TAP007, How to Flesh Out a Story Idea (Part One)
So, you’ve created an idea or one-liner pitch for your story and, now you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to do next. And, your wondering, how to flesh out a story idea into a synopsis.
When you first come up with an idea for a novel, the process of developing a story idea can seem like an endless daunting journey. This feeling is perfectly normal. It’s the result of focusing on a grand goal instead of the next step along the path. And, that step is exactly what you need to do when you flesh out a story idea. You need to focus on the next step, not writing the first chapter of your book or even creating an outline for your novel. Before you start planning or writing by the seat of your pants, you need to flesh out your story idea into a synopsis.
So, why do you need a synopsis? And, what are the exact steps you need to take to flesh out a story idea into a synopsis?
In the previous writing tips episode ‘how to tell if your story idea is profitable’ I discussed creating a one-line pitch for your story. If you haven’t done this already, I recommend that you go back and write your one-liner pitch first. Click here to listen to the podcast episode and read the blog post on creating a one-line pitch.
The Case for a Synopsis
The next step in the writing process is to flesh out this one-liner pitch into a synopsis. If you’ve never written a novel or any other form of fiction, then this will probably be a bit of a mystery for you. Right now you’re probably wondering, “why do I need to write a synopsis?”
A synopsis is essential to creating an outline, a well thought out plot, and characters. It’s important that you slow down and take this step before you dive in and start outlining or writing. Taking the time to complete these steps will help you when it comes to the revision stage of writing. You’ll spend less time deleting chapters, scenes or paragraphs and more time on tweaking plot and characters.
The Exact Steps
I have created an eight-step process on how to flesh out a story idea into a synopsis. I’ve broken this down into eight small steps to help you avoid overwhelm and to ensure you spend time considering the important aspects of story creation. For, this reason I’ve broken these process down into a two-part blog and video mini-series, to make it easier for you to take action and avoid leaving with an endless to-do list and a side of overwhelm. This is a perfect recipe for procrastination. In this two-part mini-series, I’m going to discuss the exact steps you need to take to flesh out a story idea or one-liner pitch into a story synopsis.
#1 – What is your story’s main problem?
Something in your story needs to go wrong for your characters because no one wants to read about characters going through the motions of everyday life. A story like this would be very boring, not suspenseful. There’s no mystery in this scenario and nothing to pull the reader through to the final page of your story. As a writer, this is what you want. You want the reader to get lost in your story and zoom through to the final page.
So consider, what goes wrong in your story? This is the problem the plot of your story needs to solve. By the time the readers flips through to the final page, there needs to be a resolution to this problem. Obviously, this problem needs to relate back to your one-liner pitch. Once you have identified your story’s problem, go back and check it relates back to your one-liner pitch. If not, expand your one-liner pitch or change the problem of your story.
#2 – What is at stake?
Something big needs to go wrong for your protagonist, and it needs to be big enough for the reader to care. And, if this problem remains unresolved, it needs to have real-world consequences. These consequences need to be real enough for your characters, but they also need to be real enough for your readers. This is what’s going to keep your readers flipping through the pages of your book trying to figure out happens at the end of your story.
What is the worst-case scenario in your story? What if the problem that we talked about in step one left unresolved at the end of the story? The answers to these questions reveal the consequences or, what is at stake for your characters.
For the sake of being overdramatic think about, when is the worst possible time for all of this to take place. Make a note of this and work it into your story. Your problem needs to be big, bigger than your protagonist. Your main character needs to feel like they may not be able to overcome this problem and it needs to happen at the worst possible time; because your character needs to step up to the plate, rise to the occasion, take action, and either succeed or sometimes fail. Sometimes there is a bit of a fail at the end of the story. Some genres do allow for this but, it isn’t always popular with readers. But, it is an optional ending.
#3 – Who is Your Protagonist?
Sometimes who the protagonist of a story is can be obvious, but sometimes it isn’t, especially in the early stages of creating a story. It’s really important that you spend time creating the problem first before you create the protagonist. Even after taking all of these steps sometimes, it is obvious who your protagonist is, you could have a few problems. If this is where you are at, I want you to consider who is central to your story’s problem or conflict. If you take a character away and the story does not make sense, that character is usually your protagonist.
You also need to consider, who has the most to lose and who can resolve the conflict. The character may not be able to resolve the conflict, right now, but they need to be able to develop the ability as your story progresses and go on to resolve this problem or conflict in the end. This is something I didn’t do when I started writing, Immunity. I needed to get clear on why this protagonist and not another. Why James and not Sophie? Why was James’ point of view integral to my story? I eventually figured out why his point of view was so important, but, I did spend time stuck on the protagonist and point of view of my story.
