That it's more about the way you view and understand the world than it is about having done/been through everything your characters have done/been through?

  12. Okay, yeah, that makes sense. I was just a little unclear on that. Thanks for explaining it! :)

  13. I agree with Tonya, I will always think my ideas stink. Also, I get my best ideas late at night, like after I'm supposed to be in bed :)

    When I do get ideas, it's mostly from hearing something on the news and thinking "what if that happened..."

    With the homeschooling thing, I disagree and agree. Personaly, I think after high school or during is when you get your most experience. I can't travel the world or even drive a car yet.

  14. I hate it when authors are like "i don't know where I get my ideas." you have to get them from someplace!! That's where I could use a TON of help...
    I think my ideas aren't going to that's my big downfall

  15. That was a great description for life experience Stephanie! I notice too that as I grow what you always thought would is challenged.

     I've been both home schooled and to regular school (well, a small Christian school). I think the homechooling experience is highly individual. For me, it was isolating. I began homeschooling because of an illness and not having then physical endurance for school. When I got sick, I think it sort scared everyone, so they ignored me and when I was  well enough to do things I was stared at like i had two heads more than anything else. That bring said, home schooling may not be the issue but the illness itself. 

    Then I have some cousins who live in a larger area that are home schooled and their curriculum is connect to the public school. They are allowed to play school sports and go to a lot of the f unctions. They think it's great because they get to have a lot of friends and play sports but don't have the school schedule.  

  16. Really good post it makes a lot more sense to me why I couldn't write a novel in sixth grade, but I can now.

    Anyone else notice how many people on here are homeschooled?? I'm not though.

  17. I am, and there's homeschool sports we can be in and homeschool get-togethers we do, so I met a lot of people there. I've met lots of new people. I don't think being homeschool holds you back from anything, personally.

  18. Echo Becki! I've really enjoyed reading everyone's comments (especially about the homeschooling, but about the writing, of course, too, LOL). So now I'm curious, too. What is Team Plotter?

    Ditto about writing "me" characters, Stephanie. So a fault of mine. I'm having way too much fun expanding on the story inspired by my last writing prompt entry. It's so easy to plot when at every turn, all I have to ask is, "Okay, what is the thing that I would NOT do in this situation?" The answer is what Lanna does.

  19. I think that Stephen King is right :), its like unearthing a fossil. But ideas do sometimes just come to us, but it is a very tiny idea and we need to write plotting stuff and flesh it out before we start writing to get a good idea of a beginning, a middle, and the end.
    So many ideas I've kind of pushed to the side, because I have no idea how they are supposed to end but I wanted to write them anyway lol. Thankfully a good share of my stories have turned out well and I just haven't finished them quite yet :)
    Unearthing a fossil is like a perfect description.

  20. Hmm. I was just thinking about writing "Me" characters, as everyone calls them, and I was thinking that I guess I write a type of "Me" character. Except that my characters aren't based on me, and then "Me" doing things that I wish I could do. Instead, they're based on the "Me" I wish I could be. That's probably why I have so much trouble with character development: I try to make my characters too perfect from the get-go.

  21. When I have a scrap of an idea, I usually free write about it until I can't sit still any more for excitement. Then I basically daydream and create a plot spreadsheet.
    Right now I have two ideas that refuse to merge. Can a contemporary storyline be set in a fantasy world?
    Homeschooling is awesome!

  22. Rachelle, I'm SOOOO thrilled that a prompt sparked a story idea. I prayed for that when these contests first began. Saw your name on the top 20 :)

    Becki, oh man, did I ever struggle with that early on. The "Me I want to Be" characters. I think that's a natural thing to do since many of us use writing as an escape. I've learned that if I wish I could have my MC's life, I probably haven't given them enough struggles.

    Rachel, absolutely. I think - someone please correct me if I'm wrong - that "urban fantasy" tends to have a contemporary feel.

  23. Music, inspiration, thinking(and lots of it!) and just ideas randomly given to me. I can see how I might could plan the plot a little more right now. I can not imagine not reading. I had the best feeling the other day when I was talking to the Teen librarian and she was asking me and another girl if we had read some books. I was so happy when I had read some of them. It just made me happy...
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  24. I just use "Team Plotter" and "Team Pantser" for the different outlining methods, because I'm not all that loyal to either. So if I'm being all responsible and plotting things out, I say I've joined Team Plotter. So that's all I meant when I mentioned that. Sorry if I wasn't clear about it!

  25. Stephanie, did you really? That's so neat! Well, the story isn't leaving me alone now, either! Persistent, despite my best efforts to put it off until December/Christmas break! :) Love it!