How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?

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12 thoughts on “How to Deal with Idea Fragments

  1. Good article! I’m a pantster so I come up with the ideas while writing, but for those who don’t what I do could be done with an outline for that matter. I just ask questions to myself, for instance in this scenario:

    Harry is a boy wizard. Q: does he know it? A: no. Q: why? A: because no one told him. Q: Then how did he get to be one? A: He inherited the gift. Q: From who? A: his parents. Q: so if he inherited it, it means his parents are wizards, but if he doesn’t know then they must not be around. Q: where are they?etc. etc.

    As I said I do mine while writing because of course all that stuff just comes up on its own as I am writing (where is he living? have to know this to start the first scene. Who lives with him? Again, I need that answer to write the scene, etc.) But for me the questions work best because I find I have answers I didn’t know I had.

    • Another good tip I wish I’d known before hand. In fact, I think it’s something Stephen King once used in a novel when one of his characters needed to bounce ideas off someone.

  2. I like the idea of writing them down. But I love the idea of sharing the fragments with someone to see where they go. I’m fortunate, I suppose, that I have a teen son who loves to bash around story ideas. He always finds the gaps and helps me process and nurture the germ into a full fledged story idea. Lucky me!

  3. aderynwood

    I think it was also Stephen King who said that he doesn’t keep notebook to write down all his ideas, the good ones will stick. I find walking really helps me to dream idea fragments up into more concrete ideas.

    • I wish I could do what Stephen Kin does with his story ideas, but my mind can be like a sieve, so I write them down. Yeah, walking is good for the thought process. Does it count as distraction though? I’m kind of the opinion that it is, though I know some will disagree.

  4. I don’t think an idea generator site is cheating. Talking the idea out with others is similar when they give ideas on how to proceed. Sometimes I’ve even asked my readers what type of story they wanted to read and used that as a launching pad for a plot. To me, this is no different than using a site to help me along. The story will have to be written and fleshed out, which is where the real work comes into play. It’s not the idea that counts so much as the execution of that idea. 🙂

    I love all these ideas. I hadn’t thought of writing them down, but I like this tip. Now I can finally put my blank notebook to good use.

  5. Adan Ramie

    Some nights, especially when I’ve had a stressful day (or am anticipating one), I find it difficult to sleep. This is actually the best time for me to start going over an idea fragment in my head. Even if I don’t get the whole plot worked out, it’s nice to start fleshing it out a little at a time. Great post! It reminds me that I need to buckle down on my Camp NaNoWriMo story, which I haven’t even started. Oops.

    • Good luck with the Camp NaNoWriMo work. And the next time I have insomnia, I’ll have to try fleshing out a story. Thanks for the suggestion.

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