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Friday, April 6

I Have An Idea for a Novel! Now What?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday revisits an old favorite on turning your idea into a novel

Many a writer has had an idea for a great book pop into their heads, only to be unsure how to proceed. It happens more often for those still learning to write, or those attempting their first full-sized novel. The entire process can be intimidating if you've never done it before and aren't sure where to start.

Everyone has their own process, and finding that is part of learning to write. You might be a panster (one who writes "by the seat of their pants" with no clear idea where the story will go) or an outliner (one who outlines out what will happen beforehand), or somewhere in between.

If you don't know where you stand yet, I've found it a lot easier to start with a basic outline so you have a template to guide you. Sometimes it's helpful to see the points A and B spelled out to figure out how to connect them. You may discover you like to pants your way through later on, and you can always adjust your process.

Step One: Write down your idea in one sentence


The act of boiling your idea down to one sentence forces you to pinpoint what the story is about. If you can't summarize it in one sentence, then try two. If you can't do it in two, that's a red flag you're not yet sure about the story, or the idea might be too complicated. Take some time to figure out what the story is about, then come back and try again.

(Here are two articles that can help Start Me Up and Testing, Testing...)

Step Two: Find the problem with that idea


At the center of the novel (and your idea) is the core conflict. It will drive the novel and thus help you create the plot for the story. What's the one problem that must be resolved or something bad will happen to the protagonist? This is what your protagonist will spend the book trying to resolve. Every scene in your novel is going to connect to this in some way. Write down that problem. Feel free to expand on it if you want.

(Here's more on discovering your core conflict)

Step Three: Find the stakes and consequences of failing


Many novel ideas fall flat because there's no reason for the story to happen. Nothing is at stake, and there's no consequence for failure, so the story is just the protagonist doing a bunch of stuff and always winning.

What is going to happen if this big problem isn't resolved? Something is going to go wrong for someone, and it'll be bad enough to capture a reader's attention for 100K words. Write down why it's important not to lose.

Some questions to ask if you aren't sure...
  • Who will this problem hurt?
  • Who will it help?
  • What will happen if this problem occurs?
  • What will happen if this problem doesn't occur?
  • Why is this problem a problem ?
  • Why must it be resolved?
(Here's more on raising the stakes)

Step Four: Find the protagonist


Since stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways, identifying your protagonist is key to making a plot work. They're going to have the most at stake and be the one most personally invested in this problem.

Some writers will create the protagonist first, and that's okay. But often a story problem comes up before you figure out who is the right person to put into that problem. For example, you might know the problem is with an evil wizard and a member of a nomadic tribe, but not know exactly who they are when you first think up the idea.

whatever step this is for you, write down who the protagonist is and as much information about them as you'd like. Length (short or long) doesn't matter.

Some questions to ask...
  • Who has the most to lose in the problem? (this will connect back to your stakes)
  • Who has the ability to resolve that problem? (someone who can't act isn't a good protagonist)
  • Who is central to the conflict? (the core conflict must affect the protagonist)
  • Who is motivated to resolve the conflict or problem? (a good protagonist had a reason to act)
(Here's more on 10 traits of a good protagonist)

Step Five: Find the antagonist


Someone or something is going to get in the way of the resolution of this problem. Some stories won't have a person as the antagonist, it might be a natural disaster or a personal self vs self type story. For those stories, think about the specific thing in the way of your protagonist getting what they want. Write down the things in your protagonist's way, whomever, whatever and how many they may be.

Some questions to ask...
  • Who or what has the ability to stop the protagonist?
  • Why are they trying to stop them?
  • Who or what has the ability to make the problem worse?
  • Why do they want to?
(Here's more on 10 traits of a great antagonist)

Step Six: Find the protagonist's goal


At this stage, you should have a goal for the protagonist and an idea of why this is important to your protagonist and your antagonist. These are going to be the things that drive your story (and your plot).

Look back at step one. See that one sentence? Rewrite it using the information you just came up with. [Protagonist] is trying to solve [problem] or [stakes] will happen, and [antagonist] is trying to stop them for [these reasons].

This is the core conflict--the story problem and keystone of your plot. When you get lost or don't know what to do next, refer back to this and it'll remind you what the point of the novel is.

