On a basic level all stories are a combination of 4 components; characters, a plot, a setting, and one or more ideas, which in this case refer to the underlying questions being explored. Ideas can be as simple as “how will the protagonist accomplish their goal”, or as complex as the purpose or meaning of life.
Use What You Have
Most stories start small; a character, a conflict, an interesting place. Whichever piece you have, start with that and build out.
Start With a Character
If you have a character, develop them, give them routines, a daily life, a social circle, hobbies, and interests. In the process you’ll realize where they come from, and where they are now, giving you a setting. Next, ask yourself, what does this character want to change about their life? If the answer is nothing, turn it around, ask what they most fear losing. Whether it’s a goal to be achieved or a threat to be prevented, that becomes the conflict.
Start With a Plot
A good plot needs conflict, a combination of desires and fears, and a character who wants to either cause or prevent something from changing. Once you know the conflict, ask “who has the most to lose or gain?”
For example, imagine a story that pits a big cooperation against a small town community, both nameless, faceless groups, but within those groups there are individuals. The protagonist could be a struggling corporate employee who needs to resolve the conflict to prove his worth, or a local resident who would rather die than lose their home.
Start With a Setting
If you have a setting in mind, consider a plot that threatens the community as a whole. In Lord of the Rings, the hobbits happily live in the Shire, until the Ring begins drawing in outside threats, forcing Frodo to leave with the Ring, and thus protect his community.
If you want to focus on the setting, choose a character who can help audiences explore the setting. Most setting based stories rely on either an outsider or an everyman. An everyman is a typical member of the community, someone who reveals details about the setting through their everyday life. An outsider is someone who has never been there before, someone who can ask questions for the audience. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an example of a setting focused story that uses an outsider. Changing Planes is another example.
Start With an Idea
Most ideas take the form of a question; either philosophical (why), moral (what’s right/wrong), hypothetical (what if), or a puzzle (how). Once you have a question, imagine a character who wants to answer it.
If it’s a philosophical or moral question, such as “What is the meaning or purpose of life”, why is the character asking this question now? What change in their life has prompted them to consider or reconsider this question? Outline how the character would look for answers. That will become your plot.
If the question is hypothetical, i.e. “What if Nazi Germany won the war,” then you as the author need to outline how this change would in turn cause other changes, creating a setting for the story. Then continue using the “setting” technique outlined above.
If the question is a puzzle, “how would/did someone accomplish this”, i.e. breaking into a bank or climbing Everest, then the question becomes the foundation for a conflict in which the character is either trying to achieve the goal, thwart the attempt, or catch the perpetrator after the fact. Once you have outlined the plot, continue using the “plot” technique outlined above.
Developing Scenes-Continuing the Process
All stories are rooted in character goals, and the forces that oppose them. Most characters have at least 1 long term goal, and 2 or more short term goals which may work towards their long term goals.
Within a scene, each character should be actively working towards at least one goal, while some outside force prevents it, creating conflict. The most common form of opposition is another character with a different goal.
Most scenes rely on 2-3 characters with mutually exclusive goals to create tension. The scene begins when the characters actively begin working towards their goals, and ends when at least one goal has been resolved, if only temporarily, through definitive positive progress or negative setbacks.
Establish the Story