In our journey through the writing process, our first step has to be the brainstorming process. After all, you can’t write a story without figuring out exactly what it is you want to write. I’m keeping this in the theme of romance, but I think that my five key points can be applied to any genre… You might just have a different number of main characters, since romance typically focuses on just two. Below are my five biggest tips for starting from scratch on a story, no matter the length. And it’s perfectly okay if you already have some of these figured out, or if you’re ahead of the game on certain steps. You don’t have to do this in order; treat it like a checklist of considerations for when you’re in the planning phase.
- Take inspiration from YOUR favorite media
- Make the setting something personal to YOU
- Lean on tropes
- Set yourself up with goals
- Make an outline
To start off with, you should be writing something that YOU love. Whether you’re writing for fun, or for income, there has to be passion. A good, easy way to make sure you’re going to enjoy what you’re writing is to take inspiration from some kind of media you absolutely adore. This could be anything! A movie, a song, a video game, another book… The list is infinite. Heck, inspiration doesn’t even have to come from creative media. It can come from an object, someone in your life, or a memory, or any combination of things.
Inspiration is wonderful fuel for writing, but make sure that this fuel a mix of your own ideas. If not mixed properly, inspiration can turn into plagiarism, which is something that we want to avoid as writers at all costs. It can lead to a loss of credibility as readers might see you as unoriginal or willing to steal others’ ideas, and it can even lead to legal trouble depending on the severity. My number one tip to avoid plagiarism is mixing ideas and sources of inspiration together and never drawing from one singular source, but if you want more of an idea of how to differentiate the two, check out ‘How to Make Every Idea Yours – Inspiration vs. Plagiarism’ by Pam Weber. Great read.
After gathering inspiration, one of the first things that I like to decide is the setting because it can set up the tone of the stories and it’s easier to develop characters by knowing what kind of environment they are in. The possibilities for settings are endless and that’s why I want to guide you into choosing something that is personal to you! There are a few ways to do this.
First off, you can draw inspiration from the real world and places that you’ve lived or been - of course you can still make up establishments or even city names if you do this. Using a setting that you’re familiar with or taking inspiration from a setting that you’re familiar with can fill you with nostalgia when writing and it makes the process both more enjoyable and easier. However, if you don’t have an attachment to any real-world settings or you just want to go with something more historical or fantastical, you can still have familiarity there.
For historical settings, picking a time period that you have previously done research on - or just love researching - is a great route to go. Do you love the Roaring ‘20s so much that you could gush about it on the pages? Do you want to explore the love affairs of the ancient Greeks? Go right ahead and do so. If you pick a time period that you’re not familiar with at all, be prepared to do a lot of research for your story to be believable, even if you are doing historical fantasy. Those who know the period you’re taking inspiration from will not hesitate to point out flaws, either. However, if you are more patient than myself and love research, go ahead and pick whatever time period you want and know that I admire you.
Now, finally…. Getting to pure fantasy settings. Building an entire setting from scratch with pure fantasy takes a lot of time, but it’s not impossible. You can still use the two setting styles above to help you. Make that childhood home of yours into a fantastic castle and the town around it draped in Victorian aesthetics if you want. With fantasy, there is a lot less rigidity in the setting, but there is a lot more to think about. Perhaps I will dive into creating fantasy worlds at a later point but for now this post by Bridget Mcnulty has 5 steps to building your fantasy world.
Since this blog is centered around romance, I do want to include a big piece of advice here: Even though your story is going to be mostly centered around two characters, you must think about your setting and develop it to make your novel believable. You can go small with romance, of course. Just develop a place of work, a couple of eateries, and some activities, but the more developed your setting is the better. Plus, if you develop the setting at the beginning, you can use that setting over and over again if you make your story into a series.
Let’s talk about tropes. A lot of people give tropes a bad rep, but especially when it comes to character creation, they are a great tool to use… Just make sure that you make your story more than just one cookie-cutter trope! If you look into some of your favorite media, you’ll likely find that there is some kind of trope associated with them and perhaps you can lean on that. Or if there is just a trope for a character - i.e. the introverted nerd, the bad boy, the girl next door - that you just really love you can use that and base the story around that in some way. Introverted nerd learning how to come out of their shell more because they fell in love with the extroverted star athlete?
Tropes can help lay the foundation for your character or even for the overarching plot to your story, so it’s best to use them, especially if you are just starting your writing journey. Effective use of them will draw in readers who find comfort in specific tropes and overall, it’s a win-win for everyone.
What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Sorry for the dad joke phrasing, but the same is true for writing a story. It’s easier if it’s done little by little so that’s why clear goals can help with that. Deciding approximately how long you want your story to be - you can check out this article by Nicole H on general lengths of different types of stories - is a good idea to start forming your first goals. Once you’ve decided a word length, breaking that down by either month, week, or even day can set the basis for your first goal. From there, you can even use your typing speed to find out how long you should write for each day, or vice versa if you only have limited time to write and see how much you write within that time frame to set up benchmarks.
Outside of time and word-based goals, you can also set goals for what you want to accomplish inside the story. Do you want to make sure that you touch on certain parts of the characters’ personalities? Do you want to have the climax at a certain page or word-count? Do you want to tell a story that is inspiring or uplifting?
No matter what you want to set out to do with your story, you should motivate yourself with clear, achievable goals with writing and keep track of them. I personally constantly have goals set for myself and keep my agenda on my desk to remind myself of what I’m working towards.
From making your goals, it’s easy to go into making an outline for your story next. For romance, I mentioned Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes but there are many formulas to follow for all genres of books. If you’re someone who likes to have a good, structured outline it can be a good idea to follow one of these formulas and maybe even tie in word-count or time goals to each of the bullet points within them.
But what if you’re more of a free-flow writer? I totally understand that. However, I do still recommend even doing a very basic outline so that you can follow to avoid writing yourself in a corner. Trust me, as someone who used to mostly free-flow write, I’ve been there. I’ve written myself into a situation where either I couldn’t figure out how to jump to the next story beat, or I’ve found myself rambling and getting tired of my own writing, slowly building a wall of words around myself that no one wants to read. So don’t be like me and make something to remind your brain of where you want to go in the story!