How I Went From Idea to Story

James Scott Bell

I used to say this: It’s not a lie if somebody isn’t owed the truth. I don’t say that anymore. One More Lie
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new suspense collection, ONE MORE LIE. It’s available on Kindle, Nookand Smashwords.  You can view the trailer here.
This collection includes the title novella and three new stories. I thought it might be instructive to tell you how I went from idea to story for the novella.
There are various creative exercises I use to come up with story possibilities. One of my favorites is the first line game. You make up a bunch of intriguing first lines all at once and see where they lead. I learned this from Dean Koontz in his classic HOW TO WRITE BESTSELLING FICTION. Koontz himself once wrote the line: “You ever killed anything?” Roy asked. He didn’t know anything else, but the line grabbed him and eventually he turned it into the hit novel The Voice of the Night.
For ONE MORE LIE, I actually got a first chapteridea. So I wrote it. I liked it so much I put it in my “active file” to noodle on later.
It stayed there for about a year as I worked on other projects, primarily those for which I had been paid, the publishers having the perfectly quaint notion that I therefore owed them a book.
But every now and again I’d return to that opening and think about it.
The day came when I had a window of time and decided to give it a whirl. So what I did was this:
1. Fleshed out the main characters. In this case there were four, and I spent time coming up with relationships and backstory. That in turn suggested further plot developments. I call this “orchestration” and it’s one of the most important things a writer can do with a new idea.
2. I experimented with POV. I had originally written the opening in 3d person. Sometimes I’ll switch POV to see how it feels. In this case, I decided that First Person was a better fit. My previous novella, WATCH YOUR BACK, was written in that sort of James M. Cain style I like, so I went with the same for ONE MORE LIE.
3. I let the plot unfold as I wrote, but took notes and outlined as I went. This is a “rolling outline” that enables you to think ahead during the writing process itself. It allows a certain freedom in plot while at the same time you’re building a solid structure. One benefit is that a particular twist happened out of the blue that completely changed the direction of the story and gave it the deeper dimension I was looking for.
4. I completed a first draft, let it sit, then printed it out in hard copy for my first read through. I take minimal notes at this stage, wanting to have a “reading experience” first. Then I assessed the big picture and revised it.
5. I gave it to my beta readers, starting with my lovely wife, who has a great editorial eye. I got terrific notes back. One of the readers did the copy edit for me.
6. I prepared it for e-publication, sent it out to be formatted. My son wanted to take a stab at designing the cover, and who was I to argue? The price was right. As in zip.

7. My son, a film grad, also did the trailer. For that I bought him dinner.
The result is a novella that got this advance copy blurb from Ane Mulligan of Novel Rocket: “James Scott Bell is at his best in One More Lie. Fast paced, this novella will leave you breathless to the unforeseen end. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Novel Rocket and I give it our highest recommendation. It’s a must read!”
And I still love that first chapter. So I’ve put it up online and invite you to read it. If you feel compelled to read on (and I think you will be) then for $2.99 you can get the whole thing, plus three other stories to boot. No contests. No gimmicks. Just bang for your reading buck. That’s what I’m going for every time out.
Now I want to know about YOU. How do you like to generate and nourish ideas? When do you know you’re ready to take one to the max and write? 

30 thoughts on “How I Went From Idea to Story

  1. I like the layout of your process, especially the “rolling outline” bit, gonna put that one into practice.

    After reading your last selection of shorts, I must say I also do like your short stories and will certainly pick this baby up.

    As far as starters for my own stories, I tend to be visual. My first three stories plus several shorts I have written into collection titled Geeks Rule and a single titled 1917 all started as a mental image of either the main character or a scene. A man kneeling a desert, a preacher in a pulpit, a woodstove, a tough Asian looking Alaska State Trooper, etc. Then the story fleshed out from there as I discovered who the person or place was.

    Recent I experienced the first time a story idea came from a phrase that I heard in a dream about a fire that the rain wouldn’t put out, still working that one.

    The story that rose from the woodstove and the Femme AK Trooper, by the way, just got released as a self-narrated audiobook over at this weekend. (Self narrated of course meaning that I narrated the book, not that it narrated itself … that would be weird). For a fast paced military action thriller check out 65 Below in ebook and audio if you so desire … after you read Jim’s shorts…stories that is.

  2. after you read Jim’s shorts…stories that is.

    Basil, can I hire you to write my PR copy? Or maybe not.

    Thanks for the good word, and for sharing how you got some of your ideas. Ideas are everywhere! We just have to train our imaginations to pick them up, and that can be done.

    You ought to give field trips into your mind, Basil.

  3. re: brain field trips

    I offered those once, but the carnival rides union got into an argument over whether it was a “fun ride”, “thrill-ride”, “horror-ride”, or “psychedelic trip” and therefore were unable to assign appropriately licensed ride operators. Eventually the contract went into arbitration and during deliberations they all got stuck in line at a Starbucks and I never saw them again.

    sigh… I guess I’ll stay lonely in here… except for all the other permanent tenants that is.

