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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.
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