At this stage, you don’t need to create an in-depth character profile, name, or even backstory. At this stage, you just need to identify your protagonist or the opposing forces in your story. I recommend taking the step of creating an in-depth character profile with backstory after you’ve created the outline for your story. This is what is really important at the synopsis stage. When I’m fleshing out an idea into a synopsis and creating an outline, I refer to characters as their role or title.
For example, at the moment I’m outlining a novella within my James Lalonde universe, and I’m still referring to one of the main characters as ‘female archaeologist.’ This name is not creative, but at the synopsis stage, identifying characters is more important than the detail. Obviously, James is the protagonist in the novella because it’s a part of the series. When you’re writing an established series, identifying the protagonist is easier.
It’s really important that you identify your protagonist, why you chose them and are telling the story from their point of view and not another character. You need to make sure you have the right protagonist.
#4 – Who is Your Antagonist?
Someone or something needs to get in the way of the protagonist getting what they want. Otherwise, your story will become boring very quickly. This person or force is the antagonist. The reason why I say who or what is because the bad guy or the villain isn’t an actual person in the story. The antagonist can be a much larger thing. In conspiracy style thrillers, the antagonist can be a government agency, corporation, or the environment.
An example of this would be the movie Dante’s Peak. It was released in 1997, starring Pierce Brosnan. The villain or antagonistic force in the movie is the volcano. The little town of Dante’s Peak is at the foot of an inactive volcano. Spoiler alert, but the volcano erupts, and it’s a race against time and the volcano for survival.
You need to consider, who or what can stop your protagonist. The antagonist needs to have a very valid reason for taking action because your antagonist is the person who sets the problem in motion. They take the first step to create the problem that disrupts your protagonist’s ordinary world. But, this needs to happen for a reason. The reason why, I keep mentioning this valid reason is that no one wakes up one morning and thinks to themselves ‘today, I want to become a supervillain.’
Your antagonist is very passionate about why they do what they do, and they have a very strong moral code. When you think of how someone takes a darker path in life, it’s something that happens gradually. It’s a journey. They might start out passionate about a worthwhile cause, and over time, they fail to keep themselves in check. They let themselves and their passion run wild to the point where they’re affecting the lives of other people in a negative way. A result of this passion becoming unchecked could be the deaths of millions of people.
The Protagonist – Antagonist Relationship
I know that example was a bit extreme but, think of Lex Luther for a moment. He didn’t wake up one morning and voila he was a bad guy. He took a path. He’s intelligent, charismatic and probably had valid reasons to start off with and over time this snowballed and helped him to become the Super Villain we love to hate. In the Superman comic’s he becomes his arch enemy. He’s almost the perfect match for the Superman/Clark Kent character. Lex is almost equal to Superman. It’s been a while since I read a Superman comic, but those of you who are avid readers at least get the general gist of what I’m trying to say. Superman’s strengths are obvious, whereas Lex is charismatic, intelligent, wealthy, and has connections.
Give the Antagonist the Upperhand for a While
You need to give the illusion that your antagonist is almost better or smarter than your protagonist. The reader needs to get a sense that the antagonist may win. And, this needs to be a reality, at some point in your story this is how the story needs to play out. At certain points in your story, the reader needs to think ‘OMG, the bad guy is going to win.’ This fear is what keeps a reader up until 3:00 AM reading your book.
The reader must believe the antagonist is going to win and become invested in the story to the point where they’re flipping through the pages of your book. You want your readers to pick a side and then become invested in seeing the side they picked, win in the end. On some level, you want readers to email you, letting you know they either loved or hated the ending of your story. The notion of the bad guy might win in the end, is the key to creating a great protagonist-antagonist relationship. It’s a very damaged relationship but a relationship nonetheless.
So, these are the first four steps to fleshing out your story idea into a synopsis. I’m going to leave the video and blog post here and create a two-part series. I want to make this as easy for you as possible and help you avoid overwhelm that comes with getting too much information at once. After you’ve finished watching the video or reading this blog post, I want you to take a few moments and get clear on the main problem your story addresses. Then get clear on what’s at stake if the problem is left unresolved, who your protagonist is, who your antagonist is and why these characters or forces and not other characters in your story.
Are you struggling to flesh out your story idea into a synopsis? Which one of these tips did you find most helpful?
I want to hear from you. Let me know by sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Thank you for listening, reading, commenting and sharing with such enthusiasm.
I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.
On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.
Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.