Six steps from idea to story
A lot of people, usually aspiring writers, ask me about my process. They know what they want to write — but they need to know how. What's the right way? How do the professionals do it? What's the secret?
I understand. I asked the same question myself when I was starting out. You have all these ideas, and you love writing, but as soon as you start taking it seriously, you find that it's actually quite hard. You wonder if there are tricks, techniques, methods explaining how to turn your idea into a proper story. How to be fully prepared, so that when you run out of steam somewhere around the middle, you know how to deal with it and get across the finish line. How to make sure you're doing it right.
So here goes. This is absolutely the true answer, no word of a lie, 100% guaranteed:
Q: What's the best way to turn my idea into a story?
A: Whatever works for you.
Of course, that's not what you want to hear. And you probably think it's not very helpful.
In fact, it is. I wasn't kidding about the guarantee. But that's because it's a tautology; of course you do whatever works for you. If it didn't work for you, it wouldn't... well... work.
So when you hear a writer give that answer, cut them some slack, because it really is the right answer. But what it needs is some expansion. Something writers often forget to mention, because to us it's ancient history and as natural as breathing. So here's the fuller answer:
Q: What's the best way to turn my idea into a story?
A: You try out lots of different things until you find the ones that work for you.
That's more accurate, but it inevitably raises more questions. What are these different things? How will I know when one of them works? How will I know when one of them doesn't work? What are the best things to try, the things that work for most writers?
The hard truth is that nobody really knows. What works for one writer may not work for another. There are as many methods as there are writers. Were you to live to a grand old age, you would still never have enough time to try them all.
But you have to start somewhere.
The following steps are what work for me; whatever I'm writing, regardless of media, this is the method I employ, and it's the fruit of my own search for that elusive perfect method (which doesn't exist, by the way) over many years.
Because of that overarching nature, it's media-agnostic and ‘high altitude', as the productivity gurus among you might say. The same basic method applies to comics, novels, short stories, screenplays, whatever. I'm not going to go into specific detail of format or software, because they really don't matter.
(I do, however, elaborate on how I use Scrivener to write comics in another article.)
It might work for you. Maybe only some of it will. Perhaps none of it will. But you'll never know until you try.
1. Initial Notes
The first stage is simply taking notes as ideas come to me, often (and annoyingly) while I'm doing something else. This is where a notebook — the physical kind, not a laptop — is invaluable.
This is my Moleskine notebook. I only use one at a time — keeping separate notebooks for different projects is wasteful, as I often never know if a project will actually come to fruition. I simply title each note with an abbreviation of the project name (above are two examples of notes for WL, i.e. my comic series Wasteland), make the notes, then finish with a single ruled line underneath (unless the note ends exactly at the bottom of a page), ready for a new note to start on the next line. I also dog-ear the page so I can easily find all my unprocessed notes again, long after I close the Moleskine.
An important point, here; everything I think of is written down. I don't censor my thought processes at all. No matter how slight, unusual or absurd, it all goes in here. Evaluation comes later; at this stage it's simply about capturing every relevant (and often irrelevant) thought I have.
When I'm back at my computer, and/or have more time to deal with the project than when I made the initial notes, I transcribe them into a Scrivener document. I create a new Scrivener file for every project, right at the start, and make a folder for these transcribed notes; when entering them, I title each note document according to date.
(You can click on this, and all the other pictures in this article, for bigger, more readable versions.)
This transcription process is entirely verbatim. I'm not thinking very hard about the project, or the ideas I've had. That comes later. Right now, the important thing is to just get the ideas down. Once the entire note is transcribed, I strike it through in the moleskine, to show it's now in Scrivener.
(Readers familiar with Wasteland, and the issue used in the above example, will see that I mean what I say about noting down every idea, no matter how outlandish — not one of the above notes was used for the issue in question, or indeed the series as a whole.)
So why not just make notes directly in Scrivener? Why bother with the Moleskine?