  4. I’ve got my copy!

    I am new to all of this, and I really appreciate your description of your process. It seems to me that your rolling outline idea is more or less how I work. On my first attempt, I hadn’t learned about head-hopping yet, and because of that, I have a lot of rewriting to do. That’s fine with me; my focus right now is all about learning how.

    On Monday, I’m starting with a different idea. This one came out of watching someone collapse by a coffin. That gave me my first line and the main characters have evolved from there. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the story and I have a visual that seems to be a decent story arc. I’ve been doing little but thinking about it, but it seems to a pretty constant mental exercise.

    I think I retired on Friday (officially, I took a year leave of absence), and on Monday, I’m figuring out how to organize my day so that I can accomplish something with that idea. I’ve been thinking about how to go about that. My plan is including time for pleasure reading, time for “how-to-write-a-novel” reading, and time for writing.

    I have so much to learn, I know. I am looking forward to the process, and to becoming a member of the first-draft club. Between you and me (and everyone on Kill Zone, apparently), I’m planning to get there by Christmas.

    Perhaps I haven’t retired after all.

  5. See,
    That’s what I love about The Kill Zone – You Pro’s share your process with the rest of us.
    It’s like an amazing workshop experience, contributing to the collective, collaborating on ideas.
    Outstanding post, as always, Mr. Bell.
    My first completed novel, Careful What You Wish For…, literally jumped out at me when I was doing some research for a trunk novel. I went to the INTERPOL website – that’s an eye opener – and somewhere in those photos of the most wanted creeps on the planet an idea seized me. Terrified me. Shook me to the core.
    The story blossomed from that visceral reaction.
    I wrote it with that rolling organic outline style you speak of, which gave me the freedom to call myself a pantser, but helped with the OCD part of my spirit we all must share.
    Of course, I was reading Plot and Structure, The Fire in Fiction, The Art of War for Writers and other stellar craft guides as I wrote it.
    I let Careful sit. Reread and revised. Found Beta readers, and implemented the needed revisions. I didn’t realize it as I was writing it, but it hit the three-act structure dead-on (must be in my subconscious now or something).
    Put it up for my local book club…and they loved it!
    Too cool.
    You can read an except at, and check out the trailer there too.
    I’m toying with the idea of putting it up on Kindle…

    So, that’s my process. Thanks for sharing yours.

  6. James, best wishes for the new book! To answer one of your questions, I know when I’m ready to take an idea and run with it when I can’t get it out of my head and need to get it onto paper. Or word processor. Or something. I had an experience in New Orleans recently which was what I would call a “close call” and couldn’t get it out of my head. My computer was fried so I sat down and swype typed five chapters onto Evernote with my smartphone. I got it all out and down. I’m waiting for my hand to recover, though.

  7. Darien, welcome to the club. What you describe is the “perfect” plan. Read novels and be ready to pause and think about how the writer does what he/she does. I did that when I decided to go for the writing dream. I got an armload of books by Koontz, King, Grisham, et al. at my favorite used bookstore (how I miss it!) and read with intention.

    I also read “how to write” books, and they all helped. One of them provided the “epiphany” I needed. It was Jack Bickham’s book Writing Novels That Sell (revised and now pubbed by WD as Writing and Selling Your Novel).

    And then, of course, you write. Write a lot. Try things. Try applying what you’re learning. But when you are in the actual act of writing, write without thinking TOO much. Get your heart on the page first, then fix things later.

    Nice to have a whole year to dedicate to this. Good luck! (Note: Stay out of Basil’s head for this first year. After that, your choice)

  8. Joe, thanks a lot. It’s a wonderful thing that there’s a market for short form fiction, a better market than ever before.

    In the old pulp days, there were a ton of magazines, but they had limited shelf life and you got paid a penny a word. Now you can put something out that remains forever and pays substantially higher. ONE MORE LIE will hit the “penny a word” mark in the first few days.

    This strikes me as so, so cool.

  9. Paula, that’s excellent! And I think the key thing you said there was “visceral reaction.” There has to be something emotionally gripping to you, the author, in order to write something really and truly worth reading. And, indeed, that’s what my main man and agent Mr. Maass writes about in Fire.

    I also put a little video together about having Skin in the Game.

    Good luck with your ongoing efforts. You’re doing all the right things.

  10. Joe, I salute you for swype typing that much! But isn’t it grand that technology allows us to do that?

    In 2035 we’ll have that chip implant that lets us think something that is transcribed onto our iCerebrum, which is then immediately downloadable directly by others into their implants.

    Of course, piracy will be a problem, as will Basil’s brain as it attempts total world domination.

  11. “It’s a wonderful thing that there’s a market for short form fiction, a better market than ever before.”

