Turning an Idea into a Story

One thing a writer learns early is the importance of “showing” instead of “telling”. It’s a real problem for many new writers, but seasoned writers struggle with it, too. That’s what I’m grappling with right now as I flesh out my work-in-progress. I’ve written the long synopsis that describes the novel, but how do I change that narration of the book into an engaging story that makes the reader feel as though she is inside my character’s world?

I love this part of storytelling. It’s one of the most creative aspects of the whole process and it requires thought, imagination and an ability to put oneself in the reader’s–as well as the character’s–head. I thought I’d share some examples of how this “showing” vs “telling” is playing out as I work on the tentatively titled Saving Ivy Hart through the use of my beloved index cards.

Here’s what I mean:

Line from Synopsis: Robert wants to start a family right away, while Jane wants to wait a few years. Robert, who is Catholic, refuses to consider any form of birth control. (note: it’s 1960.)

This becomes two scenes on two separate index cards:

Index Card 1: While out to dinner to celebrate Jane’s birthday, Robert (a physician) and Jane (a social worker) argue over Jane’s desire to work a few years before starting a family. Robert finally expresses his true feelings: he’s embarrassed that he’s the only doctor in his circle of friends with a working wife, as though he’s unable to support her himself. Jane feels belittled by his criticism. They leave without finishing their meals.

Index Card 2: Jane is in a doctor’s office, where she requests the birth control pill for her painful periods (since it’s not yet FDA approved for actual birth control.) The doctor refuses to prescribe it without her husband’s permission. Jane leaves, determined to find a doctor who will. 

Here’s another example:

Line from Synopsis: In spite of how emotionally challenging Jane finds the work, she knows she’s helping people and that makes it all worthwhile. 

This is illustrated in one scene.

Index card: In the run-down shack of one of her clients, Jane comforts a young mother as she breaks down, overwhelmed by the burden of raising five sick kids on little money. Jane methodically ticks off what she can do to help: get the public health nurse to visit, request donations of clothing, etc. The young woman is lifted up by Jane’s caring and Jane smiles to herself as she gets in her car.  

Here’s one more:

From the synopsis: Mary Ella is a beautiful but fragile girl, sensitive to criticism and harsh words.

Index card: Jane witnesses Mary Ella’s grandmother yelling at the girl for not getting a stain out of a dress. Mary Ella cowers and blushes at being scolded in front of a stranger (Jane) and tears fill her eyes as she carries the dress to the sink. 

As you can imagine, I will have oodles of index cards by the time I’m done–oodles of scenes that paint a story in images and, I hope, that make the story come to life for my readers.

Before I begin working on any more cards, though, I think I need to nibble on some of that candy I bought this morning. Happy Halloween, everyone!



  1. Margo on November 1, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Diane, I have never had any problem getting inside your character’s world…never.
    One of the beautiful things about your novels is that I always become so engrossed and wrapped up in the sense of place and actually become friends with your characters. I completely forget where I am when reading and this is because you really know how to make us ‘feel’ for these people. It is an amazing art to be able to write the way you do and I have complete faith that you will once again ‘show’ (not ‘tell’) us the story of SAVING IVY HART.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on November 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for your faith in my, Margo. I’m definitely enjoying the process of putting Ivy and the gang together!

  3. Margo on November 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I hope you keep the title, Diane…I love it!

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