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Today’s question is about getting past feeling stumped and how to find an “idea person” to help make that happen:
“My writing style is that I get an idea and start writing to see where the story goes. I don’t do outlines. I’ve gotten ideas for stories from thinking up a name, or a killer last line comes to me, or from a writing prompt. I’ve written complete novels from those particular starts. A few of those I set aside for months (or years) before the idea for where to take the story comes to me. On one I’m working on now, I’m about 10,000 words in and stumped. I need an idea person. My question is: are there idea people who can take your progress and give you thoughts for where the story should go? I write really well if I have a direction to go. I don’t need someone to write the story for me, I just would love a shove in the right direction.”
I love the many rich layers in this question. Let’s dive in.
To start, there absolutely are “idea people” out there. From writing coaches to story experts to script mentors, you can find someone to help you tackle story problems and figure out what comes next. Sometimes it’s incredibly helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of and get input from to help us move past the places we get stumped.
And I want to plant the seed that this may be a place to grow your structure and development skillset as well. Even if you’re not a writer who likes to outline, you may still benefit from sorting out the big moves in your story so you can write toward them as you pants your way through your actual writing.
Here are some things to think about as you look for an idea person and decide how or if to proceed.
1. What are you looking for in an “idea person”?
Some mentors and story experts excel at understanding the obligatory scenes and conventions of a genre and intuitively know what “should” come next in a story and are ready to tell you exactly what that is.
Others will teach you the thinking patterns behind how stories work and help you think about the story you want to tell, then help you work backward into character, plot, structure, and story.
What works best for you?
Would you rather work with someone who will do the heavy lifting for you and tell you which direction to go? This can have pros and cons. It can feel helpful to have someone map out the story, but sometimes an overly zealous coach or mentor can take over the original vision of the story and send it in a direction you may no longer resonate with. Or you may find yourself feeling overly reliant on this person and unable to move forward on your own. If you pursue this route, I urge you to find someone to work with who will brainstorm multiple story possibilities you can choose from, rather than simply being told what to do. Writers are not secretaries, after all.
Another option is looking for a mentor who will help you grow your skill set so you can solve story issues on your own in the future, by talking more deeply about the “why’s” behind different story possibilities, even if they’re also making suggestions and advising you on the direction to take. This can take longer in the short term but may be time and budget saving in the long term.
I’ve worked with both types and always end up preferring to work with mentors who invest in my long-term success by teaching me how to do the work on my own.
Either way, always remember that you are the final authority when it comes to your story and your work.
2. How might you expand your story structure and storytelling skillset aside from outlining?
Some writers feel very strongly about not outlining because they feel it will kill the creativity of the writing process and they don’t want to know the ending before they get there. Particularly in the realm of scriptwriting, however, structure and development play a critical role in creating a story that lands powerfully with an audience.
If you want to develop your skills in this area but don’t want to focus on outlining or spoil the surprise, you might experiment with writing “lightning” or “intuitive” drafts for the fresh experience of a story, then go back and rework for structure at the revision phase.
To support those effectors, study story structure to help yourself understand the mathematics behind how story choices add up to create the overall whole. There are many different methods for structuring a story, including non-Western methods, and as your skills grow in this area, insights will occur. Sometimes just exposing yourself to other thinking about story will be enough to shake things loose. In other words, studying and practicing the skillset could help you become your own idea person.
3. What are your “comps” for this project?
Is there anything out there that your project reminds you of? Is it The Wizard of Oz meets Independence Day, for example? (How’s that for a wacky idea?)
Make a point to watch or read works related to your story, and try to analyze and tease out the structure, plot, and turning points that might inspire your own story.
Look at what happens, why it happens, when it happens, then ask yourself, what’s this about at the story level with all the details stripped away? This can help you generate ideas you can utilize in your own story — to “steal like an artist” — where you’re learning from others and putting your own fresh, unique spin on it.
Many writers feel stuck or overwhelmed when arriving at a story moment where they don’t know what happens next. And yes, there are absolutely valuable times to turn to a guide, expert, or colleague for support (and I’m a story consultant myself). At the same time, I encourage you to study what makes a story tick so you can do that work for yourself too. It’s one of those beautiful both/ands of storytelling.
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.