How to Turn a Simple Idea Into a Killer Story 2

4 Steps for How to Turn an Idea Into a Story That Rocks

How to Turn a Simple Idea Into a Killer Story PinterestAh, ideas. To a writer, is there any sweeter word? But as we quickly learn whenever we try to trap those ideas on paper, the real magic trick is figuring out how to turn an idea into a story that first works and then rocks.

Bar none, my favorite part of the writing process is the conception stage. That magical moment when an idea comes to me like a surprise gift and fills me up with its effervescent fizz is the high that keeps me toiling at my computer through the difficult stages of the process.

I also enjoy working on ideas. That’s why outlining is my second favorite part of the process. There’s no spit and polish at that point. There’s no finicky prose or narrative techniques to fuss over. There’s just me playing catch with my idea, like a kid bouncing a baseball against the wall of the garage.

But in itself, an idea doth not a story maketh.

The Cult of Ideas

Think of anybody anywhere (who hasn’t completely divorced themselves from their imagination and intuition) and odds are good you’ll discover that person has some kind of a story idea kicking around somewhere. The subtitle on Publishing Perspectives post from a few years back notes:

Some 200 Million Americans say they want to publish a book, but lack of attendance at the [Independent Book Publisher’s Association]’s Publishing University at [Book Expo America] suggests a disregard for the craft of book publishing.

In an earlier article on the New York Times‘ website, Joseph Epstein claimed:

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them—and that they should write it.

Human beings aren’t lacking for ideas. Writers joke about being routinely assaulted with more ideas than they know what to do with. We’re constantly distracted from the down-in-the-trenches work of our current book by the beautiful promise of new ideas fluttering around like sunshine-y clouds of swallowtail butterflies.

If we take into account the average time it takes me to write a novel (and count only ideas I’m reasonably convinced are “major” enough to turn into full-blown stories), I currently have enough ideas to last me the next 36 years. At that point I’ll be closing in on 70—and will probably have gathered enough new ideas to last me a further 36 years.

That’s awesome.

I can’t imagine a life without ideas. They’re my recreational drug of choice. But as I’m reasonably convinced anyone reading this blog already knows, great ideas don’t metamorphose into great stories all on their own.

G.R.R. Martin went so far as to say:

Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.

Ideas are effortless. Intuitive.

Wrangling those ideas into resonant and cohesive art? Ah, that’s what separates the weekenders from the warriors.

Today, I want to take a look at how you can set up personal systems within your creative discipline to help you:

  • Become receptive to your best ideas.
  • Figure out which ideas are worthy story material.
  • Remember all pertinent bits of random inspiration for future reference.
  • Evolve your ideas into full-blown stories.

1. How to Find Good Story Ideas

Ideas are everywhere. Good ideas? That’s something else again.

Inspiration is a mistress to be courted. Fail to spoil her with extravagant attentions, and she’ll stop waiting for your visits. The longer I am a writer, the more I realize ideas will only come to me if I’m creating a lifestyle that invites them.

Here are four things you can do to beckon the best ideas into your imagination.

1. Be an Information Omnivore

Inspiration is born of information. And its birthplace is in the gaps that call for intuitive leaps.

It can’t be said enough: inhale information. Facts, images, experiences, the stories (true or not) of other people. Don’t discriminate. It’s all grist for the mill.

If you do nothing else as a writer in any given day, then at least wake up in a conscious pursuit of creativity. What can you learn today? What you learn needn’t have anything to do with writing, or even anything to do with the kind of stories you prefer to write. Indeed, focus on broadening your horizons a little more every day.

2. Dreamzone

Sometimes ideas will flutter right on through the window and perch on our shoulders. We don’t need to do anything to claim them; they claim us. But sometimes we must exert a little more effort. I’ve noticed that the older I get and the more I “adult,” the less often I experience spontaneous visits from the muse. I have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to meet inspiration halfway.

From Where You Dream Robert Olen ButlerMy favorite way of doing this is what Robert Olen Butler called “dreamzoning.” To do this, I put myself in an environment that allows me to zone out into that subconscious playground that we often tap most readily in the space between wakefulness and sleep. Basically, I’m diving deep into the ether of daydreams. I watch and I listen as my subconscious parades its treasure house of images and sounds and feelings across my mind.

3. Elope With Someone Else’s Characters

Not literally, of course. If your latest idea is about a chap named Larry Blotter who attends a school called Bogworts, then that’s not really your idea, is it?

