Storytelling Class — Turning Ideas Into Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was how to turn ideas into stories.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week I read the graphic novel version of Dream Hunters and my usual blogs. I’m continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to the kids. The day has now been saved, and we just have to get through the final 100 pages of endings.

I picked up Dream Hunters from the library. I like anything by Gaiman, and although I read the original Dream Hunters illustrated story, that was years ago and I remembered almost nothing about it. This full-on graphic novel version was a great story with excellent art.

Freya was in the middle of rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in her free time, and The One and Only Ivan at school. We talked about an exciting part of Ivan, and how she likes action sequences more than lots of dialogue.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual blog posts, Razor Mountain chapter 6, and my “homework” short story for this class.

Freya wrote things for school, and her homework story for this class.

Last Week’s Homework

Our homework was to complete a story of two pages or less, as practice for finishing stories.

I wrote a drabble version of my microfiction story “No More Kings.” I like how drabbles force you to cut to the essence of a story (and usually force you to cut more than feels comfortable). But unlike microfiction, they actually feel like a complete tiny story that doesn’t require a gimmick to work.

Freya wrote a two-page story called Felix the Cat Goes to School. This has nothing to do with the cartoon character—it’s actually about a green-furred cat named after her little brother. (His favorite color is green.)

Turning Ideas Into Stories

Our main topic was discussing ways to turn ideas into full stories.

As an example of building up ideas into a story, I talked about a story I’m working on that’s still missing some pieces (like a clear ending). It started as a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, in a world where magic exists. Eventually, it transformed into something closer to a steampunk James-Bond-with-magic spy drama. It also expanded from something short story length into something novel-length. As I built up this story idea, I had to add in a magic system, a setting, and a background and personality for my main character. Each of these things changed what the story wanted to be.

1. Idea Journal and Brainstorming

I’m a big believer in having a writing journal. A place to keep story ideas is one of the most useful tools a writer can have. Sometimes the muse gifts us with ideas, and this journal gives us a safe place to keep them. However, it can also be useful to dedicate some writing time specifically to brainstorming story ideas.

I showed Freya my idea journal. I used to keep an actual, physical journal, but I switched to a OneNote journal that I can sync between my phone (for ideas on the go) and my computer (for writing time).

We also discussed brainstorming time. This doesn’t have to be time spent hunched over keyboard or journal. It can just as well be a walk in the woods or whatever other environment helps you think creatively, as long as it’s free from distractions.

2. Build Idea Combos

Cory Doctorow talks about story ideas coming out of a “super-saturated solution” of things that catch your interest. You can also think of ideas as the bits of dust in space that accrete into planets and stars. The basic idea behind these metaphors is that one idea—a character, setting, situation, etc. is usually not enough to sustain a story. Instead, each story is a mixture or combination of interesting ideas.

3. Fill In Missing Pieces

Most stories need a specific set of components: characters, setting, a source of tension, and so on. Sometimes fleshing out a story idea is a Mad-Libs-esque exercise in determining the “blanks” and filling them in.

This doesn’t have to be a hard commitment. It can be an experiment. If you know you need a setting to make the idea work, you can pick one you’re not sure about and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

4. Prompts, Challenges, and Games

Another way to expand your ideas is to mix and mingle them with outside influences. These might be writing prompts or challenges, or games/tools like Story Engine.

Next Week’s Homework

In keeping with the theme, we decided that next week’s homework will be to come up with ten story ideas. These don’t have to be fully fleshed out; they might be a single character or some other piece of a story. We can then talk about what other pieces it needs to become a functional story.

The past two class topics have come from Freya’s questions and thoughts in the previous class. This time, she had no strong opinions on what the next topic should be.

Luckily, I had a list of potential topics for us to consult. After some discussion, we decided that next week’s topic will be beginnings, middles, and ends.

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