Step Seven: Find the motivating factors


Look back at your protagonist, antagonist, the stakes, and the goal. Now think about why this matters to your protagonist and antagonist. Something will be driving them to act. Write those down. Add in the reasons why, the back story, whatever info helps understand why the protagonist and antagonist is acting this way. And do this for the antagonist, too, because the more you flesh him out the better villain he'll make. He'll have reasons for what he does, and that'll make it easier for you to plot how he'll act, which in turns makes the protagonist act, which makes plot.

Some things to ask...
  • Why is this important to the protagonist/antagonist?
  • What do they personally have to lose if the big thing isn't resolved?
  • Why don't they want that to happen?
  • What are they willing to risk or do to resolve it?
  • What are they not willing to do? (is there a line they won't cross?)
  • Who do they have supporting them in this goal?
  • Who is against them?
  • What weaknesses do they have that will hurt them in this?
  • What strengths do they have that will help them?
  • What are they afraid of happening?

Some of this may look like character building, and it partially is, but what you want to focus on here are things that will directly affect plot. A fear of snakes probably won't matter one whit unless the story happens to revolve around being trapped on a plane with snakes.

(Here's more on getting to the heart of your story)

Step Eight: Finding the big moments


By this point, you should have a general idea of how the story will play out, or at least what matters within that story. Now, look for a few key turning points or events that you can frame your plot around. Think of them as story anchors. Write down those moments.

A few common key moments:
  • What is the first moment in which your protagonist realizes they have a problem? (this will relate to the core problem)
  • What is the moment where the protagonist discovers who or what is in his way?
  • What is the moment where they try to act and fail for the first time?
  • What is the moment where they feel it's pointless to even go on or they want to give up?
  • What is the moment where they decide they're going to risk something to fix this problem?
  • What is the moment when they resolve this problem?

You might not be able to answer all of them, and that's okay. Just think about them and how they relate to your story. You might even try to answer them even if it's vague.

(Here's more on story structure options)

Step Nine: Brainstorm


Next, look for any other moments or ideas floating around in your head. Chances are you have some ideas of things you want to have happen or cool scenes in mind. Look to see how those moments can connect to the big problem or any of the things in steps one through eight. Maybe some would make good scenes, others good stakes, maybe a good trigger to launch a problem. Write them down with as much (or as little) detail as you have.

Step Ten: Summarize

Now tell your story. It doesn't have to be good, just start at the beginning and tell it as if you were telling it to a friend. Add back story and flashbacks. Use adverbs. Do all the stuff you're not supposed to if you want, because this is all about getting an idea of the story and plot down on paper. Don't worry if you can't figure out exactly where things fit or how. It's okay at this stage to be vague and say "hero defeats the bad guy and saves the idol" and have no clue how that's going to happen. It's okay to even say "hero makes a tough choice here, and is haunted by that choice" and have no clue what details will go there. It's even good to say "hero fails and the stakes go up." You might not know how yet, but you know that at that point in the story, something needs to happen to escalate the stakes.

The goal is to get a general feel for how the plot unfolds and what key moments go where so you have a guide to write to. For pantsers, this might be enough (or too much) and you jump right in to the book. For plotters, you'll take this and start breaking it down further. You might have one page or thirty pages. Either way, you should have enough information here to identify the goals, stakes, and potential problems facing your characters.

What's holding you back from starting your novel? If you have started it, what's your novel plan?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 



Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

47 comments:

  1. Ah, if I could only plot that far out. I more or less use this technique for scenes and then worry about the next one.

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  2. This is awesome. You have such a clear easy to understand way of expressing things. Thanks so much.

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  3. Thanks Janice. This helped me a lot. I'm going to start using it right away. I've done quite a lot of what you've mentioned here already, but with more of a focus on character or world building. This will help me refocus that into plotting. You're great!

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  4. *silly grin* I just started playing with this for my novel-in-revision that has something wrong, and realized there's a reason one section seems a lot better than a fair bit more of it: because that section actually focuses on the correct antagonist.

    That's right. Most of my novel has the WRONG ANTAGONIST.

    And a story idea that's been sitting on a back burner for awhile but isn't getting anywhere? Yeah. That doesn't have a specific antagonist whatsoever. *laughs* When I think about it, my stories that seem to be coming out the best, are the ones with clear antagonists. Who'da thunk it?

    Thanks for that bucket of ice water.

