From Vague Idea to Story Concept

Let’s say you want to write a story about a topic that interests you.  Let’s say you’re mad about motorbikes.  How do you start developing that idea into a story?

Here’s a process I find works for me.

Brainstorm scenarios where your idea features:

a motorbike race, a road trip, a mechanic’s workshop, motorbikes in space, motorbike wolf hybrid robots, a single motorbike in a remote village, designing the world’s first motorbike…

Don’t censor yourself because you think a scenario is too boring or too ridiculous.  A boring idea is only twist away from interesting, and a ridiculous idea is only some careful thought away from unique.

For each scenario, think of a few different versions of the idea:

Give yourself permission to throw in different characters and settings and reasons for the scenario taking place.  Push the idea to new places you hadn’t previously considered.  Ask: What if?


Let’s take our motorbike race…

* at elite competition level

* in the schoolyard

* between two geriatric ex-bikies

* across 1950s New Zealand

* bounty hunters pursuing the last witness to a mysterious crime

You will find some ideas grab you more than others, but don’t settle on one just yet.

Google for real stories:

Copeland_stoomfiets_1894One of the first concepts we came up with was ‘designing the world’s first motorbike’, which must have actually happened at some point somewhere.  Some quick Googling leads me to Wikipedia, which says:

In the 1860s Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith in Paris, founded ‘Michaux et Cie’ (“Michaux and company”), the first company to construct bicycles with pedals called a velocipede at the time, or “Michauline”. The first steam powered motorcycle, the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, can be traced to 1867, when Pierre’s son Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to one of the ‘velocipedes’.

This is already an interesting setting, with potential characters and setting and even conflict (What did the father think of his son’s innovation?  How was the business viewed in Paris at the time?  What was their competition?)

Flesh out your favourites:

For at least three ideas, figure out the following details to give you an idea of what it would look like as a story:

  • a specific setting
  • a main character (or characters)
  • conflict
  • an angle

You should be able to do this in a sentence or two.  For example:

A geriatric bikie learns his old rival is doing a ride across Canada for charity, and despite a heart condition is determined to race and beat him.  The story is narrated by his daughter, who has come home to live with her father after her recent divorce.


Eveningstar is a wolf who was captured and mistreated as a cub.  She is sold to a sadistic man who experiments with animals and robots in a cabin in the woods, where he keeps Eveningstar caged, transforming her one piece at a time into a bionic creature, half wolf, half motorbike.  Through her eyes we see her gain strength and intelligence until she is able to escape and take revenge.

Reality check

You’ve got your concepts fleshed out enough you can glimpse how they might look as stories.  You’re excited to get going.  But before you invest too much of yourself in this new project, here are a few useful questions to ask:

Is this the kind of story I will enjoy writing?

shutterstock_145156063If what you really want is to write a high-octane ride, revelling in all the latest motorcycle technology, then the 1860s blacksmith is not going to work for you.  On the other hand, if the thought of delving into the everyday detail of 1860s Paris excites you (and perhaps the possibility of some on-location research) then that’s the story you want to pick. You’ll be spending a fair bit of time with the story, and you’ll need some pleasure to balance out the hard work.

Does this story meet my writing aims?

You may not have much specific other than ‘I want to write’, but you may have a specific goals for your writing and how you fit it into your life.

You might be aiming to write short stories for a magazine that requires a very particular kind of concept or word count.  You might want to write a story that will appeal to the same audience as your other books, or alternatively to write something that is completely different from your last project.  You might be trying to complete NaNoWriMo.  You might love trilogies of fantasy doorstoppers, but do you really have time to complete 600 000 words?

Is this the kind of story I’m happy to put my name to?

You may have a BDSM motorcycle erotica scenario on your list, and you may be the kind of person who is happy to proclaim from the rooftops that BDSM motorcycle erotica is your thing, in which case, write away!  But the truth is that most of us don’t just write for ourselves.  Our writing is a little bit about sharing ourselves, and we don’t envision spending a lot of time doing something that we have to hide from our friends and family, or from the world.

If your writing deals with controversial or painful topics, it will make people feel things, whether you like it or not.  Are you happy to become the poster boy or girl for what your novel says?  Does your story push a particular world view or showcase particular stereotypes, and is that what you want to do?

Sure, great writers sometimes say brave and difficult things, but not every controversial story is an act of bravery.  Some of it’s just thoughtless or randomly offensive.  Be honest about whether you want to be EL James in this Twitter Q&A?

el james twitter


You probably know which of the ideas most excites you, but if all excite you equally – you just have to choose.  You could roll a die or flip a coin, or you could even just challenge yourself to write a little of each one and see which flows.

And that’s it!  How have you developed your ideas into stories?  What made an idea click into a story you just had to write?

Feature images by Shutterstock / Docstockmedia and Ruslan Grumble and Michal Vitek.  Image of historical motorbike from Wiki commons here.

4 thoughts on “From Vague Idea to Story Concept

Add yours

  1. I love this. My story idea has dwindled to nearly nothing since starting camp nano this month and this post has planted some more ideas into my head


      1. At its most basic it’s about a girl who is brought back to her home land in order to defeat her uncle who wants to take over the throne that belongs to her mother. I didn’t really have a intricate plot but the questions on this have made me think harder about the motivations of my characters


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