Tuesday, May 31

Writing skills 2: developing ideas

Just after writing my last post on generating ideas, I read Paul Magrs state that "For every one of my published novels and stories there's another one that I wasn't happy with or that didn't quite work out in the end" (Magrs, 2001: 17).  He seemed to be saying that writing is not primarily about flashes of inspiration, but about learning the craft of developing your ideas.  Which leads me neatly on to this week's skill...

Bits of stories

When I first started creative writing, I used to jot down short story ideas (or what I thought were short story ideas), but didn't know how to go from an idea (or a half-idea, or quarter-idea) to a full story. For example, I once jotted down that I would write a story about a person who tried to liberate farm animals, in the way that some people try to liberate laboratory animals. This is not really an idea on its own: it's a bit of an idea, a character or perhaps the context, but it isn't really a story.

Rincao by Eduardo Amorim
It's great to note down these sort of things - perhaps the sort of thing that might come up when you brainstorm for story ideas - but it's just as important to learn how to craft an idea or a group of ideas into a story.

Key elements

The problem was that my idea above didn't contain all the elements of a story, which include:
  • Initiating action - a problem of some kind that triggers off the events
  • Conflict - the key character being opposed/thwarted by other people and/or society
  • Rising tension - the conflict should get tenser as we go along.
  • Resolution/denouement - the key point where the central conflict comes to a head and is resolved for good or bad.
Most of all, something needs to happen - somebody needs to want something and/or have something that they are putting at risk, and fear to lose.  There needs to be action, and for most genres, the characters have to behave in believable ways.

If you have the beginnings of a short story, think about these elements, and how you might develop your ideas to bring these points in.  You could call it your story's structure.  A novel is not so different, but would usually contain several conflicts and resolutions, and a larger cast of characters


There is no avoiding the need for careful reading of successful authors to find out more about crafting ideas into stories, and structuring a story well. It is commonly observed - and has certainly been my experience - that once you start writing, you begin to read other people's work more carefully and perceptively.

Image by dalcrose
This means that rather than reading vast amounts at the outset, in the hope that this will turn you into a writer, the two things should progress together and have a recursive effect on each other.

Magrs, P. (2001).  Clearing some space.  In Bell, J. and Magrs, P. (eds.), The Creative Writing Coursebook.  London: Pan Macmillan.