In the old days, when storytelling was mostly an oral tradition, story tellers could develop their stories over the course of many performances. With each performance of the tale, they could change a bit here or there, add some new element, or abbreviate a part for the sake of brevity. With each change, they could observe the reaction of the audience. They might notice a new detail gets a big laugh, or a particular part bores listeners if it goes on too long, or everyone wants to hear more about the villain, and so on.
In this way, over time, the story teller works out the details of a story, improves various elements, fine tunes the pacing, and zeroes in on the central themes. As writers, we generally don’t have this opportunity after a story is published. But there’s no reason why we can’t use this model once they’re written, or even before.
One of the techniques I use to develop story ideas, is to tell myself the story in my head, usually over and over, before I even write a first draft. At the beginning it might not be much of a story at all. But little by little I work out a bit of story, however vague or flawed, and then with each reiteration I add new details, flesh out characters, find dramatic moments and situations, explore different scenes and variations, try out alternate beginnings and endings, and so on. All the while I’m seeking the soul of the story, something that resonates, that has impact.
As the story begins to take shape, it’s okay to jot down a few notes and even a preliminary outline. But everything should remain malleable, and when retelling the story in your head, it’s important not to refer to any notes or outlines. The parts that really work should stick in your head. And if something isn’t working, you need to be free of previous ideas to generate new possibilities, variations, and alternatives.
Everything you know about story craft can be brought to bear on this exercise. Open your entire toolbox and use what’s needed for analysis and improvements to structure, characterization, plot, setting, theme, et cetera. With each reiteration you can tackle various elements. Who is the protagonist? What is the main conflict? How do the characters change? What are the scenes? Does the end connect to the beginning? Does it have emotional impact? And so on, depending on the story.
Obviously this process isn’t for everyone, or every story. Some like to discover their story in the course of actually writing a draft, and some stories just won’t be found until you do write a draft. But writers debate over whether to outline or not, and I want suggest this as yet another option, a sort of tertium quid, a kind of narrative meditation. They’re all just ways of getting at a story, so use whatever works. No matter your method, new ideas, insights, and details will occur during writing. Once the pen hits the paper, all bets are off.