Knowing how big a story idea is

I’m not a prolific story idea generator. I do ok, I might get a few a month, all of which get inconsistently recorded in a variety of mediums1Journals, spreadsheets, notes in my phone, the back of receipts… that I keep meaning to ‘one day’ consolidate and know I never will. Luckily, I work pretty slowly so by the time I’ve finished any one piece I’ve got a nice backlog of ideas to choose from.

Something I really suck at, though, is knowing how big a story idea is. When I get an idea it usually comes with at least the first scene, and maybe a sense of where it’s headed. I don’t like to start without that second part. I may like to pants my way through writing, generally, but if I don’t know where something’s headed starting to write it isn’t the way I find it out. It’s a way to go in circles and then fizzle out.

Knowing where it ends is usually enough to give me an idea how long the piece is going to be, too. If they have to trek across several continents, defeat a God, and then find a magic sword to resurrect someone I’m probably not looking at a short story. Short stories for me look like an opening scene, a short transition period, and the end point I can see it going towards. It has a shorter trajectory.

I’m beginning to question this as an approach, though. I think it might be leading me astray.

A lot of things I’ve started as a ‘short story’ finish up looking like the opening scenes to a novel. They’re complete if you squint, but really just a solid intro to an idea that would be amazing if given a bit more length to spin out. I seem to misidentify bigger ideas as smaller ones, because my projection of where they’re going to go isn’t very far – I’m underestimating their scope.

I had a story idea recently that I wrote out longhand as a flash piece in a lunch break. I typed it up, gave it a bit of an edit, and took it along to my writers group. To me it felt a bit weak, but I was pretty happy with the idea and the execution.

The thing with showing people your work, is that they show all the flaws. All of them.

This thing was possibly the most flawed thing I’d ever showed the group. They didn’t get it, they didn’t understand the motivations, or how the magic system worked or… anything, really. It was completely unsatisfying to read.

I explained the concept I was going for and asked for advice on how I could rework the idea better in what was apparently going to be a big revision process, or whether the idea was a bust.

Their eyes lit up. It was a great idea!

For a novel.

They started spinning off questions that unpacked the idea further. Where did this thing come from? Is he just going to give up? That’s depressing! Couldn’t he figure out a solution to this problem? How does the antagonist move around? What does he use his magic for?

1000 words was far, far too small for this story idea. What I’d written and presented as a complete story was, at best, a lengthy plot bunny. Within the space of 10 minutes at my writing group we’d worked up a bunch of threads to flesh out into a novella length work, maybe even a novel.

I think a lot of my problem has to do with inexperience. I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and two novel attempts, one of which I’m still attempting to finish. I don’t think I can easily identify how big my story ideas are, because I haven’t had much experience working the ideas up to completion in various forms yet. I don’t know what a novel idea, or a novella idea, or a novel, or a series feels like, because I haven’t had enough experience with them yet. I don’t have a solid enough grasp of how the forms differ.

Maybe this is a master-level thing, knowing how big an idea is. Or maybe some people start with the idea and see how long it is and that’s that. Maybe they keep going until they run out of ‘and then’ material on that idea and whatever the word count is when they finish is how long the story was meant to be. Or maybe that’s part of the fun. Maybe some things just end up bigger than you expected them to be, or fizzle out 3000 words in when you had three books planned.

I think the only answer to my problem is: ‘write more’ and ‘write lots of different types of things’. Finish the novel, flesh out that scene into a novella, write more shorts. Read more of all of these things. See if I can pick it up by osmosis. Keep learning. Figure out how it works for me.

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1 Comment for “Knowing how big a story idea is”


While I don’t have the same situation when it comes to sheer number of story ideas generated (not to brag, but I have ALL THE IDEAS and it can be a problem sometimes because how will I write them all???), I definitely have the issue of not knowing how long something is. Outlining sort of helps for this (*sends telepathic outlining vibes to you in order to convert you to a plotter*), but I think practice, learning, and experience will be the solution long-term. A ton of professional writers who put excellent advice on the internet mention that they have a good idea of how long things tend to be, whether it’s a work as a whole or even their average chapter length. The key word there is “professional,” which implies they’ve had a ton of practice.

So, I’m off to go to (more) writing. We’ve both just got to keep learning. 😀

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