Six impossible things

Developing an idea, before and during

“Developing an idea” is one of those writing phrases that doesn’t have a precise definition. Ideas change and expand and twist throughout the entire writing process. The ways a writer goes about encouraging or discouraging these developments differ, depending on where in the process they are. Pre-writing development (the stuff a writer does before they sit down and type “Chapter One – It was a dark and stormy night…”) is usually very different from what writers do when they hit what a friend of mine calls “the first veil” at the end of the beginning, and have to develop all the hints and background they laid down in the first few chapters into a solid story that will carry things through to a climax. And both of those are different from the idea-developments that happen during revisions.

Idea-development when all you have is a story’s seed-crystal is mostly iterative brainstorming. The writer starts with the idea and then generates things that might belong with it – characters, background, bits of dialog, scenes that aren’t connected to anything, food, art, plot twists without any “before” or “after” attached. Eventually this stuff starts cross-connecting, which generates more ideas, which make cross-connections with some things and cut other ideas off completely, until the writer has a clear enough picture of the story to start writing.

Note that “a clear enough picture to start writing” can be the original idea seed plus two character names for extreme pantser writers, or 400+ pages of notes, history, scenes, etc. for serious planners (see J.R.R. Tolkien for an extreme example). For the pantsers, almost all of the “idea development” happens as they write, but even extreme planners like Tolkien find new ideas and developments happening as they write.

Idea development in mid-book can also involve brainstorming, but there are a lot more constraints involved. The writer has already written many chapters, and while it is possible to go back and change the manuscript to make a new development fit, doing so is a royal pain (and it becomes more painful the more words are already on the page). By mid-book, the writer frequently has some idea of where the story is headed, which creates further limits. If the hero is supposed to end up King of the Universe in Chapter 25, he can’t be killed off in Chapter 13. Developing an idea during the revisions process has even more constraints, because the writer has a whole manuscript worth of information to consider and keep consistent.

This means that late-stage development starts, consciously or unconsciously, with what the writer already knows for absolute certain about the characters, background, backstory, and plot (whether or not what they know has gotten onto the page yet). There are three basic approaches at this point: focused brainstorming; unrestricted brainstorming; and idea surfacing.

Focused brainstorming starts with specific, limited questions. Instead of asking “What could happen next?”, the writer starts with a target taken from what they already know: “What could Villain be up to while Hero is interviewing suspects?” “How many mistakes could Minion #3 make that would screw up the plans of BOTH the Villain and the Hero?” “Where could the Hero’s Mother have hidden the Bottomless Shopping Bag of Endless Desserts, and why would she?” It’s sort of like making a list of suspects in a mystery novel and then coming up with all the reasons why they might have killed the victim and all the ways they could have managed it, given the timeline we know. I find this approach really useful when I’m stuck, but because it is so focused, it sometimes doesn’t bring up the totally off-the-wall great ideas that are going to take a lot of work to fit into the story, but that will absolutely get it moving and make it a zillion times better.

Unrestricted brainstorming is just what it sounds like. You grab every idea that comes up, whether it’s big or little, plausible or not. The sidekick kills the hero; the sword turns into a spaghetti noodle; a tornado hits in the middle of the coronation. This can raise a ton of possibilities, but you have to throw most of them away because a) they don’t fit the story, and/or b) they make no sense and wouldn’t fit any story. It does, however, loosen up your backbrain, so even if it doesn’t work for you on its own, it can be a good warm-up. And it will occasionally pop up that one totally brilliant off-the-wall idea that’s exactly what you need, even if it’ll take six weeks of rewriting to make it work with what you have.

Idea surfacing is what I call poking around in what you already know. This means  the chapters you have written, any notes you’ve made on the story, and anything you are absolutely positive of that hasn’t actually been written down yet.

The idea is to look hard at the things you know for absolute certain, hunting for places that need expansion, things that haven’t been explained (or for which the explanation could be developed or twisted), casual remarks and details that can be reinterpreted, interesting cracks in the background and hints that various characters haven’t told the reader everything important, patterns in the plot or the characters’ behavior or the background/backstory that you hadn’t noticed. Looking, in short, for  things you don’t know as much about as you thought you did.

If noticing these holes isn’t enough to give you ideas (it usually is for me), then you go to focused brainstorming – “What are seven possible reasons why the Tomb of the Unknown has a watermelon on the top step?” “Why is Hero the only one in town who wears white running shoes?” “If Sidekick is a teetotaler, why does he know so much about wine and why is he friends with every barkeeper in town?”

Then you take all this new information and all these new ideas and project them forward, looking at how they might help or hinder getting your characters where you want them to go (or to somewhere more interesting).

Development in revision really needs its own post. I’ll try to do that next week.

  1. “Enough to start writing” ties back to my old bugaboo “Plot Is Hard.” I don’t have enough to start writing until I have a basic plot-framework in place – what the protagonists are faced with at the beginning, why the situation can’t be neatly resolved right away, and how things change so that the situation can be resolved at the end.

    By the time I get the basic plot-frame in place (even if subject to falling down and having to be rebuilt) then I’ll already have more than enough other stuff in hand to launch into starting to write.

  2. I am really curious about that teetotaler sidekick. 🙂 (Waves.) Hi, I’m still here. I’ve just been lurking. Your posts always give me delicious things to think about. 🙂

  3. “… even extreme planners like Tolkien find new ideas and developments happening as they write.”

    In his introduction to his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which I recommend to everyone, Tolkien says that at the time he was writing it “we had reached Bree and I had no more notion than [the hobbits] had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; and I had begun to despair of surviving to find out.”

    And when he had finished the entire first draft, he went back over it to make sure the phases of the moon provided clues to what was happening In Rohan while something else was happening in Dagorlad.

    • “To me a name comes first, and the story follows.”
      —J. R. R. Tolkien

  4. I’m grinning even more than usual at your examples!

    I may have to take this whole post to the coffeeshop along with the work-arguably-in-progress. I’ve got all kinds of set-up, but still no idea why it happened or what it all means. I’ve tried each of the three approaches, with little result; maybe if I try them all in combination, I’ll get somewhere!

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