Over on my own blog, I wrote this post about the way I outlined the book I'm now writing. I didn't quite get at the real root of what I wanted to say about the process, so I'm going to try again here and hope I'll do a better job of it.
I know that a lot of you don't outline before you write your first drafts, and that's okay. A first draft is a wild and wooly creature, and any way you can get one is valid, I think. Even though I outline, my first drafts are still mostly improvised. But at some point you're probably going to revise/edit/rewrite your first draft into something more polished and presentable, and at that point you should take a good hard look at the mechanics of your story if you haven't done so already. I pause to say that I really think this is most helpful if you do it before your first draft, but you have to do something like this at some point.
One of the most important things you have to know about your story is what your story is. By that I mean, you as the author have to be able to stand back and see how the main storyline works, what the important events (or "plot points," if you will) are, what the character arcs are and how they begin, develop and resolve, and how your plotlines all work together. Yes, you do have to know this. Why? Because those are the moving parts of your story.
The way I come up with these moving parts, and the way they are organized into the shape of my story, is to simply sit down and try to tell myself the story in the order it will take place. For example, I might have an idea for a story about, I donno, a woman who falls in love and rises from a lowly estate to become happy ever after. I know, it sounds sort of old-fashioned, but it's a popular formula and I'm using it. I'll call the woman "Ella."
So I try to tell myself Ella's story:
Ella is the maid of a nasty family with three daughters. A handsome door-to-door salesman visits the house, he and Ella fall in love and he spirits her away.
Okay, I say. Not much there. How about a complication? And some motivation for Ella?
Ella is the maid of a nasty family with three nasty daughters who are less nice and attractive than Ella, but are all constantly besought by the best men of the town because they have money. Ella is from a family that was once powerful but is now in disgrace and poverty and she longs for the good old days she never saw but vividly imagines. A handsome door-to-door saleman--
Waitaminute. A door-to-door salesman? That worked for a second, but now I don't think so. And do I want a riches-to-rags-to-middle-class story? Maybe. Is this about escape, or about comeuppance for the nasty family? Is the nasty family the antagonist? Or one of the daughters? Or someone else, back when Ella's family fortune was lost? Will Ella work to restore that fortune, and the stranger who visits the house will be the key to that?
And so on. I basically sit down and tell myself the story over and over and over again, from start to finish, until there is something there that makes sense and is compelling. I try to keep it short, like 200 words or fewer though that's less important than knowing the core of the story. Sometimes I make lists of characters:
Ella's aunt/cousin/distant relative?
Sis Nasty 1
Sis Nasty 2
Sis Nasty 3
And then I'll take the rough skeleton of the story, when I have one, and try fitting these characters into it in different places to see how they might influence the action or the backstory or the outcome. It is a lot like collage, the way I do it, or like trying on every piece of clothing in my closet in every imaginable combination until I say, "Hey, that looks goooood." The thing is to come up with a story arc for the protagonist that works. And then (or while creating the protagonist's story arc), you need to figure out the story arcs for the other characters including the antagonist (because he's not a prop, he's a character). Thanks to Lois Moss for pointing that out with such clarity.
Anyway, this is pretty much how I turn my vague ideas into actual stories. It's an iterative process of refining and changing and molding and it's a process that's been pretty good to me. Does this look like it could be a useful technique? If not, tell me a better one: I'm all ears, metaphorically speaking.
Also, I have been pretty slackerly in my posts lately and I thought I'd try practical advice again, even though it's Friday and traditionally Fridays are for filler.