Capturing Story Ideas

On my novel writing journey, I’m starting out by capturing ideas, which are plentiful. I find that committing to a project summons a flood of ideas, and this one is no different in that sense. When I say a firm yes, reality says: Great… let’s unlock that idea space for you.

The ideas have been flooding my mind frequently – when I wake up in the morning, while eating, while running, and even while blogging. At any time I might be struck by an idea for a character, scene, location, plot twist, theme, or anything else related to the novel. When I’m at my computer, I like to capture these ideas on virtual index cards in Scrivener. Otherwise I’ll capture ideas anywhere convenient, and then I add them to Scrivener later.

You might think that I do this to make sure that good ideas don’t slip through the cracks, but that isn’t really an issue. Ideas are so plentiful that there will always be more good ones to consider. The main reason to capture them is so I can let go of them, which allows more ideas to come through. If I don’t write down an idea, it can remain stuck in my mind, continually refreshing itself and blocking other ideas from flowing. So capturing ideas also serves to clear them from my mental buffer, thereby creating space for more.

So far I’ve added 77 of these idea cards to Scrivener, probably half them them just today. Each card contains anything from a few keywords up to several paragraphs. I’ll likely generate hundreds of these cards by the end of the month.

This approach is working well so far. I feel like the ideas are coming to me with ease. I don’t have to chase them or hunt them down. It’s nice to see that the ideas for writing fiction are just as abundant as what I’m accustomed to on the nonfiction side. It feels like the only real change was to make a different kind of request regarding the types of ideas I want to receive. This already gives me the impression that if I wanted to, I could summon an endless flow of ideas for fictional stories to write. For now I’m just going to focus on a single novel though.

I now have an emerging sense of the overall story I’d like to write. I’m pretty clear about the genre, which is going to be sci-fi, set in the relatively near future, perhaps 15-40 years ahead.

I have a relatively clear idea for the protagonist and her story arc. And I have lots of ideas for scenes and key beats.

What I’m not clear about yet is how to end the story. There are many interesting options there, and I keep generating more. I’d like to at least figure out how I’ll end the story before I start writing it. I can always change my mind during the writing phase, but I think it’s wise to at least loosely map out the story before I write any of it.

I feel like it’s important to go through an idea explosion phase first, so I can better understand the world I’d like to create, the characters, and the basic story options. Then I can start assembling the pieces to work towards the goal of building a step outline.

For the step outline, I want to create about 60-80 index cards (physical or virtual) with just one sentence on each of them. Each card / sentence will represent one scene in the novel. Let’s say that a scene equates to about 1500 words of text in the final book. So on the low end that would be a 90,000-word book, and on the high end, we’re looking at 120,000 words. I think that’s a good range for an interesting sci-fi novel.

I’m not planning to write a multi-volume series like a trilogy, just a standalone novel. But I also want to keep my options open. I’m enjoying the process so far, so if I really get into this, I could see myself writing more books on the side in future years.

I’ve also been studying a lot of story structure models including the 3-act story structure, the 7-point plot structure, the popular Save the Cat plot structure, the classic 12-beat hero’s journey, and more. This morning Rachelle and I watched some videos showing to to break down Avengers: Infinity War and Aliens into story beats with the Save the Cat structure. So even as I’m generating ideas, I’m also thinking about possible ways to structure those ideas into a coherent story.

I also reviewed my 25+ pages of notes from Robert McKee’s Story seminar that I attended last year. The lessons have new meaning now that I can apply them to an actual story that’s coming through. This also helped me generate more ideas.

This process reminds me a lot of my game design days. There are many permutations of ideas to consider, especially in the early design phase. Eventually you have to sift through the ideas and explore how to connect the dots, so you can arrange the core ideas into a structural framework.

Generating ideas is the easy part. Getting them to converge into a coherent and unified whole can be really difficult though. I’ve been through this phase with other creative projects, so I’m curious to see how it plays out for a novel.