It’s 1 a.m; you are sitting at you desk, dumbfounded by this sudden, incredible idea that just popped up in your head. You pick up a pen and a few sheets of paper but you have no idea where to start – where do all the concepts that you just imagined fit into one cohesive story?
The only way to deal with your unorganized thoughts is to physically organize yourself. If you come up with an idea for a story, find a personal space where you know you can easily reach your supplies, a laptop and even a printer. This is specially important concerning fantasy stories – the amount of worldbuilding you need to do needs much more than a boring narrative – it needs maps, pictures, calendars, appendixes and family trees. Of course you won’t put all of that in your published book (although many writers select some of that preparatory material to help their readers through the reading process) but you need to keep that written and drawn worldbuilding at hand’s reach.
I believe that an idea takes five important baby steps before developing into the promise of a story. They are:
1- Write what you’ve already gotten – If you suddenly wanted to write a story is because there was something in your mind that lead you to it. Take a first piece of paper and write down the things that popped in your mind and urged you to write. Was it an image? Describe it. Was it a sentence, a word, perhaps a quote? Write it down in the center of the page. If you were inspired by someone, briefly describe that person. Do the same with any symbolic image or thought that triggered the story: describe it, draw it, give it attention as the center of the plot.
2- Brainstorm – Look at that first sheet of paper and analyse what you’ve got there. That first page is the Egg. It’s your everything, your first love. Never forget that page because the development of a novel can easily make you forget what lead you to it in the first place. After analyzing the wonderful premise in your Egg, take a second piece of paper. This is your brainstorm sheet. Write words, sentences, anything and everything that can inspire you. It can be and historical event, anime characters, a videogame battle system, even food. You’ll end up with two kinds of words: a bunch of ordinary words (apple, lighthouse, evening star) and a bunch of processed words, terms that are actually relevant and have a meaning of their own (e.g. “Napoleon”, “The War of the Roses”, “Sephiroth”, “King Arthur”, “The Elves”).
3- Simplify and Complicate: your next task is to pick up a third piece of paper. Look at the words that you’ve brainstormed and think about the ones that are the most meaningful to you and also the ones that, however simple, seem to contribute to your story’s idea the most. Write down those words in a list and leave some space between them. Now, you have to simplify and complicate. The rule is simple: remember those common and ordinary words? Try to complicate their meaning and turn them into something that can be transferred into your plot. Try to do the opposite with the processed words – simplify them in thought and turn them into ordinary things.
An apple is such a common word, but it’s the prop that makes Snow White a relevant story. Actually, the poisoned apple is the symbol of the story in its whole. Do you want a practical example? Think about the word “shoes” – shoes are something that we give for granted, and of course no one would ever write a story about shoes… right? Well, what if there was a distant kingdom where the use of shoes was forbidden? The monarch created that measure to prevent peasants from accessing certain parts of the city where he made his necromantic experiments. However, when a boy was able to make a pair of shoes from two pieces of wood, he could pass through a spike-hole and access a dungeon where he caught the king resurrecting the dead. There you have: a simple story idea created from the word “shoes”.
4- During simplify and complicate, you’ll find out that as you develop those words into plot-relevant concepts, some other words won’t fit into the picture at all. Of course you’ll have to discard those ones and that’s when the anagram comes in. Take a fourth piece of paper and start making a scheme where everything comes together. Perhaps you should write the name of your world (if you’ve figured it out already) in the center and make a spider anagram for any other terms that you come across. This is important because there are parts of your story that don’t connect at all and you should have a distinct image that shows you what influences other parts and what doesn’t.
Perhaps you have written down the names of two characters but they are supposed to never meet. If so, you have to figure out what concepts are important in their development and which aren’t and if there are any ones in common, you need to have the clear notion that if one is influenced by that concept, the other character will be as well.
E.g: you have two characters, one named Miriam and other named Lucas. Miriam and Lucas don’t know each other but they were both born in the same town, Orville; meanwhile, Lucas lives in City A and Miriam lives in City B. If City B was burned down, Miriam would be sad but Lucas wouldn’t; the same would happen if City A was burned down. However, if Orville was burned down, both Miriam and Lucas would be sad and maybe that event could bring them together – perhaps they went to the ruins of the town to find their lost families and bump into each other on the road.
5- Start your timeline. This is a rough timeline and further through your story’s development, you will need to have a timeline for your plot and a timeline for your world, figuring all the major and minor events that shaped the society you imagined into the way it is today. However, you’re still dealing with the baby steps in your story and what you need to do now is figure out when do those concepts meet and why do they meet the time they do.
When was Miriam born? When was Lucas born? Is their difference of ages relevant to the fact that they never met? When did both decide to leave their hometown, Orville? When was Orville burned down? When did Miriam and Lucas find out about its destruction? Did they decide to visit Orville’s ruins at the same time? If they met in Orville was it because there was some kind of delay on Lucas’s journey (e.g. bandits)? If Lucas was attacked by bandits on the road, when did it happen?
When you have your five pieces of paper together (they can be more than five pieces of paper, since they are organized into the five sections that I mentioned), just staple them together. You have to staple them because you can never, ever lose track of those first and simple ideas. They are the foundation for your story. Sometimes during a novel’s development, a writer thinks that his first ideas were too dull and ends up scraping his first love. When this happens, he will have a very complex and detailed plot and when he tries to re-make those baby steps, they will not fit into the world and the story he has already build. The result? The writer will throw it all in the garbage can. Keep your first love with you. That’s the key to a novel’s success.