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About the Author
William Kowalski is the author of 14 novels published by HarperCollins (US), Transworld/Doubleday (UK), and Orca/Raven (Canada). He is the recipient of the 2001 Ama-Boeke Award, the 2014 Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and four nominations for the Ontario Library Association’s Golden Oak Award. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Table of Contents

1. Write the kind of story you love to read.
2. Think about what happens in your story.
3. Imagine a character.
4. Determine what your character wants.
5. Put your character in a situation.
6. Take a step back.
7. Keep going!

Anyone who loves to write probably knows this feeling: you desperately want to start putting words on the page, but you don’t know what to write about. It’s so frustrating! You feel like you’re so full of words, ideas, and feelings you’re going to pop like a balloon in a microwave. But when you sit down, you just stare at the paper or the screen. How DO writers come up with good ideas for stories? In this piece, I’ll share a few steps that should not only help you get started now, but can make it easier for you to get going on future projects, too.

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I know who I am, and I know what I can be!

When people encourage us to write, they often say things like, “Write about whatever you want!” or “The sky’s the limit!” They think they’re doing you a favor by saying these things, because they don’t want you to feel limited. But when you can do absolutely anything you want, the choices are overwhelming. It’s better to set a few limits so you can narrow things down right away. Unlimited potential is nice in theory, but in reality it doesn’t help us. Focused potential is much more powerful. So, you can also think of these steps as learning how to focus your potential as a writer.

It’s worth pointing out here that the internet is full of all kinds of games and tricks you can use to come up with starting points for stories, which are also called ‘writing prompts’. This is not that kind of article. Here, I’m trying to help you come up with an idea that you can actually base an entire book on, not a writing prompt that will help you get warmed up.

So, let’s start:

1. Write the kind of story you love to read.

This can really help you narrow things down right away. Right now, we’re just talking about ‘genre’, which is another word for type or category. If you love reading mysteries, it makes sense for you to try writing a mystery. If you love YA sci-fi, then try your hand at that. Pick your genre before you do anything else. It’s the logical place to start.

Why else should you write the kind of story you love to read? Because you already have a passion for it. This passion will really shine through in your craft. You can’t fake caring about something… not long enough to write a convincing book about it, anyway. If you try to write about something you think will sell but which you don’t really care about, you could very well end up giving up on the project before you’re halfway through. That will just lead to feelings of frustration. And who needs more frustration in their lives?

But what if you can’t decide on a genre, or what if you’re really not into genre fiction at all? That has long been my problem (even though I personally don’t see it as a problem… it’s the marketing people who do!) What if you just want to write a good story without worrying about labeling it as one thing or another? What if it’s just… a story?

Guess what? You’ve just picked a genre. It’s called ‘General Fiction’. Congratulations! Let’s move on to the next step.

2. Think about what happens in your story.

If you have your genre in mind, now you can start to think about what happens in the story. This is called the plot. Plot is just another word for the action. Let’s say ‘YA sci-fi’ is your genre. ‘A teenaged girl fights a cyborg army, only to discover she is actually a cyborg herself’ is one example of a plot (which I just made up–if you like it, go ahead, take it!). It’s actually a very highly summarized plot, since I managed to express it in one sentence–but that’s a good thing. You want to have a plot that can be summarized that briefly. They call this the ‘elevator pitch’, because it’s short enough that you can say it during something as short as an elevator ride.

Why is it good to have a short plot summary? Because it shows you have a really firm grasp of your own story. If you take five minutes to explain to someone what you’re writing about, they will start to lose interest, because they can tell you don’t really know how to answer the question. When someone asks about the plot of your book, they don’t want to hear that there was this girl who lived in Indiana, and one day she heard a weird noise, and then some robots came out of her basement, and she fought them but then ran away, and her brother got sick, and they couldn’t find their parents, and… what they really want is a one-line summary: a girl fights a cyborg army. How many of your favorite books can you explain in one line? Chances are, most of them.

The tricky thing about plot summaries is this: even though they’re really short, they can take a very long time to come up with! That’s okay… don’t worry about it right now. Let’s keep talking about plot.