    My idiocy aside, I guess we come up with ideas a bit differently, because I seem to start out with a protagonist of a particular ilk in mind, and then figure out what to do with her.

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  5. You explain things in a way that makes a ridiculous amount of sense. Every time I read one of your posts I always find myself thinking, "why didn't this make sense to me before, it's so obvious?!" Today, I realized you made a huge difference in me understanding some of my problem areas.

    Thank you so much!

    You don't get nearly as much grattitude as you deserve.

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  6. Excellent, excellent post. I am bookmarking this too, before I outline my next book.

    Have a great weekend!

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  7. This post is just so awesome I am overwhelmed! :)

    I love how you break everything down for me into logical steps I can work through. Especially as I am famous for coming up with fab premises and then don't know what to do with them without a plot...

    I'll be sitting down with a notebook and this post tonight :)

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  8. Great post. Especially good for when you start your story.

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  9. Another great post filled with clear, helpful information. I'm enjoying these very much.

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  10. Thanks all! I had the same trouble with stuff not making any sense, and then one day it clicked. I think that's how writing works since everyone seems to go through the same thing. But I'm glad I can help some folks find that click, hehe.

    Carradee, clear antags is so important. That's awesome you figured that out. And a great reminder that we might be due for an antag post!

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  11. Sounds like some excellent advice. I love the simple way you explain this and how it makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing.

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  12. Janice, such a helpful post. I love that you break the steps down and take it from idea to story. Do you mind if we link this post in our Friday blog round-up? It's so informative! Thanks so much.

    Marissa

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  13. Its like you read my mind! THANK YOU, Janice! And thanks to @elizabethscraig for tweeting about it, otherwise I may not have found this wonderful site!!!!

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  14. Sure, link away, and thanks! I never mind linking to the blog. It's out here to be read and hopefully help some writers.

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  15. Very informative. I hopped over here from Seeing Creative. And glad I did. I'll see you again!

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  16. I LOVE this post! Very detailed and logical. I think the middle steps in this process could work for writing queries, too.

    Got over here from Adventures in Children's Publishing and am so glad I did! You have a new follower. <3

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  17. Welcome to the blog Karen and Writing Melody (and any new folks I missed). Good to have you :)

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  18. I can't tell you how many times I've been returning to this post, Janice. This may be the most helpful thing I've ever read. I'm actually using as a worksheet -- and it's WORKING. I'm at a point with a new story where I had a hazy idea of what should happen but not a clear one, and these steps just saved me a LOT of work and pain later, when I should have realized things but never thought about them up front.

    Thank you, as always, for a great bit of information.

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  19. I'm so glad it's working for you! It took me a lot of trial and error before I worked this out for me, and it saves me time, too.

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  20. I just read this post a year later, and wow, it's so helpful. Thank you!

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  21. Most welcome! There's a lot of good stuff in the archives, and I'm always looking for ways to get that to the surface and make it easy to find :) Glad you found this one.

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  22. Thank you so much for posting this. It came at the perfect time, and has truly shed light on my WIP.

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  23. Awesome! Glad I was able to help. :)

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  24. Great summary! I am most definitely a plotter (vs. a pantser) and I can almost make a story worksheet based on these. In fact, I think I'll give it a shot.

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  25. Awesome! Hope it works out for you.

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  26. It's like math for writers. I love this! Thanks!

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  27. I think I'm in love... this post is amazing.

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  28. Cat, lol. This math is a lot more fun :)

    SJP, thanks :)

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  29. I've done all of this, I just don't know how to begin my story! The first sentence is killing me!

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  30. Hi Janice, I know this is an older post but obviously your advice is transcendent. It's true that you are always asked for a logline when you are working on a novel and it's something that I've struggled with for a long time. Would you mind giving your honest opinion on my below one-liner? Thanks so much!
    Thirty-something Howard, has resigned the remainder of his static life to sleeping in his childhood trundle bed and choking down his mom’s pineapple meatloaf until he joins forces with a stunning and ambitious shopping network hostess to rally against the mysterious cause of a transforming epidemic.

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    1. Sure. Overall, it looks like this story will be about Howard, who finally gets out of that trundle bed for X reason, then teams up with the hostess to stop/find the mystery around the epidemic.

      It sounds like there could be some cute aspects to this, but the one sentences doesn't tell me anything about the plot or conflict. Howard looks like a guy down on his luck who's given up, so there's no goal that he wants or anything to show me what's driving him to act. I don't know what the epidemic is or how it affects the overall story (though being vague at this stage is okay).