    You’re right, Jim. Opportunities abound. My publisher is about to release a short story by Lynn Sholes and I for $.99 available across the ebook formats. It’s called BAM! JUST LIKE THAT. The cool part about it is that it will include the first 12 chapters of our new thriller THE PHOENIX APOSTLES as a bonus. They would not have even considered this a year ago.

  12. I love this post, Jim. So much that I’m going to try the first line method with a project I’ve got on my plate. I’ve been wracking my brain how to get moving on it and lo & behold, a bell goes off in my head.

    James Scott Bell to be exact.

    Now if only I can channel YOU as I write.

  13. Joe, that’s exactly the kind of forward thinking publishers need to be about. The 99¢ promo story is a great idea.

    Jordan, I’d say go ahead and channel, but if you accidentally cross lines with Basil I will not be held responsible.

  14. Finally! I’m able to tell you that you have great advice! I’m a newby here. I’ve followed you in Writer’s Digest. You still have great advice and I’ll now follow you here!

    I sometimes merely have a character in mind and things fall into place. I’m not sure if I do the “rolling outline” thing, because I don’t actually outline. I’m a pantster. But I usually know where I’m going to wind up. I just finished 1st draft of a 4th novel. I want to do a mystery next and had been riffling through an older mss., and something took shape from it. A first line came to me, and then a paragraph and more spilled out. I’ve never tried a mystery before, but this one has a paranormal twist where the detective’s wife–who was killed in their house–is now a ghost who helps him in his cases.

    I normally write Urban Fant. But wanting to work on other genres and see if I can’t go Indie at some point.

    I’ll be watching your post (follower now) for more good stuff! And I’m about to go check this story out (:

  15. Lorelei, thanks for the good word. We’re always pleased to make new readers here at TKZ. You’ll find a wealth of great advice from my blogmates. Indeed, going through our archives would be the equivalent of an MBA and won’t cost you $75,000.

    I love your ghost idea. Write that thing.

  16. Thank you so much for sharing your creative excercises. Very timely. I’m brainstorming for my next project and can’t wait to try them out.

    I found what has saved me when brainstorming for projects is using Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. LOVE Save the Cat. And as always, nothing is set in stone.

    Congrats on your latest release. It sounds ike another winner.

  17. Great post, Jim. I love hearing stories like this.

    My current novel, SETUP ON FRONT STREET, sprang from an opening line. It was a line I actually heard about 25 years ago. Someone said, “When I write my novel, this is going to be my first line:” and they said the line. It stuck with me and I changed a few words but kept the general thrust. Once I typed it on the screen, I knew I had to come up with another 50-60,000 words behind it. I just went with it and the story fell into place.

    Now, here I go again. I’m getting all worked up over one of your posts, so now I’m going to have to post something on this topic on my own website.

  18. I like the ebook trailer! I’ve talked about making some for my ebooks, and after seeing yours, I think I’ll give it a try.

    My idea-to-story process involves lots of freewriting. For the novel that I’m writing, my folder has over 30 files. Each one is a document on a character, scene, plot point, or item/vehicle. Those documents started out as freewrites. As soon as I come up with something new, I make a new document and write for 5 minutes on it.
    Then I revise those documents as I go.

    I also having the running outline which I revise after every chapter that I write. And I have a document for the plot holes that I need to fill (and quickly!)

  19. James, great article. I’m thinking of publishing some of my … let’s call them … less accessible works … as ebooks. I haven’t had time to figure it all out yet but I’ve got about ten books on my computer that my agent says are all their own genres…genres that haven’t been invented yet.
    I like to think I’ve invented my own genre with romantic comedy with cowboys, but inventing six more genres is a lot for one woman.

    So we might publish them as ebooks. It’s all just talk at this point. But I like thinking about it. I love some of these books. I wrote a gothic romance that’s as much fun as a human being should be allowed to have (imho)

  20. Not sure why that comment posted twice, but I didn’t delete a comment because I said something stupid (well, more stupid than I’m willing to admit to, anyway!)

  21. Steven, the freewriting method is super, because the best way to get ideas is to come up with tons of ideas without editing yourself, then pick the best ones later.

    Mary, go ahead and invent a genre! I did with my zombie legal thriller series. Why not?

  22. Enjoyed this post. I’ve had many a first line pop into my head, but didn’t know how to get it to story, and trying to fully plot has sucked the life out of my writing, I think. Fully pantsing isn’t the answer either. I like the “rolling outline” you describe, which is where I’ve pretty much ended up, although I haven’t been great about outlining as I go. Nor do I think I do enough character work prior to writing. Still learning. Thanks for sharing.

  23. I like the first line thing! I think I’ll try. I’m not sure if I use the “rolling outline” very much, because I’m now realizing how much stays in my head (not a good idea). I’ll have to use it more often.

  24. Jeannie, I am told that Basil took Myers-Briggs and the test imploded on itself.

    Thanks for the comments, esp. about the “rolling outline.” That term is not original with me. I read it in a WD article years ago and like it.

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