Developing your story idea

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Here are some points/questions I use when fleshing out a concept into a fully-fledged novel.

Depending on your genre and target market, the concept of your story – and your creative process; there are many different ways to help turn an idea into a fully formed novel. Here are some sample questions and hints I commonly ask myself (when I have something that may be a paragraph long, or sixty pages in length) to transform it into a novel:

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If not, why are you writing it – a lack of passion can lead to a bland read. Try to make it exciting with a new twist, delicious prose or a unique point of view. There needs to be a little piece of you in everything you write.

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Sometimes we can get so bogged down with the plot and/or story that we forget to see if our main character is someone the readers can relate to – unless it is your intention for them to be creepy/unlikeable as a point of difference. Maybe an unreliable narrator? But there needs to be something to draw the reader to your protagonist. A character that passively reacts to the events in your novel can leave the impression that the hero of your story is weak and always playing the victim.

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This is usually the tone and subtext of your novel – the driving force behind the reason for telling the story. It gives your manuscript relevance. If you are without this central core meaning, your tale may end up reading like a long anecdote. Having a focal point to drive your story forward also helps create motivations for characters.

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I’ve read a lot of novels, especially in YA and romance where the love interest or the hero is perfect. It’s great for a fantasy. But if I’m investing time and money in reading a novel I want something a bit more complex, a bit more realistic. Plus something unexpected makes reading interesting. Don’t be afraid to flesh out your characters.

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When creating a scene, plot, or arc, I go through a mental process about what decisions the characters will make and try to steer away from the obvious if I can help it – all the while remaining true to the character and their motivation. Having them choose a surprising direction, or come up against unexpected challenges increases the tension, and engages the reader. No one likes their story to be predictable.

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The antagonist, the bad guy may be evil – but what makes them act this way? Consider the motivations of the villain in your story and make it believable. They are the hero of their own narrative. They believe in what they are doing… Building a complex antagonist gives you more opportunity to build the tension and pace of your novel. Offers up a field of emotions that would otherwise be ignored. Compassion. An anti-hero. Despair. Grief. Let you mind wander and make your antagonist relevant.

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One thing I loathe more than anything is secondary characters that add nothing to the story. That they are just there for fluff or padding for the hero’s journey. Readers can see right through this. Consider every character you include in your story – why they are there, why they react the way that they do, and how they influence and enrich your novel. If you can’t really make any of that work – maybe it’s time to edit them out.

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Building on the pervious point. Fleshing out your cast humanises them, gives them dimension, so the reader is engrossed and interested in everyone they meet in your story. It also helps to build your story from multiple points of view and check if the plot is holding its own.

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Somewhere the main character has a realisation, changes their mind, has an epiphany – it’s the driving force of your protagonist. This can be the climax of your story, or you can have many turning points throughout. It shows character development. Growth. It lets the reader feel like they have experienced something personal with your main character.  Otherwise it may read like you had a main character that just had a bunch of stuff happen to.

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The big event. The battle scene. The emotional reveal. The earth rattling discovery that with change reality forthwith. Whatever it is, it needs to be big. The reader wants to feel the pay-off. Your story needs to build to a certain point and then end in spectacular fashion. Ensure that this event fits what you are trying to achieve. It doesn’t have to be all explosions and lighting – simply relevant to your story. If it is a woman’s journey of independence – it may be her finally having the courage to branch out on her own. Alternatively, some stories require action, a full cast and deaths aplenty. Sometimes it can be hard to write this scene and I always fall back on my friends and beta readers if I’m experiencing trouble making it work.

Tie up all the loose ends if it is a standalone – or at least address them so your main character is happy with the status quo. If it’s a series, ensure you have resolved enough for the reader to feel like they have got the closure they need. Some arcs can continue on as a teaser or cliffhanger for the next novel in the series. But no reader wants to get to the end and realise that it’s stopped in the middle of a story. You’ll usually just tick them off.

