How to test drive your story ideas: Part 1
All without writing a word of story.
Today’s letter is the first of two parts of a lengthy craft piece (see Part 2). This is an 8-minute read.
You’ve probably heard that story ideas are a dime a dozen. Just walk into any bookstore, browse your audio fiction library or scroll through your streaming provider. Heck, go back a few centuries and listen to griots, poets, historians. Dozens upon dozens of stories of every form and style, all borne of ideas that people had.
That’s just ideas, though. Good story ideas—especially the ones that get published—are often shaped with intent. But writing a story takes time, and many writers, especially those who have to also do other work for a living, simply do not have the time to fully execute a story before deciding if it’s worth it. Often, writers devise a way to test-run (or test-drive) their ideas before committing to a full draft. If you haven’t developed a process for yourself already, let me take you through mine, and perhaps you may gain something from it.
1. Selecting the right story idea to test-drive
If you’ve got a briefcase full of them, then congratulations, you have the same dilemma as fifty-’leven authors out there, which is: how do you decide which to test-drive first?
This depends on various factors. The length of story that the idea can carry, for instance (a short story idea is different from a novel’s, but that’s a whole other topic we won’t get into today). Another is the state in which an idea arrives: some come as fully built abodes, complete with landscaping, while others are uncompleted dumps in need of new basements, rewiring and painting. In other cases, you want to try the idea that’s most timely—if vampire romances are suddenly trendy, and you’ve had one simmering for a while, you probably want to start with that.
I’ve found, however, that the best test is to go with that which you feel readiest to tackle. This could be dependent on your state of mind (are you feeling up to it, writing-ise?) or skill level (do you feel ready to take on a story of this magnitude?), but you probably want to test-drive the idea that feels least like an uphill climb.
For this exercise, I’ve randomly selected from a Keep Notes file where I dump random story ideas I never know if I’ll ever use (pro tip: If you’re prone to forgetfulness like I am, keep an idea file or notebook!). The one I’ve selected is called “Lost Girl Found.” Here it is verbatim:
A young woman fakes her abduction in order to gain popularity as a missing person—only to see someone else who looks exactly like her, be “found” and then take her place. Lost Twin? Clone? Doppelganger?
Fascinating at first glance, but not particularly original (Gone Girl, anyone?). Sounds solid enough for a short story (100 to 7,500 words) or novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words), mostly because novels & novellas require further complexity. Those questions at the end also contain exciting possibilities.
2. Poking the story idea to see if a better one falls out
Most new story ideas like the one above are half-formed at first (unless you have a unicorn moment where it drops upon you fully formed). You’d often have to shape them into something functionally useful on a story level. Whatever your idea begins with—a character, a place, an event/situation, a What If? scenario, a turn of phrase, a striking narrative voice or tone, etc—you want to poke at it some more to see if something better will fall out. That often means doing something akin to brainstorming.
For brainstorming, I use an approach called SCAMPER—Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify/Magnify, Put to another use, Eliminate, Reverse. Okay, I don’t do all that, but I like to try any of these methods to see if I’ll emerge with something better. With story ideas, I find that forgoing the lowest common denominator or side-stepping the path of least resistance often leads to robustness and improved complexity.
So I take my shiny brand new idea and subject it to a “poking test” where I swap out elements of it (Substitute) or merge with another sometimes unrelated idea or concept (Combine) or switch/shift/adjust an attribute (Adapt) or functional part of the idea (Modify/Magnify), or remove an aspect completely (Eliminate) or even subvert/overturn it in part or in full (Reverse). Basically, I ask myself: how can this story idea be doing something more/different than it currently is?
For this exercise, I find Lost Girl a little too on the thin side, so I’ve decided to combine it with anything else languishing in my notes that has some possible overlaps. I rifle through, looking for ideas about “copies of the self” or something akin to that. My search reveals two:
Personalities: A disgraced actor works behind the scenes for a company that develops digital avatars—called Personalities—for celebrities and influencers who can afford it. His job is to act as Personalities in virtual scenarios when they can’t do it themselves. When a popular client decides to auction off his digital avatar, the actor sees this as his way back to lost fame.
Resurrected: A mild supervirus that strikes a chronic illness and kills quickly, but people wake up soon afterward, unharmed. They're called Resurrects, and once returned, they age at half the pace of regular people.
The Personalities idea seems close to rounded on its own, so I’ve chosen the Resurrected idea to combine, as it engages with a person leaving and returning, similar to Lost Girl. Smashing both ideas together and playing around with the putty, I come up with what I’m now calling “Lost Girl Resurrected”:
Amidst a global infection that kills quickly, then brings its victims back to life untouched after a few days—they’re called Resurrects—a young woman fakes her elaborate abduction in order to achieve fame. But it goes wrong and she dies. Unknown to her, though, she was infected pre-death, and returns as a Resurrect.
But back home, she soon discovers she’s already been “found.” Another woman who looks like her, talks like her, acts like her—is her—is already there, living her life. This sets her off on a journey to prove she is the real version of herself, and that maybe there is more to Resurrects than meets the eye.
Dark, mysterious, intriguing—and best of all, deliciously complex. In fact, upon reconsideration, it’ll likely take a really long short story to contain this idea, and therefore I’m bumping the possible story length from short story/novelette up to novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) or even novel (40,000 words and above).
Usually, if you’re not keen on pursuing a story idea further, this is a good place to stop. But if you’d like to shake this idea some more to see if it “has legs” (Can it really go the distance? Is it really worth my time to write this?), then the next thing is to begin to flesh out the story and outline what the complete narrative may look like.
In Part 2 (next month), we’ll talk about giving the story a skeleton (pitch/synopsis, influences, story drivers, target audience, etc) and expanding the “story bible,” as well as notes on writing sample scenes/ chapters. Stay tuned!
Before you go…
If you liked this, then How to Author Like a Strategist and On Fiction Genres and the Elements That Power Them might just be for you! All free, no strings attached. Okay, one string—it’ll be great if you could tell your friends about this letter!