How to Turn an Idea into an Epic Story
Every story starts with an idea — a dream, an experience, a flash of inspiration. You may be walking down the street and realise it would be the perfect setting for a story. Then, a person walks past, and you can't help but think that they would make an excellent protagonist. Reading a book about marine life, you may wonder what it would look like if humans evolved to live underwater.
Once you start looking, you'll see story ideas everywhere. They are the spark, but ideas aren't enough. A spark won't start a fire alone.
In this post, you'll learn how to develop your ideas into stories readers will love.
What Makes a Good Story?
Stories have been part of the human experience for many thousands of years. Most people can tell a good story from a bad one instantly with no formal education. But what makes a good story?
Story structure (sometimes narrative or dramatic structure) attempts to answer that question. You may be familiar with the three-act structure model. Many other approaches exist, including:
- Four act structure
- Five act structure
- Freytag's pyramid
- Save the Cat method
These models give us tools to analyse stories and help us understand why they work. You can usually break one story down using any of these methods. They're different ways to accomplish the same thing: explain what our brains understand instinctively.
Learning Story Structure
Story structure is a bit like music theory. You don't need to know about intervals, scales or chords to appreciate music. Some musicians never learn music theory but still compose great music by ear. In fact, some music doesn't follow any of these rules and still sounds great.
That said, most musicians benefit from understanding at least the basics of music theory. The same applies to writing and story structure. Learning it takes a while, but once you figure out how the concepts fit together, it all makes perfect sense.
If you're new to story structure, I recommend reading Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and Into the Woods by John Yorke. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, Anatomy of Story by John Truby are also excellent.
Some writers use these techniques religiously when developing their ideas into stories. Others rely on their instinctive understanding of narrative. Perhaps they have written for so long that story structure has become second nature. Different approaches work for different people.
When you have an idea and don't know how to turn it into a story, these models give you the tools to figure it out.
Turning an Idea into a Story
To show how understanding structure can help you go from an idea to a story, we'll develop one right now. I'll use the what if humans evolved to live underwater idea. Let's see what we can do with it.
It's worth pointing out that the following five steps are far from the only way to do it. Every writer has their own process.
Step 1: Where do your ideas fit?
Start by looking at what you already have. Is it a character or setting? Perhaps it's a specific scene or image?
In our case, the idea is more of a concept. We don't have any characters. The setting will be the ocean — not particularly specific.
Since this will be a speculative story, I'd do a little more world-building before starting to work out the plot.
There could be two nations — one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific Ocean. Each would have an ancient capital city. I'd try to make these factions oppose each other. Maybe they're actively competing for resources? Perhaps it's a Cold War-type situation? Any conflict will be a fertile ground for ideas later.
If your idea is more specific than mine, now is the time to zoom out and look at the broader context. When and where will the story take place? You don't have to include any of this in the draft, but the context will help you develop your idea further.
Step 2: What's the climax?
The climax is the most important part. The whole narrative is building up to that moment. If it falls flat, your readers won't be happy regardless of how amazing everything else may be.
Once you have the climax, you can work backwards and create a satisfying buildup.
In our case, we have an escalating conflict between the Atlantic and Pacific factions. The climax could be a military confrontation of some sort. One side may triumph over the other. Or perhaps the damage could be so severe on both sides that the fate of the entire civilisation is at stake.
Let's say that the protagonist is a secret agent who discovers that the conflict is being stoked by a small, elusive group of elites. They want to sow chaos and take control when both sides are weak.
The Pacific army is about to annihilate the ancient capital of the Atlantic people. This is sure to trigger an equally destructive response. Without the cities, the majority of the population in both oceans will die. Fortunately, the protagonist dismantles the secret cabal just in time to prevent the attack. That's the climax.
With the villains out of the way, the hostilities stop. The Atlantic and Pacific people negotiate peace in the story's resolution.
Step 3: Work out the missing pieces
With everything we already know, what must happen for things to reach that point? Who are the people behind the conspiracy? How does the protagonist learn about it? And how does life in the ocean even work? How did those cities develop? What makes them so important? And what can render them permanently inhabitable?
You could show the secret organisation infiltrating the governments of both sides. The protagonist could be following a series of clues that lead them to the people pulling the strings.
You can layer subplots into the narrative as well. Does the protagonist have a private life? Perhaps their partner dies during the hostilities?
And who are the villains? Why are they trying to take over the two oceans in the first place?
Understanding story structure is crucial here. That's how you know what's missing. Your approach will differ based on which model you choose to follow. In most cases, you'll end up with
- inciting incident
- first major plot point (the point of no return)
- progressive complications (rising action)
- second major plot point (all is lost moment)
Here's how our example story could work:
- Inciting incident: The protagonist notices a sharp increase in divisive propaganda. A pro-peace politician is assassinated,
- First major plot point: The first provocation occurs. The protagonist's partner is among the casualties.
- Progressive complications: Diplomacy breaks down without explanation.
- Midpoint: The protagonist learns about the existence of the secret organisation and their goal.
- More progressive complications: Threat of mutual destruction imminent.
- Second major plot point: The protagonist finally discovers who is leading the secret cabal.
- Climax: The protagonist defeats the leader and stops the attack.
- Resolution: Hostilities wind down. Peace is within reach.
Step 4: Create a list of scenes
After all this work, you'll have pages of notes, character profiles, plot lines and bits of narrative. The story is starting to take shape, but the edges are still blurry. It's time to turn your notes into a list of scenes.
Understanding how scenes work and how to structure them is invaluable. I learned this from Shawn Coyne's Story Grid. Each scene should have a turning point that moves the protagonist closer or farther away from achieving their goal.
The number of scenes you'll need depends on what you're writing. A typical novel may have around 60 scenes. Short stories can count anywhere from one to ten scenes.
The goal is to create a sequence of scenes that hits the right plot points at the right time to make for a satisfying read.
Step 5: Keep Iterating
Some scenes will be easy to figure out, others not so much. Working backwards from the climax makes the process easier because you know where you're heading.
The best stories have many layers. This is the time to introduce subplots and weave them around the main storyline to add depth.
Once you have a list of scenes, go through it a few times to see how everything works together. Use index cards or post-it notes and lay them on the floor or pin them on a wall. It can really help to spot issues.
You want to find as many problems as possible and address them before you start drafting. That way, you can avoid having to rewrite tens of thousands of words because of a plot hole you missed early on.
When you're happy, it's time to start writing.
Ideas are everywhere. Your ability to turn them into stories is one of your core skills as a writer.
Some writers compare story development to archaeology. First, you discover a rock that looks a bit like bone. You keep digging to uncover the rest of the dinosaur. Like the fossil, the story was always there, waiting for someone to find it.
Story structure models help you dig your stories up from the dirt.