A blank page unleashes an infinite amount of plots, scenes, and characters that beg us to outline their existence in ink.
But, if we can’t channel our influx of ideas, the excitement of starting a new project will quickly dissipate. Instead, we’ll be overwhelmed and unable to tell any story at all. A surplus of inspiration can cripple a writer’s sanity as much as a shortage.
Despite all the noise, turning a creative explosion into an impressive story is possible. By applying logic, we can sort through our ideas and create order.
Step #1: Identify the Story’s Core
Without an axis around which to arrange character arcs and plot points, ideas will seem impossible to untangle. We can simplify the brainstorming process by relating all aspects of the story to a singular essence.
Any detail can serve as an anchor, but (arguably) one of the most important is theme. Everything from character development to worldbuilding can revolve around it.
Imagine that the character we’ve dreamed up is a first-class engineer obsessed with winning prestigious awards. Jeremy needs to learn that he can’t measure himself by his accomplishments. We want readers to leave the story with a renewed awareness of the frailty of works and an understanding that only God can declare a person’s value. Thus, we must evaluate each new character concept or story world element in light of how it connects to this theme.
If Jeremy needs a love interest, instead of creating a random lady with a pretty smile, we can flesh her out by having her embody the story’s message. Unlike Jeremy, she gives herself grace when she fails, showing that she believes her worth comes from God.
Now that we have a protagonist and his love interest, we need a unique setting that proposes its own answers to the thematic question. If the genre is futuristic sci-fi, perhaps the world’s social structure hinges on achievements. If a person gathers accolades at certain stages in life, he’s eligible for positions of power. If he doesn’t, he’ll be banished. This system highlights the protagonist’s struggle with his worth.
Last but not least, we need a cohesive plot. Since a character’s actions bring a narrative to life, Jeremy should have a goal that’s tied to the story’s theme, such as aiming to become the youngest engineer to lead the finest innovators in the imperial forces. If he continues to relentlessly pursue this ambition, he will gain recognition but forfeit relationships, stability, and peace. The plot ought to illustrate those losses until he abandons his parasitic desires.
However, our plot needs a second purpose: to prove how frail our own accomplishments are. We should grind Jeremy’s deeds to dust to demonstrate that success can’t sustain him. Is he skilled with his hands? Break them. Is his recently published theory considered a legendary breakthrough? Let the antagonist discredit it in the eyes of the public. Destroying what he puts his trust in will drive him to embrace the truth.
When we interlink every element, the disasters we throw at the protagonist will make sense, because challenges will arise from how the other characters view the theme. Since Jeremy’s love interest is confident in her identity, she won’t feel pressured to meet society’s expectations. Instead of propping up her own reputation, she spends her time helping others and is exiled for her lack of achievement. Jeremy can either follow her, fight to change the system and damage his social standing, or remain on his current path and end up alone.
Centering a story around theme is harder than it sounds, though. We need to ask if our favorite characters and pet side plots truly contribute to the story’s message. If not, we can save those ideas for other stories or combine them. For example, maybe Jeremy needs a mentor, but for some reason we don’t have room to include one, so we merge that role with the love interest, who already knows the right answer to the thematic question. This sharpens and strengthens the story without sacrificing the mentor figure.
As we’re navigating the landscape of our imaginations, we must remember that theme is a guiding star that unifies a story. But it shouldn’t restrict the first stages of exploration. A theme won’t always materialize at the outset of a project. It often appears after a unique premise or character moment hits us, which can involve weeks or months of brainstorming (and drafting). If we prematurely rely on theme to line up all our ideas, we may strangle our creativity.
Step #2: Explore
Theme rarely bursts into existence on its own. Amid the trillion ideas running through our minds, we usually have one we’re eager to develop. It could be a character duo with special chemistry, a compelling moral dilemma, or a breathtaking scene. But the snippet is incomplete, and even if we have a theme to go with it, we may be tempted to discard it for another possibility.
Instead of snuffing out the spark, we should experiment with it. To do so, we need to be willing to fuse multiple ideas together until something explodes. I first heard this advice from C. R. Hedgecock, and I think it’s still relevant today.
Maybe we’re attached to a couple sets of characters: two brothers whose mission is to assassinate each other, plus a genius scientist and his shapeshifting bodyguard. We still need an antagonist for our sci-fi story, so what if we blend those profiles? The antagonist could be Jeremy’s brother and a brilliant assassin who can scientifically rearrange his molecular structure to impersonate anyone he wishes. It’s a wild conglomeration, but that’s okay. We might unearth a riveting story we wouldn’t have otherwise.
If combining doesn’t work, we can use other strategies to fill in the gaps. Setting a timer for twenty minutes and scribbling what-if questions can eliminate distractions, taking a walk can relax our brains, and explaining plot problems to a friend can reveal new angles.
While brainstorming, we need to focus on asking relevant questions. If we’re missing an antagonist, what backstories or ghosts would shape a person who would naturally be in a position to oppose the protagonist? What occupation should he have? What are his skills, desires, and values?
When we search for the answers, epic ideas may emerge. But sometimes we stumble upon inspiration while we write. If we draft flash fiction featuring random scenes or big moments in the protagonist’s past, we have a chance to discover details to weave into our main narrative and deepen our story world.
Step #3: Be Patient
Writers hope that their premises will be instantly perfect. Unfortunately, time and revisions are required to craft a solid story. Before Disney released the movie Frozen, Elsa was cast as the villain instead of an accidental antagonist. If the creators had stopped developing the film at that point, the story would have lost the compelling conflict between the two sisters.
Ideas are stubborn and messy and slow to take form. We can only do so much masterminding before we need to allow a story to breathe on its own. Writing isn’t always about obtaining results. Whether we’re fitting new ideas into the puzzle or looking for a breakthrough, we should enjoy the process. Only then will that blank page seem like a blessing.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.