Because it's all about capture, and the Moleskine is always with me. Unless you're some freakish child prodigy, you will not remember that great idea by tomorrow. Sure, you'll half-remember it; you'll know it was there, and vaguely remember what it was about. But you won't remember the details, or your exact thought process, and you'll forever worry there was something else there, something brilliant, that you just can't quite recall. Taking notes as I think of them, in a notebook that's always to hand, is the perfect way to avoid that. For one thing, I never worry about battery life.
You may think taking notes longhand is tedious, slow and unnecessary. Not at all. In fact, reading back through my notes at a different time, and with a different frame of mind, is a vital part of the job. It helps me make new connections, put disparate notes and ideas together, and solidifies them in my memory.
2. Initial Plot
After initial notes comes the plot; planning out what will, or could, actually happen in a story. This is where re-reading those initial notes is invaluable, because this stage often takes place months after I started jotting down thoughts about the story. Going back over my notes, with the perspective of time and residual memory of other notes I've made since, will jog loose further connections and ideas that could, and often do, turn out to be extremely useful.
This is a two-part process. First I read my initial notes. Then I start making more notes, this time at my desk, on a pad of A4 paper (Americans, substitute “legal pad”). The difference with these new notes is they all pertain to plot, and the order of events in the story.
This stage is, frankly, a bit ephemeral and vague. It's hard to describe with any accuracy. Simply put, I write down every story idea, plot development, progression, arc and resolution that comes to mind; often in no particular order, and as with the initial notes, nothing is rejected outright at this stage. One advantage of writing longhand is the ability to scribble lines, arrows, dividers and whatnot on the page; pointing out connections, making superscript notes in the margins, and so on.
I often find that as I write down an idea, more will grow out of it; those will themselves spawn new ideas; and so on. Once I hit that tipping point it becomes a race to get everything down, every branch and child of an idea, until finally there's simply nothing more I can think of. How do I know when that is? I just know. Like I said, it's a bit vague.
As a result, this isn't a short process. It often takes days.
2.5 Bullet Point Outline
Next I rewrite these second notes, this time in the form of a plot. I'm not trying to write anything readable by anyone else, here, so it's all shorthand, bullet points and abbreviations. The idea is simply to get a mostly-complete story down in order. Sometimes, if I think the story still isn't quite there, I do this longhand on paper, as if I was still making notes. If I'm more confident about the story, and think it's closer to locking down, then I'll move to the computer (using Scrivener's index cards feature, but you could just as easily do it in Word or any other linear word processor).
The first of these story versions is often no good. That's fine — I write another one. Like the ideas before them, I find that writing out a progression like this gives me new directions to try out. It also reveals major plot holes that are either irredeemable, or will require some thought and work to solve.
You'll have noticed there's a lot of re-writing going on throughout. I've already written out essentially the same things several times, and I'm still only at the notes stage. But each successive generation of notes brings the idea into sharper focus, and sorts the good ideas from the bad. If something has survived all the way from the initial notes to this point, I know it must be worthwhile. Likewise, if an idea dies on the vine during the first part of this phase, it's no great loss.
If the thought of rewriting the same ideas over and over fills you with dread and repulsion, and/or seems utterly worthless, you may as well stop reading now. My process won't be any help to you.
Once again, the ‘finish line' here is vague. When I have a solid, workable story progression in bullet-point (or index card) form, with only a few minor holes and problems to solve, I'm done.
(There will always be holes and problems, no matter how carefully you plan. There's no point fretting about them or, worse, letting them prevent you moving ahead.)
From here on, everything takes place on the computer. I primarily write in an application called Scrivener. I won't go into detail here, but suffice to say it's a brilliant app that makes my work, and especially my process, much easier to deal with. It's also insanely cheap for a pro-level app. If you're any kind of writer, check it out.
Whatever you use, these principles still apply. You may not be able to do some of the specific things I'm about to describe in (for example) Word, but you can approximate them or simply use a different app for them and refer back to it. This is all about process, remember, not the specific tools or fine details.
And the next part of the process is the treatment and/or pitch. (From here on I'll use Wolverine: Prodigal Son, a new book that required pitching to an editor, as an example. But the same process — right back to the initial notes stage — also applies to new story arcs in extant books, or books I'm writing on spec.)