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Subtext is the story that happens around your plot between the characters. It’s a trick a lot of actors use in their work to build a scene. For instance. The main character and the best friend may seem like they have this unbreakable bond, but the subtext is that maybe they both have a need to be loved, or each is battling for control – to become the dominant figure in the relationship. This is nothing that you state outright, it’s merely a tension you can write into their encounters. It helps build their motivations. This is the glue that holds your scenes together.

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There is a lot of talk about motivation and relevance. But it doesn’t stop there. Ramp up the tension and interest. Your protagonist doesn’t just want to reach the mountain top and claim the Chalice of Enlightenment, he may also want a ham sandwich? I know that is a silly example, but as people we usually have more than one reason for doing things. More than one interest. Going to the corner store may mean that they are hungry and buying food, as well as getting some sort of validation from a stranger because they’ve put a lot of effort into their appearance. But also you get to ogle that cute stock boy who had biceps about to rip through his sleeves… Straight away a trip to the store doesn’t sound so boring.

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Writing is entertaining, fantasy. Don’t hold back because you’re worried about what people will say or think. It’s an expression of inner thoughts and desires. You could tap into author gold. There’s nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work, found offensive, or confuses readers, you can edit, re-write, but don’t let fear stop your creative flow. (It can show in the tone of your narrative.) Push your story in a direction that it would not normally organically flow towards. Experiment.

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I know this may sound basic. But did you take the time to introduce your characters properly and set the scene at the beginning. Are the readers clear on what the quest of your main character is? The rules or mythology of the universe in which your world is set?

Are there a series of logical events and challenges that your protagonist has to face to get to their goal?

Does the story come to a resolute end? Is there a pay-off. Will your reader feel satisfied? Has your main character grown and changed, made some great achievement?

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Even if your story is fantasy or science fiction it should make sense. The characters react in way readers can identify with them. You need that connection to your story’s cast, a belief in their motivations to hook the readers’ interest and invest time to read your novel. Otherwise all you have is a jumbled mess. Usually the feedback you get in the beta reading process will identify parts that are confusing – those are the parts you need to address. If they say the whole thing is confusing it may be time to go back to the drawing board and look at plot, structure, and your characters motivations.

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If based in the real world, make sure you get it right. Research your facts. No your shiz. If you mess up on this front the reader is going to think you don’t care – that you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to check the facts and lose interest. It makes you look unprofessional. Plus having a solid grounding in truth can help educate your reader.

If you are building a completely new world or universe – it will operate on its own set of rules. Laws. Mythology. Make sure you keep it consistent and educate your reader on how this environment works.

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Day followed by night, Monday by Tuesday. The passing of time is linear. Make sure you track how this passed in your story. You don’t want to lose track of what is going on and have your main character have three Saturdays in a row, or attending the wrong class with the right group of friends. It’s like checking your facts. You don’t want to confuse your reader. Unless you are setting out to disorientate the reader, like in a dream sequence or surreal environment. Keep track of the passing of time. As humans we like order and to follow a logical path.

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This helps you not only have something ready to pitch your novel to a publisher or literary agent, but is also helps you focus on the core aspects of your novel. It’s point of difference. This is a great tool to reign you in if you start to stray away from the crux of what your story is all about. Plus when friends and family ask you what your story is all about – you’ll be prepared to blow them away J

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I like to develop characteristics, mannerisms, and words unique to each of the cast. It helps the reader identify who says what, what point of view is being expressed. I feel this is an invaluable tool to differentiate my characters and make it easy for the reader to know what is going on.

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There are a plethora of grammatical tools to help enhance your story or add interest – just like an artist can paint with colour, brushes, oil, watercolour, charcoal…. As writers there is a lot to form and function on how the word appears on the page that we can play with. We’ve seen stories that are a collection for documents, diary entries, text graphics, told from multiple perspectives, recounted from dual points in the timeline, through the main characters eyes, or an omnipotent presence watching the story from above… there’s lots to play with. You’re only limited to your imagination.

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Well, I hope that helps all the writers out there enhance their creative experience. I’d love to hear how you develop an idea, or if there are questions you ask yourself to help expand a thought bubble into a complete novel. In the meantime – Keep Calm and Write On!

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© Casey Carlisle 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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