How Questions Could Be the Key to Finding Your Story

If you’re anything like me, you probably have tons of story ideas scribbled on scraps of paper. They came to you while watching TV, walking down the street, or going about your business, and you

A guide to turning a cool idea into a story
(Photo by ozzymosis from Pixabay)

If you’re anything like me, you probably have tons of story ideas scribbled on scraps of paper. They came to you while watching TV, walking down the street, or going about your business, and you jotted them down. (At least I hope you did. Because in my experience wonderful ideas, if not written down within 5 minutes, are invariably lost forever)

But what if it’s not really a story? Maybe it’s just a concept, character, or even a line of dialogue you found intriguing. The question then becomes, how do you turn that spark of an idea into a story with plot, conflict, and character?


How I Discovered My Method

My own work in progress began that way. I shared a little about that in my very first post, Why Don’t You Write a Book? It started with a simple phrase. I made an offhand comment to a friend- a little spiel about how I hate the wind. She laughed and said “That should be the first line of one of your stories.”

That’s how it began for me. But that in and of itself was not a story.

I began asking myself questions. Why would someone say they hate the wind? Either it’s annoying them (like when I said it), or they say it paradoxically (ie. “I hate the wind, but at the moment I’m grateful for it”). I liked that idea. So, when is the wind a good thing? I brainstormed for a while and finally settled on sailing. Okay, who is sailing, where, and why? This continued until I had an opening image. My main character stands on the coast, watching a ship carry her family away to safety. They are fleeing some danger, so my hero implores the wind to blow as hard as it may.

This image seized my imagination, but it still wasn’t a story. So the questions continued. What are they escaping from? Why did the main character stay behind?

The image grew into a novel, and kept growing. Still the questions continue. In fact, it’s my preferred method of exploring the story. Every answer inevitably gives rise to two or three more questions. But this method has deepened the story in ways I doubt I would have stumbled upon otherwise. It has given rise to subplots, secondary characters, and backstory.

The Process

So how do you make this work for you? To start with, quiz yourself about your idea. Then find the questions that spring from each answer, and answer them as well.

That’s not quite all, though.

It’s not enough take the first answer that comes to mind. Or the second or even third. In Character and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card explains that your first ideas are invariably cliche. Not necessarily bad, but not particularly creative either.  Certainly not the best you can do. Mediocrity isn’t what you’re going for, is it? I didn’t think so. You want your book to be the best possible version of itself.

So I combine brainstorming with the questioning process. I have an entire notebook dedicated to it.

Write a question down, then brainstorm solutions underneath, beginning with the worst ideas you can think of. Why try to think of terrible ideas? The mere act of writing them down starts the juices flowing. It also stops you from overthinking, when no idea is too bad to write down. Then come the feasible but kind of cliché ideas. Write everything that comes to you, even those you know you’ll never use. Eventually, they’ll get more creative. Keep going. When you have a solid list of answers, see which grabs you and sparks new ideas. Which fits your story in a unique way? There’s your answer. Now rinse and repeat.

The more original the answers, the more they trigger interesting questions. Soon you’ll be exploring possibilities you never thought of.  What began as one cool idea becomes a complex, layered story full of fascinating concepts. That is what makes a novel stand out from the crowd.

What about you? Do any of you have special tricks you use to turn your ideas into stories? I hope you’ll share them in the comments section. I could always use a tip!

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