So, having worked up my notes into a fairly solid plot during the last stage, albeit in the form of short notes and bullet points, I now turn it into a longform narrative treatment.
My pitches tend to be quite long, because pretty much everything I've worked out in the previous stages for the plot is included in this treatment. Again, there will still be gaps and holes — that's inevitable, even with what you may think is an enormous amount of detail — but I do like to have as much stated in advance as possible.
(Many writers don't outline to the extent I do, and some barely outline at all before diving right in to the script stage. That's fine, if it works for them. As I said, this is about my process. There's no correct way of working, and what works for me, or them, or you, won't necessarily work for someone else.)
There isn't much more to say about this stage. The end result is a full narrative treatment, from start to finish, of the entire plot. Think of it like enthusiastically recounting the story to someone over the phone.
Next is the breakdown. Here's where things differ according to media. If you're writing a novel, you'll probably be deciding what goes in each chapter; for a screenplay, where the acts and turning points occur. For comics, though, it's all about issues and pages.
This is from Wolverine again, showing the first chapter broken down into pages — with one subdocument, or ‘scrivening', per page. New scenes get titled with a very brief description of the scene, e.g. Tamara and Jack back Logan up. If the scene continues for more than one page, subsequent pages/scrivenings are simply titled cont.
(There's a whole host of questions here that pertain specifically to comics writing, constrained as the medium is by the physical page. Again, I'm not going to go into it here, but see Scrivening Comics for more.)
That's all this stage is. I take the outline, and break it down into scenes. It's grunt work.
Now, finally, I write the bloody thing.
I write my scripts in two stages. The first is what I call a Zero Draft, and is a rapid run-through of the entire script, as quickly as I can get it down, with the absolute minimum I can get away with and still make sense.
That means I write dialogue, with rough panel divisions, and shorthand notes of any panel descriptions that are relevant or strike me as interesting. The point isn't to produce a finished script; it's to get to the end as quickly as possible, with the bare bones of the script in place.
Why? Because by the time I reach the end, I'll want to change things about the start. And the middle. And just about everywhere else.
(If you're an aspiring writer, you probably think the above paragraph won't apply to you. And nothing I can say will convince you otherwise. But ask any experienced writer, in any medium, if it's true. We all wish it wasn't, believe me. But it is.)
So things will change. And because I didn't spend hours crafting the perfect lines, or descriptions, or panel transitions, it's much easier to do so. Changing a hacked-out rough draft barely even feels like revision.
In her excellent book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this the Shitty First Draft. Others call it the Working Draft. Whatever you call it, the principle is the same; this draft is for me, and me alone. Nobody else will ever see it. It exists purely for me to rewrite, and thus be replaced forever by a better version.
I know I've finished the Zero Draft when I write THE END. Or, possibly, TO BE CONTINUED.
And now the final stage; polishing it all up.
This is where I go back and make any of those changes I mentioned; where I flesh out descriptions, stage directions, panel compositions, transitions; where I ensure Fred isn't speaking Bob's lines; and so on.
Believe it or not, this part is fun. No, really. I already have a draft, so all I'm doing now is polishing it, editing myself, making it the best it can be. I'm tweaking, and tweaking is always fun.
I also have a kind of epilogue stage, where I give things a final, final polish. This is dependent on time, and how much of it I have to spare before the manuscript needs to be turned in. But it's worth it, so I always try to make sure I have enough spare time.
First, after finishing the revision draft, I leave it for a few days. Just close the document, make sure it's all backed up, then go and work on something else for a while.
Then, I come back to it when necessary and go over the script one last time. A few days away from a script does wonders for my observational skills; I notice repetition, awkward phrasing, continuity errors and so on with the greatest of ease, things that I simply didn't see before because I was too close to it, too wrapped up in the manuscript's little world. Now they're clear as day.
Run a final spellcheck (you can't be too careful), and that's it. I'm done. All that remains is to put the date on the title page, next to those two magic words... First Draft.
Disclaimer: I do not work for, and have no stake, financial or otherwise, in Scrivener or its developers Literature & Latte. I just love their software.
Originally published March 2010.
Last updated January 2016.