The plot is really the most important part of your story. I can forgive anything–even bad writing–if the action of the story is gripping enough. But I can’t get past a bad plot. If characters are wandering around aimlessly on the page, not saying or doing anything of consequence, and nothing seems to be happening, I lose patience quickly. So do most other readers.

Aristotle agrees with me on that point, too. Check out this article I wrote called ‘How Aristotle Can Help You Become a Better Writer’. There are lots of points in there that will show you how most principles of storytelling are universal… they don’t change over time and they are largely the same from culture to culture. This is why literature has such power–because we can all relate to it.

But what if you can’t think of a plot right now? What if you don’t want to plan everything out ahead of time, but you just want to start writing and see where it takes you? Is there anything wrong with that?

Absolutely not. This is called ‘writing by discovery’, and some of the most famous writers in the world write this way. Michael Ondaatje, for example, is a discovery writer. So, if you don’t want to think of a plot right now, but you want to start somewhere else and finalize the action of your story later, read on.

After plot, character is the next most important thing. These are simply the people in your story–or the animals, or the robots, or whatever. And your characters can actually cause the plot, in a manner of speaking.

Plot-driven or Character-driven?

When talking about plot, we can classify stories into two major types: plot-driven and character-driven. What is the difference?

A plot-driven story focuses more on what is actually happening, such as a large battle. If you were to write a book about the Battle of Hastings, you could take your pick of any number of characters to include in your story. It wouldn’t matter too much because your main purpose (to write about the battle) is being served.

A character-driven story, on the other hand, is one where the action or the plot occurs because of the characters and the situation they find themselves in. You’re writing more about the people in your story here. A good way to think about this is in terms of motivation. Whatever it is that motivates a character, that is the thing that will drive them forward. Kurt Vonnegut used to say, ‘Your character should always want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.’

So, let’s talk about characters and what they want.

3. Imagine a character.

This is actually my favorite way to start writing a long project, such as a book. I have written nearly all of my books by imagining a character first, then simply observing them in my mind to see what they do and say next. The clearest example of this is my third novel, The Adventures of Flash Jackson, which was published by HarperCollins in 2003. When I started writing this book, I imagined a girl, about sixteen years old, standing on the roof of a barn. That’s it. That’s all I saw. I had no idea who she was or what she was doing there. I couldn’t imagine what would happen with her next. I didn’t even worry about that. I just began writing a description of that scene. The next thing that happened, as it turned out, was that she fell through the roof and broke her leg, and as a result she had to spend the entire summer in a cast. That was the incident that propelled the rest of the story.

There is no right or wrong way to come up with characters. They can be purely imaginary. They can be inspired by someone you saw on television. It could be that there is a certain type of person you admire, or that you have always been interested in. Maybe this person is pretend, or maybe they’re real. In that case, you could start simply by describing them. Then, put them in some kind of situation where they are doing things (‘action‘) and saying things (‘dialogue‘) because they want something (‘motivation‘).

You could also simply try what I described above: close your eyes, clear your mind, and let a character come into view. Who is it? What do they look like? What is their name? What do they do? What have they been through? What are they about to go through?

Character Development

This is one of the things people talk about a lot in writing classes. I’ve written a separate article on this called Understanding Character Development.

Character development has to do with how your characters change over the course of a story. In order for us to really like your characters, they need to undergo some kind of transformation somewhere between the first page and the last. This kind of thing is hard to plan out in advance sometimes. It may not make any sense to you right now. Let’s talk about it in terms of learning. What does your main character learn over the course of the story? Maybe they were stubborn, and they learned to be more flexible. Maybe they were full of anger, but learned to be forgiving. Maybe they literally learned something–like a valuable skill or trade that changed their lives.

4. Determine what your character wants.

This, again, is called ‘motivation’. Normally we use this word when we’re talking about the drive to get something done, typically a chore such as homework, or maybe something good for us like going to the gym. We might say we are feeling really motivated, or we might say we are lacking motivation. It has a slightly different sense in the writing world.

The word ‘motive’ means ‘the thing that moves you’. (If you’re a language lover, like me, you’ll see the connection between ‘motive’ and ‘automotive’, or ‘self-moving’, which is the word we use to describe the car industry. Motive is also related to the word ‘motor’, so you can think of motivation as a little motor inside your character that pushes him or her along.)

