Cover to Cover II: From Idea to Story

Monster HunterLast time on Cover to Cover, I introduced this series of articles, which follows a novel from birth to potential publication. The previous entry was all about ideas. How to grow them, nurture them, and expand them.

This time I’m going to show you how to take that idea and mold it into an actual story. This can be a daunting process.

So your idea is born. You’ve done your “What iffing,” your brainstorming, your smashing of numerous breakable objects. Now you have to go forward. The idea can percolate for a bit, but soon it needs to become an actual story. A story that has characters, a plot, a setting, and all that wonderful, wonderful magic that is going to consume your readers and give them many sleepless nights.

In my last entry, which you can view here, I mentioned my idea. But, alas, dear fellow writers, I fell into the evil tiger trap that so many others do. I looked at my idea and said, “No, this isn’t quite what I want.” So I put it aside for a while, and my idea actually spawned another idea.

My idea evolved. Yes, this is perfectly normal and organic. Allow it to happen. It’s best when it happens early in the process, before you’ve written too much.

So my idea became “What if a celebrity monster hunter kills a holy being from another dimension, and thus becomes the most hated person in the known world?”

This idea intrigued me more because I wanted my main character to kill something so widely revered, that others would have no choice but to hate her. Making my MC public enemy number one will enhance the tension of the story as she tries to redeem herself and lift a curse put upon her at the same time. She not only has a ticking clock that is slowly withering her humanity away, but she must also strive to protect those who hate her so deeply.

Next, I had to decide on my key story elements: character, plot, and setting. I believe that tone, themes, and other elements are also important, but the three core elements a writer should first decide on are character, plot, and setting. Other elements emerge from these.

I’ll discuss potential ways to suss out these elements, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter.

How to Build Characters as a Pantser

If you’ve ever played a video game or Dungeons and Dragons, you know that creating a character can be one of the most fun parts of the game. Pantsers can just create and go. Get basic ideas down such as the character’s personality, job, and goals, and then just put the pedal to the metal.

Try writing short stories that feature your characters. This is a way to discover who your characters are without doing a lot of planning. Just dump your characters into a story and see what they do. How do they react to a goblin barber trying to scalp them? Or how do they feel about blood magic? These are aspects of your characters that you can explore through short stories, even if you don’t plan to do anything with the stories afterward.

Do a character sketch. Actually draw your character. Sometimes a person can tell a lot about a person by how he looks. Does he have scars lacing across his cheeks? Does she have a crooked smile? Does he have long hair that’s never been cut? Physical features don’t always determine a character, but they can go a long way if you experiment.

How to Build Characters as a Plotter

There are numerous ways to build characters if you’re a plotter. You can try Antonio del Drago’s great book, The Mythic Guide to Characters, which has all manner of ways to create convincing characters. You can delve into your character’s psychology, family, and feelings about the world.

You can also try expanding on the techniques listed in the above section (writing short stories, drawing the characters), but just go into more detail than you would if you were pantsing.

How I Did It

I’ve used a combination of both approaches, actually. I wrote a short story about my MC, Marla, first, but her character has changed a lot since then. Whereas before she was a spoiled celebutante, now she is a character that had that lifestyle forced upon her. Marla has to wear a wig to cover the tattoos that depict her monster hunter training because they’re “scary.” She gives monster hunting tours to the privileged. A dancing bear for their entertainment.

I used The Mythic Guide to Characters to further build up Marla and several other major characters. I could look at her beliefs about the world, her family, her upbringing, love life, and overall psychology. You can go as deep as you want. There were some aspects that I didn’t include, but you can focus on those aspects which are most important to you.

For the next article in this series, I’m going to go more in-depth into characterization.

How to Build Plot as a Pantser

Just write. Plot comes best to pansters when they just follow whatever path their characters go down. If you at least have a loose idea of where your plot is going, you can develop it as you go along. Just be aware that you should have some kind of ending in mind. Pantsing seems to work best when there is at least that inkling of an idea.

It may also be good for pantsers to write out a brief mind map. It will allow you to branch off various ideas without getting too in-depth, so that you will still surprise yourself as you write.

How to Build Plot as a Plotter

Building plot as a plotter should be easy, right? It can be. Outlining is one of the best ways to ensure that your plot is tight and makes sense. If you have a solid outline, finding the right course can be as easy as taking each step as it comes. You don’t get the spontaneity of pantsing, but you can still rewrite your outline if things feel too rigid and forced.

Outlines can be as detailed and hardcore as you like, but they can also be as simple as a scene list. Just make a spreadsheet with a list of all the scenes you want in your story. If that method doesn’t work, just write them all down in notebook. Why is each scene important? What does it do for the overall story? Does it advance the plot? These are the questions you should ask yourself as you develop your plot.

How I Did It

The Snowflake Method is a method for plotting that I highly recommend. It takes the smallest kernel of an idea, and expands it more with each step. A plot can be born out of this method very easily. As you expand each layer and make the story bigger and bigger, you can see the whole plot lay itself out before you.

I recommend checking out Randy Ingermanson’s posts about The Snowflake Method over at his website: How To Write A Novel Using The Snowflake Method.

How to Build Setting as a Pantser

If you start with a small village and expand the world outward as you go, you can build your world without first working out the painstaking details. Allowing your characters to discover your world as you do may offer a sense of wonder and exploration that could be missing otherwise.

Drawing small maps or sketches can also help you to figure out where your characters are going, so that they don’t end up lost.

You can also try the Dungeon Master approach. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, the best times are when you spring things on players without knowing what’s going to happen. Someone could die, someone could run, someone might lose a limb. That level of excitement and unpredictability can spur your story forward in many unexpected ways.