That said, art is the gift that keeps on giving. An artist inspires you and you inspire another artist.

The vast majority of my best story ideas originated because I fell in love with someone else’s character. I ran away with that character, made him or her my own, juxtaposed that bit of inspiration with a bit of inspiration from somewhere else, and suddenly something new and wonderful and entirely mine sprang up around it.

Pay attention to the characters and ideas that trigger your excitement, curiosity, and happiness. This goes for your experiences with books and movies, and it goes for songs and paintings, as well as other art forms.

4. Seek Sensory Stimulation

One of the best ways to dive deep inside your mind is to first mildly stimulate your senses. Ground your body so your mind can fly free. Listen to music in the dark. Watch a fire. Take a shower. Even the act of typing helps free our creative brains.

2. How to Go From Idea to Story

A long time ago someone whose name I neglected to record asked me:

How do you go about generating your ideas or forming fragment-ideas together to then have enough of a story (and characters) to start building your structure and plot?

In other words: How do you evolve the caterpillar into a butterfly?

The short answer is you don’t.

You don’t have the ability to force an idea to grow into something bigger. All you can do is create a safe, warm incubation space while you watch to see whether or not that idea has what it takes to grow beyond an amusing little treasure into the real deal.

I’m a dedicated brainstormer. But I never subject my delicate baby ideas to the maelstrom of conscious brainstorming. In the beginning, I do nothing more than hold them, admire them, enjoy them.

And that’s the key.

If you want to see an idea develop, make space for it within your life. If you stuff it way back in some dusty corner of your brain, your subconscious might occasionally bat it back at you. But if you want it to grow, hold it in your mind’s eye. Don’t force it. Don’t dictate what it must or must not do. But watch it.

Deep-dive into the dream zone and just let the idea roll around. See what it has to offer. Sometimes you’ll come to what seems the end of its potential, only to have a new fragment of a new idea glom onto the first one and evolve into something new. If that happens often enough, presto-chango, you’ve got yourself a butterfly.

3. How to Organize On-the-Go Ideas

In another email, Michael Saltar described a familiar experience for writers:

When I’m out and about, ideas strike me, so I keep a running virtual notepad on my iPhone in a Google Doc. Little nuggets that will improve my work in progress, each separated by a row of hyphens.

This method works great, but if I let them pile up, then I’m in big trouble because what results is a monolithic project to fold this huge mass of notes into my work. Worst of all, they’re usually terribly out of sequence.

My hindsight isn’t even 20/20 in this case. My clunky remedy is to take the time now to cut/paste them into my outline (in sequence)….

Have you already done a blog on recording on-the-go inspiration (without sabotaging one’s progress)?

For me, the conception stage on any given story can last years. Remember all those story ideas I mentioned earlier? At least one of them is going to have to wait around for another three decades before I’m able to write it. Imagine how many little ideas and notes I will have accumulated by then!

I used to believe the only idea worth writing was one I could remember. That hubristic notion has since gone smash on the wayside. But a similar belief remains. Like Michael, I know I’m not going to remember every little idea I come up with for any given story (even the one I’m currently working on). This is, however, far more true of logical ideas than it is of visual ideas.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandThis is one of the reasons I do very little logical plotting on a story before I’m ready to start outlining it. Rather, I focus on collecting mind-pictures. For example, here are some of the snippets I collected prior to writing  my work-in-progress Dreambreaker (sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander):

  • Pitch crosses—Brooke tries to kill him with a broom. He and Chris go back to Lael together.
  • New Cherazim? Sophisticated, world-wise, long leather jacket, slick black hair.
  • Cults sacrificing souls in Ori Réon to go to the other side.
  • King-shaped sarcophogi?
  • Allara jumps out a window onto the Garowai’s back.
  • Chris and Allara go through Réon Couteau’s wreckage and find clues on the fallen ceiling murals.

These probably make little sense to others, but for me each immediately triggers the visual that inspired it. During the early ideation stages on a story, I will occasionally make a note about whether I think a scene might end up being the Inciting Event or the Midpoint or something, but I never try to force early ideas to conform to structure.

Imposing a logical structure on a story too soon would likely stunt its natural growth and possibly even kill it. More than that, I know I’m not going to remember any logical decisions I make early on. I only remember the good stuff, the juicy stuff.

That’s all I try to remember. The rest will come later.

4. How to Move From Ideation to Creation

Ideas are gifts. We don’t create them; we just receive them.