When we talk about what moves a character, we’re talking about the thing that propels them through the story. It can be a part of the background–it doesn’t have to be something that gets mentioned explicitly all the time. Harry Potter’s motivation was to learn magic, as well as to fight the evil that threatened him. But he didn’t walk around saying “I’ve got to keep learning magic so I can defeat Voldemort!” We sensed that from everything he did. It was woven into the very fabric of his character, and it would have ruined things for us if he’d said that outright.

When thinking about what motivates your character, remember that their motivation is the thing that they will keep going toward no matter what, little by little. You can even think of it as a little motor inside them that keeps working away. The thing they are moving towards, whatever that might be–a piece of information, an actual physical object, a relationship with another person–will form a satisfying part of the ending of your story. You should always be moving your character along toward that goal, even if he or she takes detours from time to time. That little motor should always be running.

My mentor, Jack Kuniczak, taught me some really valuable things about how to move your story along with purpose. You can learn them too, in this article I wrote called Returning to the Right Foot.

Once you have a good sense of what your character really wants more than anything else, you have a good part of your plot already.

5. Put your character in a situation.

Whether or not you have a plot in mind, if you have a character in your mind’s eye, you can now put that character in a situation.

What do I mean by ‘situation’? By that, I mean firstly putting them in a specific setting. Don’t forget that settings means both place (a room, a bus station, in a field, etc) and time (present day, the future, a hundred years ago). Your setting should make sense for the character you imagined–for example, if you imagined a kilted Scotsman speaking Gaelic and wielding a broadsword, you may very well put him in Scotland three hundred years ago. But what if you place him in a spaceship instead? Absolutely no problem. We just need to understand why he’s there.

Next, ask yourself why your character might be in that particular setting. This goes back to their motivation. What does your character want? Maybe that kilted Scotsman is in a spaceship because he’s traveling to another star system via wormhole to locate the time travelers who killed his best friend, so that he can exact revenge. (I’m just making this up as I go.) He doesn’t need to sit there repeating, “I really want revenge on those guys who killed my best friend!” because, as with the Harry Potter example, it can ruin things for your readers if you lay all your storytelling cards on the table too soon. But that goal–to get revenge–is the thing that works away in his mind the whole time, and it’s the thing that moved him to get into the spaceship. It’s the little motor inside him, pushing him along. It’s his motivation.

Another very important concept in storytelling is conflict. I’ve written quite a bit about conflict in this article, but I will say a bit more about it here: conflict refers to all the things that get in your character’s way as he pursues his motivation. We need conflict to make stories interesting, because otherwise there is no drama. If the Scotsman gets off the spaceship, finds the evil time travelers, and chops their heads off all in one chapter… well then, what was the point of that? We didn’t get anything out of it as readers. But if you stretch that journey out over the course of a whole book, with him chasing them down, following clues they’ve left behind, almost catching them but then forced to let them go… you get the idea. Various types of conflicts–with other people trying to stop him, with things like solar storms getting in his way, with his own self-doubt–will be important parts of the plot.

6. Take a step back and look at what you’ve created.

We’ve covered a lot here. If you’re with me so far, good for you! You have a good understanding now of how to come up with the plot of a fictional narrative.

Now, back up a few steps and get a high-level view of everything you’ve done. You’ve gained a better understanding of these terms:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Motivation
  • Writing by discovery
  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Character development

You may (or may not) have a genre, a plot, at least one character, and a good sense of his or her motivation. If you have even one of these things in mind at this point, you’re light-years ahead of where you were at the beginning, when you had no idea at all.

So, what next?

7. Keep going.

Just remember–at the end of the day, you’re writing this for yourself. If you want others to read it, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. You will learn a great deal about the world, and about yourself, by going through the writing process. And the more you go through it, the better you’ll get at it. If you’re just starting out and feeling overwhelmed, remember that everyone has to begin somewhere. There is no race, and no finish line.

More characters will come to you. You can listen to them speak inside your head and write down what they say. You can, and probably will, make lots of revisions to your plot as you think about what comes next in the story. The way forward is never 100% clear, and writing is very personal. What works for some people might not work for others. What matters in the end is simply that you’ve written something that you’re happy with. At the end of all of this, take a moment to reflect with satisfaction on how far you’ve come. You’re writing!

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