From Idea to Story by Devaki Khanna

Readers often wonder how authors get ideas for stories. You can get ideas for stories from your environment. If you are an observant person, the habits, behavior and motivations of your social circle could give rise to ideas for several stories. If you’re the imaginative sort, an image—of someone driving on a road late at night, or of children finding wolf pups in the snow—could be the basis for a story.

How can you tell if your idea can become a story? Begin by asking questions. For instance—who are the children who find the wolf pups in the snow? Where do they find these pups? What do they decide to do? Why do they decide to do what they do?

Can your story be written as a novel?

That depends on how you develop it. You could choose to focus on just one incident, and write a short story. Or you could show how the plot you create leads to your characters’ development. For instance, the children who find the wolf pups in the snow could decide to drown them—this makes a rather grim story about childish cruelty. Or they can decide to raise the pups, which leads to all sorts of developments.

You have an idea for a story, based on the concept of the Good Samaritan, which you want to write as a romance. A person who is left for dead on the road is assisted by a passerby which eventually leads to a relationship. You begin by thinking of appropriate characters. Your heroine is a young woman, driving home late at night, coming across an unconscious, wounded man lying in the middle of the road, with no identification or money.

You can develop scenes—the almost empty, dimly lit road; the speeding car with its blazing headlights that brakes suddenly as the driver spots the body lying in the middle of the road; the driver getting out and revealing herself as a woman…

How do you develop characters? Characters develop in response to conflict. For instance, the woman driving the car. Is she coming home late from work or from a party? Is she a doctor or a nurse or just a passer-by? Does she have a mobile, which she can use to call an ambulance? Will she go with the wounded man to the hospital? How will her family respond if she comes home late, and tells them the story of the wounded man? Will they let her visit him in hospital? The answers to these questions, and the reasons why she behaves as she does, will lead to her development as a character.

Suppose you decide that you don’t want this woman to be the heroine of your story; she disappears after calling the ambulance and handing over the wounded, unconscious man to the paramedics. You want the wounded man to suffer from amnesia so that he can be helped by a sympathetic nurse or psychiatrist at the hospital. You could then choose to start your story in the emergency room when the man is brought in, or begin the story when the man regains consciousness in the ICU but has lost his memory. Your story could be told from the point of view of the nurse who’s assigned to care for him, or the psychiatrist who undertakes to help him recover his memory. You will then concentrate on the relationship between the nurse/psychiatrist and the patient, focusing on how she helps him recover his memory.

How do you build the storyline, after you have developed the idea so far? Try to think through what might happen in the real world if such a situation took place. Perhaps the hospital would have the man’s photograph put on news channels—print and television—within the city, and then nationwide, to discover his identity. The police might also get into the act, by taking fingerprints. What would they discover if they did so? Is the amnesiac just a pedestrian who was unfortunately knocked down while returning home from work? Or is he in possession of dangerous information, dangerous enough for him to nearly lose his life and endanger anyone else (including the girl in the car and the psychiatrist) helping him?

It’s up to you where you choose to take your story. However, you have to build up to the conclusion carefully and cleverly, using all that you have told us about your characters and their circumstances so far. Perhaps the wounded man’s parents have already been to the police and registered him as a missing person—in which case, they’ll arrive at the hospital within a day or so after he regains consciousness. He’ll still require psychiatric care, because he can’t really recall everything that happened before the accident took place. Or, the woman who rescued him is attacked in a drive-by shooting—and someone tries to kill him while he’s still in hospital. This means that his psychiatrist has to race against time to save him, while she helps him to remember why he landed up in hospital. Since we’re talking about writing romance novels here, it will lead to the development of a relationship between the wounded stranger and the psychiatrist assigned to his case, in both instances.

So, the basic rules for getting ideas for stories:

  1. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open—ideas for stories can arise from observation or imagery.
  2. When you get an idea, put it in context, using questions. Use the words who, what, where, why and how to get your answers.
  3. It is up to you to develop an idea into a short story or a novel. You have to decide how to express the idea suitably.
  4. The two major characters—hero and heroine—have to be put into situations of stress or conflict, so that we can appreciate their true worth.
  5. Select the major protagonists of your stories—you need to focus almost exclusively on them, giving us glimpses into their motivations and actions by telling the story from their point of view.
  6. Develop the story keeping in mind what might happen if your characters actually existed in the real world.
  7. Build up to the conclusion carefully, basing it on what you have revealed about your characters so far.

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5 Responses to “From Idea to Story by Devaki Khanna”

  1. Kanchana May 8, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    Very nice article! To look for interesting story ideas…my fav is to sometimes begin where famous stories ended. In the Scent of a woman, Al Pacino helps the boy at the trial and he doesnt have to tell on his friends. but in real life, no one is that lucky. who comes to the aid of a destitute. so I wrote a story – School Ties – about a boy who gives up his friends for a wrong they did, to save his scholarship. my story unfolds that happens to the boy in his life ahead…if he meets his friends again after 20 years…

    so if u are searching for a great idea, u cd try this angle. start with the ending of a great story and twist it around and just follow the thought

    • Jeneva May 9, 2017 at 1:02 pm #

      I can't stop looking at the second to last image, it's just striking. I think what I love about it is that ther9&#3e;s such a connection to the outdoors – both with the small deck space and the open window.

  2. privytrifles May 2, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    A very well articulated post, thank you so much for this. I love the basic rules, surely something that should be bookmarked for all future references.

  3. Rubina May 2, 2014 at 5:19 am #

    Thank you for this lovely post. One question : How important is it to plan a storyline from the begining to the end? Or should a writer go with the flow ?

    • Devaki Khanna May 2, 2014 at 7:13 am #

      Rubina, that depends on your system. You might want to begin your story with a single image and see where that takes you. Or you might get inspired by reading about modern-day treatments for amnesia, which differ radically from everything depicted on the silver screen, and use that as the backdrop for your story. The manner in which you write might be based on what you’re comfortable with–do you like to settle everything before you begin work or do you like your characters and your story to surprise you? It might change from story to story.

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