How to write fiction | Part 1: developing an idea

Anyone can be a writer.

Human beings are storytellers; it’s an innate part of our communication with each other. Stories shape our civilisations. We all have it in us to tap into this primal part of our brains; it is only conscious thought which stops us. Stories can exist in many forms, but in Part 1 of our #WeeklyWritingWorkshop we will be finding the right idea for a piece of fiction, and developing it into a working outline. This can be for a short story, a novel, script or generally anything with a plot and characters.

Firstly, I want to make it clear that intuition is every writer’s #1 tool, so you need to learn to trust yourself if you want to make it through to the end of the process. Your subconscious is going to be responsible for a large chunk of the work involved, so trust that it knows what it is doing, and most importantly:


Start Simple

You may have an idea of a story you want to write, a rough sketch of a character or a theme of interest to you. My mind will usually give me a random burst of a scene, or a line of dialogue or description from which I can start to build the story. If you don’t have any of these things, don’t worry – just sit down, set a timer for twenty minutes, and write freely about anything. You might start with a fragment of a memory from your childhood, or a description of the city in which you live. If you’re still stuck, just go for a walk, then when you get home sit down with your notebook or laptop and describe the things you saw, the route you took, how the sky looked. Use all five of your senses and pay attention to details; they are everything.

Find your structure

You might need to carry on with these daily timed writing sessions until you stumble across the story fragment that grabs you. Be patient and HAVE FAITH that it will come; your oldest friend, the subconscious mind, is already cooking up something beautiful. Once you have a ‘hook’, you can start to think about the flow of your story. You will find a slew of dull books written about Act structure, most of which will turn you off writing forever; the best way to learn about structure is by reading a lot of other fiction and paying attention to the choices made by the author. Ask yourself: where are the emotional turning points/milestones in this story? How is the action paced around these points, and why?

Stories are about change. If you’re writing a short story, one or two big emotional changes or ‘turning points’ need to happen, and these will form the bare bones of the plot. If it’s a novel, it will be five or six big turning points. Once you have these milestones, you can start to flesh out the story with scenes and characters. And remember – just because you are not sat at your desk, it doesn’t mean you’re not writing. A lot of the initial work and world-building goes on inside your head, the details of the story growing and ripening out of that one, initial seed whilst you are doing the washing up, sitting in the bath or walking to the shop. Just make sure your notebook is always within reach!


Meet your characters

Unless you already have strong ideas about who your main characters are, they will be built out of the story’s action. They are there to serve the function of moving the plot forward. Start with the protagonist. Now you have the milestones, and maybe a handful of the scenes in between, you can ask yourself: Why/how would this character make the choices needed to lead the story to each milestone? What emotion are they feeling that would push them to make this decision, to take this action? It’s very important that you have an emotional stake in the story as well as your characters, because then so will the reader.

Build conflict out of your characters’ decisions. Always follow their emotions. And remember: characters who don’t want anything aren’t characters – the story starts when we are introduced to what the protagonist wants, and ends when they have been through an internal change or ‘arc’ as a result of their external actions. The conflict arises out of whatever is standing in their way of getting what they want; what is stopping them going through the internal change they so desperately need to go through, and what are they going to have to sacrifice to make it happen?

Assemble the puzzle pieces

David Lynch once said when getting an idea for a story, he imagines a completed puzzle in the next room, with someone slipping the pieces one at a time into him.

The full puzzle will be visible to you at the very end of the process. For now, though, we will have to make do with a rough idea of the story outline and characters, and the big internal change the protagonist will go through as a result of their external experience. Don’t spend too long outlining – it will make you bored of the story before you’ve even started writing it. By the time you start writing you want to be bubbling over with creative energy and excitement, having carried the story around with you in your head and allowed the ideas to spring from your subconscious like daisies. And don’t worry if the characters don’t yet feel like real people; they will flesh themselves out as you begin writing. My characters usually don’t come ‘alive’ until the second or third draft.


Congratulations, you have your road map!

Next week: using the road map to write the first draft. We’ll be talking about achieving flow state, scheduling time to write, and getting to grips with how terrible our writing is!

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