How to Build Setting as a Plotter

There are many programs that can help with building setting. Kitty Chandler has a template for Scrivener called the World-Buidling Leviathan, which helps writers to hammer out many details of their worlds. She also has other tools for writers on her website: KittySpace – Writing Tools.

If you don’t want to use software, you can always do world-building the old fashioned way in a notebook. Try to get the major things like races, countries, and creatures ironed out first before going much deeper. However, going as deep as you like will ultimately help when it comes time to craft your story.

How I Did It

I’m still working on this, actually. Setting is one element that’s hard for me to pin down. I want to focus on a world that is connected to many different dimensions. Therefore my setting, as it stands now, comes across as a 17th century world. There are guns and cannons, but there are also swords and axes. The technology isn’t advanced enough to tip the scales.

I’m still working on building the various dimensions. Instead of using dragons and other typical fantasy monsters, I am including a more Lovecraftian horror element, with all manner of terrible, nightmarish creatures haunting the world. So in my story you may see a sleek, tentacled beast getting mowed down by a row of cannons.

Once you have these elements pegged down in your own story, and know how you’re going to approach them, you can get closer to a finished product.

So now I have a question for all of you:

Have you tried any methods to develop the key elements (characters, plot, and setting) of your novel? If so, which methods have you found to be helpful?

Signing off, this is Philip Overby. See you next time on Cover to Cover, when I’ll discuss different approaches to characterization. Until then, get to writing and level up!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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8 years ago

Mobewan I’m in the same boat as you for sure. I tried pantsing numerous times (mostly with NaNoWriMo) and I haven’t had much success with it. While I’ve had glimmers of hope, I can’t say it’s my style. I recently picked up the Snowflake Method after hearing several people say it’s a great way to get a lot of work done by expanding each idea with more and more detail. I’m happy what I have to work with now and I think it’s going to ultimately work out for me this time. Scrivener was one of the best investments a fantasy writer can make in my opinion. It’s especially great for those who love world-building.
And yes, Mobewan, I agree that ripping off other writers’ plotting and planning techniques is a wonderful way to thieve your way to greatness. Feel free to steal anything from me and I’ll do the same! 🙂

8 years ago

I’m a ‘flaker. I’ve tried pantsing and it just does’t work for me.
On my first go through with the snowflake method and I’m up to step 6…I’ve found some interesting things out about myself and things I’ve focussed on, so it’s been a great experience. I am finding now that I’m tweaking my approach to it – bespoking it if you will – as I want to drill down into the timeline of the story in more detail (using scapple for that due to its integration into Scrivener). For me, tweaking models, methods and approaches as you develop as a writer is key, and something I think everyone needs to do. Be prepared to adapt to both your needs and those of the story.
Also, at the end of the day, there is probably someone out there who has done and tried it all before. Take all the good stuff people tell you about (like this post), rip it off and make it your own 😉

8 years ago

Mike Cairns Thanks Mark! 
 I liked to hear techniques from successful pantsers since I did it for a long time without any progress. I like your approach of doing interviews and newspaper articles. That’s a creative way to develop characters that I’d like to try.

 Thanks for sharing!

Mike Cairns
8 years ago

Hi Philip
Great post, thanks.
I pants most of the time, but I do like to develop the characters. I think as a pantser, the tendency is to let your characters tell the story for you, so the better you know them, the better the story. 
I tend to interview mine, in different ways depending on the genre. So a YA novel might have interviews about favourite colours, music and so on. An epic fantasy interview might be more to do with family, history, that sort of thing. 
Following the interviews, it can also be fun to create a newspaper article/magazine article type of thing, introducing the ‘readers’ to the person. this helps to get all that boring descriptive stuff out of the way before you begin writing. Then you can sprinkle it in where and as it seems fitting. 
Thanks again

8 years ago

@Tony Dragani I’ve never heard of The Marshall Plan. I’ll have to check that out. The Snowflake Method has been excellent for me so far. It’s like like having a basic bowl of ice cream and then just pouring all the toppings you can imagine on it. Each topping adds a new flavor to the project and makes it all that much better.

8 years ago

Thanks! Your post made my day!
I really enjoy the Snowflake Method right now and feel like it gives me the focus I’ve always needed to outline one step at a time instead of just plopping it all down at once. It also makes me really think about each aspect of my novel instead of just having a nebulous idea without a story attached to it.

It would be awesome if you could develop your story at the same time with me. That was my whole goal with this series of articles. I wanted to encourage others who are on the same path as me and share our successes and  stumbles. Each writer has their own path, so it’s great to hear what works and what doesn’t for different people.

Seriously, for me, even if only you decide to join along, it’s made the series worth it so far. 
Would you care to share any of your ideas or techniques? I’m always happy to hear them.

8 years ago

Thanks a ton! I’ll email you soon about any sharing it.

8 years ago

Damn Phil! You just had to mention the Snowflake method! Now I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. I shall always remember the Snowflake method with fondness. It helped me kickstart my first attempt at a novel. Of course the novel failed but still, I had fun. XD
Awesome post. Seriously inspired me to take a closer look at some of the ideas that have been swimming around in the back of my head. I think I might be developing my story alongside yours. Hope I can keep up. Can’t wait for the next post.

8 years ago

Great post, Philip. I would like to re-publish it on Venture Galleries. Please let me know if that’s possible with a short email to [email protected]. Thanks.

8 years ago

Antonio del Drago Thanks! I hope my changes and struggles help others in some way. At the end of the day, I’m just a guy trying to write a novel like anyone else.

Antonio del Drago
8 years ago

Also, Phi, I absolutely love how your story ideas has evolved.  It’s brilliant!

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
8 years ago

I’ve used The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing for a few projects, and found it to be helpful. I’ve been meaning to try the Snowflake Method, as I’ve heard great things about it.

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