You have an idea. And you love it. It’s a little vague, and you haven’t fleshed it out yet, but that’s all right because we’re going to go through the process of turning that idea into a story. So pause here for a moment and pull your idea into the forefront of your mind. Got it? Okay. Now we approach it differently depending on what kind of idea it is. There are ideas for a memorable, unique character, ideas for an incredible setting, and ideas for potentially epic conflict. Once you identify what kind of idea you have, we start asking questions.
The genesis of The Scales Trilogy came from the idea of my main character, Feather. You always hear write what you know, and even though I’ve never had to live on the street or been deprived of my parents, I have had difficult living situations. And I have narcolepsy. My husband is a big tech guy and he loves to talk about where technology is going and how web integrated we’ll all be in a few years. Boom, there’s Feather, a tech savvy girl who has to make it on her own and struggles with narcolepsy.
Then the questions come, the first being what could the conflict be? She has several, a few on a very personal level like trying to care for herself and her brother and then trying to save her brother from being illegally drafted, and a few on a much larger level like how corrupt and greedy the government has become. Eventually in the series these conflicts join into the same fight. She can’t survive under the current regime and so must find a way to change it. Conflict is a great place to start anytime you’re looking for a story, because without a conflict there is no arc, no inciting incident, and no climax. Your characters have to want something they don’t have and need to fight to get. Whether that fighting is literal or figurative, it’s the struggle that defines the story.
Then there’s setting. For example, my idea for The Darkest Lie came from a setting, specifically Sanctum. And the idea for Sanctum came from a story that a friend wrote. So I asked myself if magic really did exist in this world, where had it come from? So identify what about your setting makes it memorable. Where a story is set can become as important as the characters. It isn’t just blank canvass, it is somewhere specific and unique. It could be a monastery high in the Tibetan mountains. Or another planet entirely. Or a small town in a specific part of the United States. Or a school in England where they teach magic. Once you have your setting you have a tool of immense value in telling your story. Don’t neglect it.
What questions should you ask here? First, ask yourself who would live in this setting. If it’s another planet, are humans colonizing or are there already a species of alien living there, or both? My prologue in the second book of The Darkest Lie series takes place in a Sanctum holding facility for those weak in their Song. I needed to have a specific interaction between two of the characters, but I needed it to happen through someone else’s point of view. Who would be in a prison? Guards, sure, but they’re not going to watch this, they’re going to try and stop it. I needed a prisoner, weak in Song, who could witness this and pass the information along. Your setting can give you your characters and will inform how they behave and what options they have. It can even provide conflict because of the restrictions of the setting. An abandoned warehouse can only hold so many people. A frozen tundra can only support a limited amount of life. A foxhole can have conflict internally as well as externally.
If your idea is a conflict, then you’re well on your way. There are a few types of conflict, such as man vs. man, (I’m using the word “man” because it’s traditional, you could just as easily say “character”), man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. technology/fantasy/supernatural, and man vs. self. It’s important to know what kind of conflict yours is so you know what elements you need. If your conflict is a teenager’s fight for survival after getting lost on a mountain and being stalked by a predator, that’s man vs. nature. You’ll need research into survival techniques, a specific mountain (real or created), and to plan a story arc for your character. Man vs. man, you need a protagonist, an antagonist, a place that puts them in contact, and a conflict between them (As a side note, the antagonist and the villain are NOT always the same character, but we’ll get to that).
Once you’ve established what kind of conflict you have, you need to figure out who would be involved in this conflict. Does the conflict involve biochemical weapons? You’ll need a scientist. Likely more than one. Where does the conflict take place? You’ll need farmers on a farm, New Yorkers in New York, astronauts in space, etc. Are you noticing the pattern, here? When you have a character, you need to establish conflict and setting. When you have a setting, you need character and conflict. With conflict you need setting and characters. It doesn’t matter what order your story elements arrive in, what matters is that you take the time to seek them out and put them together.
I remember my high school English teacher, Mrs. Bridges, had a song she would sing. She’d play her lap harp and sing, “Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view. Plot, setting, character, and point of view, and you can tell a story too.” I’ve used “conflict” instead of “plot” but you get the idea.