      As you develop this, you might think about the core conflict driving Howard, what motivates him to act, and what's at stake if he fails. But you're off to a good start.

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    2. Your critique was very helpful. Thank you so much! Am I on the right track with the below rewrite?
      A thirty-something schlimazel gets catapulted out of his static life when his parents fall victim to a metamorphosing epidemic and he is compelled to join forces with a stunning shopping network hostess to rally against its mysterious cause.

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    3. Better. He's trying to save his parents, and he's going to work with the hostess to solve a mystery and find a cause.

      This could be enough for you to write your novel, but if you wanted, you could think about what the conflict is and add that as well. What's in the way of these two finding the cause?

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  31. Sorry, didn't mean to comment as "anonymous" before but wouldn't let me sign in w/Wordpress

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  32. Thank you so much for this!!! I have been struggling with putting a story together for years, but this outline was just the breakthrough that I needed. It's crazy how, while asking myself the questions, I was slowly changing the antagonist to the protagonist, and it makes sense!

    Again, thank you, so much!!!

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    1. Most welcome, glad it was helpful :) It always makes my day when writers find just what they needed here and get unstuck. Good luck on the planning!

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  33. I might be a little late on this, but I need a little help. I've gotten a few steps in, but I've run into a problem. My idea is a serial killer kidnaps a suicidal teenager, basically the teen is like "Please just kill me already" and the serial killer isn't sure how to deal with this. So I wrote the stakes that the teenager dies and the serial killer gets away, but I can't figure out whether the teen's death is a good or bad thing because he/she wants to die. Can you see my problem? Does anyone have any tips?

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    1. Sorry for my late response, I didn't see this before.

      Hmmm...great premise. I think you probably want to consider a few things:

      1. Who is your protagonist? Is this the story of the killer who changes by this experience or the teen? That will determine where the plot needs to go.

      2. What are you trying to show with this premise? If it's plain horror, it doesn't always need a bigger theme, but with that premise it seems like there's a LOT of depth to explore thematically and emotionally.

      3. What are the stake for both? The conflict? That's where your plot will come from.

      In general, it seems to me that this is the killer's tale, as he's the one with the choice to make. If the teen wants to die, and the killer wants to kill, there's no conflict and no problem. But if the killer balks at killing someone who wants to die, the question is why?

      I think figuring out that why will show you what this premise is about :)

      Good luck, this sound awesome. I hope you work it out.

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  34. If you can't, or worse, don't, answer those early questions before you get knee-deep into your story, at the very least, your editing will take more time than your writing. Fill in the blanks early and your story will thank you.

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    1. So true. Though for pantsers that might be part of the process :)

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  35. The clarity here is great, it reminds me of lacing up leather boots, pull the laces together tight after you've threaded them through all the eyelets!

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  36. Hi Janice. Your website is fantastic as has a lot of good resources. I am trying to jump start work on yet another alien invasion of earth novel, with a few new ideas. The ideas aren't the problem, it's the lack of formal training on story engineering! A one line premise? Impossible! Three Act vs Hero's Journey? What to choose, what goes in each part? Why all this conflict? What's this about deciding to fix what is wrong in the Inciting Event. For example, in old sci fi story, a farmer witnesses an alien craft land as part of a looming invasion. "The protagonist is uncertain whether or not to take advantage of this opportunity..." Opportunity? For what? There is a vocabulary gap or concept gap. For example, the farmer could simply call the cops and take his family away. Or, he could get his old trusty shotgun and take on the single alien that exits the craft. Is that "taking advantage of an opportunity"? I'm 60 wishing I was 20 again so I could go back to school and get an MFA to figure out all the mechanics of what makes for good story. Ah well, I'll figure it out, I'm retired and have nothing but time to research it. Just need a good place to ask questions and get informed responses. Thank you for listening!

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    1. Thanks! It's like learning a whole new language. There are a lot of words used that I agree are very confusing, such as your "opportunity" example.

      What folks mean, is the alien situation presents an opportunity for the protagonist to grow, change, or act in a way to solve his problem. The alien isn't the opportunity, but the catalyst that offers a change to act or change.

      You've given me an idea for a post on this, so thanks! We do need a writing primer :)

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