What we do create is the story itself. We take the raw ingredients of our ideas, and we put them together into a cohesive storyform—which is nothing if it is not a medium for shared dreamscapes.

Let’s say you’ve dreamzoned your way to a gazillion “visual ideas,” which you’ve collected in a Word doc. Those collective ideas feel rich and weighty with potential. But how do you take these primal offerings of your subconscious and turn them into a story?

This starts with reaching reasonable certainty that your collection of ideas really is ready to be shared. Are they finally ripe? Although there are some things you can do to figure out whether your ideas are ready to be written, for the most part you just have to feel it out. I always go back to Margaret Atwood’s vague but shrewd rule of thumb:

 …you know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready.

If you’re pretty sure you’re not not ready, then it’s time to start putting ideas on paper, slowly tightening them up, figuring them out, and imposing the logic of story and writing techniques upon them to see if they can bear up under and fill out the necessary requirements to become more than just pleasing notions from the playground of your mind.

For me, this is the process of outlining (which I talk about extensively in my book Outlining Your Novel and this follow-up blog series). This is where I apply brainstorming methods to slowly shape my raw clay into an articulated statue with specific features. This is where I begin looking at my story logically and critically. For others, this process can take place during the rough draft. This is much more a process of feeling out an idea in order to see what it might look like in the harsh light of actual narrative scenes and descriptions.

Either approach will get you to the same end. The idea will cease to be an idea. It will become a reality.

It actually makes a ton of sense that G.R.R. Martin uses the word “execution” in contrast to “ideas.” When we start writing about an idea, we execute it. The enchanting caterpillar must die on the page. It will never again offer the same embryonic possibilities as it did when it lived exclusively in the warmth of our minds.

You will no longer see it for what you hope it will be, not even for what it means to you personally. You will see it for what it really is, in both its excesses and its limitations.

The idea will either rot away on the page, or it will re-emerge from the cocoon as something else entirely.

Love your ideas. But don’t fall in love with them. Learn to recognize them, nurture them, and when the time is right discipline them into the maturity of full-blown, excellent stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your personal steps for how to turn an idea into a story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This blog is amazing! I am trying to become an author when I’m older, but I have a hard time thinking of ideas. This blog helps others like me to come up with ideas and bring them to life.

  2. I have a few Evernote notebooks dedicated to new ideas. When I find myself repeatedly going back to add details to a particular idea I’ll create a new notebook for it so I can throw all the ideas in there. If I’m being goof I divide these notebooks with a line so I can somewhat sort story structure from world building or dialogue. I love going back to these notebooks and seeing the things I’ve saved as inspiration but have forgotten about.

    But most of my ideas are collected overtime on scraps of paper, old notebooks, and post-it notes until the stack beside my desk becomes so large that it’s fallen over twice and I have no choice but to pick them up piece by piece reading and sorting them as I go. I normally have no clue just how much thought I’ve given an idea until I type up these notes. I’ve written what if and consider this questions, character motivations, plot twists, thoughts about world-building, but my favorite story ideas are the ones that come with the climax in tow. Once sorted I add these ideas to their proper Evernote notebook. The notebooks I edit the most are usually ready for outlining as most of the work is there it just needs a little order. I’ve found that once I start scribbling dialogue a story is almost definitely ready for an outline.

  3. I’ve had an idea for a story for about two years now and it’s sort of developed into something, though still needs a lot of tweaking. I like your philosophy of allowing an idea to grow and develop on it’s own without forcing it into an outline too soon. I think that was my problem. I had an idea and tried too quickly to force it into a structure and it just turned into a mess. I’m constantly changing things as I write. At this point, I feel like I just need to write and see where the story takes me, without relying on an outline. My outlines are constantly changing anyway. Your post has definitely inspired me to keep going with it!

  4. I’m currently outlining my fantasy story, so I can get an idea of how the characters react and learn more about them. Though I might have to edit my superhero story.

  5. My book was actually 2 ideas put together in 1 book. I had an idea for women to be transformed into mermaids, but I didn’t have a plot to go with it. I also had an idea for a mechanical Kraken, but didn’t have a plot to go with it. When I put them together, that’s when I got my book.


  1. […] beginning stages of crafting a novel can be the make or break point. K.M. Weiland has 4 steps for turning an idea into a story that rocks, Janice Hardy lays out 4 signs you might be confusing (rather than intriguing) in your opening […]

  2. […] 4 Steps for How to Turn an Idea Into a Story That Rocks […]

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