Developing ideas is a natural step after discovery and collection (the topics of last week's post). I previewed this a bit when I mentioned "maybe withs." It's time to dig into this a little more beginning with making a fuzzy distinction between random ideas and those that seem to along with identified projects. Why a fuzzy distinction? Because, while your brain is noticing and selecting facts, insights, images, relationships, and other story fodder, its initial classifications should always be suspect. While an idea might seem to, at first blush, fit with other ideas or be matched to specific projects as it’s collected, your muse may have something — much better – in mind. This is why I recommended adding question marks as he took notes.
When your idea already has a home and you want to work with it, the easiest of idea development is fitting it into what you already have going among your story notes (e.g., efforts on your Work In Progress). But, while it's tempting to put the ideas to work immediately, many ideas will be improved if you take them to extremes. For descriptions, this may mean making them more eccentric and specific. For something that a hero or heroine might put at risk, raise the stakes if you can. Make obstacles you identify more tortuous and major protagonists less capable of meeting them (or raising the price for doing so).
You can also consider applying ideas in places they "don't belong." Be mischievous with mismatches. It's common, for instance, to adapt a great line by a villain so that it can be used by the hero or heroine. You can make a different character face and obstacle or have a surprising characteristic. For one of my stories, I took a talent that interested me and first gave it to a woman, then a middle-aged man, and finally to an adolescent boy. It only became fully alive with the last choice.
What about the fresh ideas? For these, I like to ask questions. Obviously, I look for extremes and for other ideas with which they might be matched. But I also ask how they might fit in with the zeitgeist (and sometimes that means looking at the Google Trends listings). I see if there is something within the idea that suggests conflict, especially a moral conflict. If it naturally creates a true dilemma – where both choices lead to horrible consequences – I know I really have something.
I play with ideas in different geographic settings, in different eras, and in different subcultures (such as military). I explore the possibility of using the idea in different genres. I especially work to discover the unexpected. Sometimes this means brainstorming. I love to create lists of 20 possibilities off of an idea and see which ones are the most surprising.
Two things I've added to idea development in recent years have been especially fruitful. One was to bounce ideas off of things I'm obsessed with. By definition, anything that connects in such a deep way that it causes a compulsive dedication of time and resources is an obsession. Knowing what these are (for me) makes it easier for me to put more work into using an idea, once it's attached to one of my obsessions.
The other thing I've added is examination against themes that recur in my work. I have plenty of stories completed at this point in my career, not to mind for values, situations, and questions that are important to me. As with obsessions (but at a grander scale) storytelling themes naturally drive effective and sometimes inspired use of ideas that have been discovered and collected. If you haven't written on the stories to identify themes that matter to you from your work, lists 10 or 20 of your absolute favorite stories and see if you can identify their themes… And if there are themes that show up often.
These are some hints on how to develop ideas. It's in no way exhaustive. I fill pages with questions to ask and ways to push around and connect captured ideas. I've also written blog posts (Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas and A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut) that fit into this general area that you might find useful. But analysis, pattern matching, questions, and systems will never quite do everything in terms of idea development. For one thing, the choices you make along the way will have to do with your intuition and instincts. And, there may be a little bit of magic that shows up from time to time, if you let it.