My husband and I play “what if?” a lot. One of us will toss out a question (usually him), and we’ll run with it. It started out as a silly thing to entertain us on long car trips, but it’s evolved into an endless stream of story ideas for me.
You’d think this would be a fabulous resource for a writer, but we often end up with too many ideas. I can’t possibly write them all and not every idea – no matter how cool it sounds at the time – would make a good book.
So how do I pick out the good ones?
Yeah, I know, not very helpful. But the truth is, every idea has the potential to become a great book. It’s more a matter of figuring out the story that goes behind that idea, and that can be the hard part. I’ve had many a premise that got me excited, only to discover later that I didn’t have a story, much less a plot, that would go with it. I think this is one of the reasons there are a lot of novels that stall after fifty or a hundred pages.
There are a multitude of ways to approach developing an idea, but here are a few that I've found particularly useful.
What's the Problem?
When I start brainstorming an idea, the first thing I look for is the core conflict, because without that, I can’t write the story. Something about the situation or premise has to be able to cause trouble, and hopefully to a lot of people. If it can’t, there won’t be a problem for the protagonist to solve. No matter how cool an idea sounds, if there’s no conflict, there’s no story yet. No idea is too crazy at this point, because it’s all about exploring the potential, and you never know where one idea might lead.
(Here's more on the core conflict)
Once I have that core conflict, I start thinking about the people I can put into it. Who would be affected, who would benefit, who would be hurt? What kinds of people would be needed for this situation? Sometimes I already have an inkling of who might be part of this (character and plot often develop simultaneously), so I’ll look for connections that person might have to the other people in the story. Conflict often comes from those connections, and they can help me develop the plot later.
Then I dive into the characters. Lots of writers do characters first, but situations have always come to me first. (If you work the other way around, feel free to start there first) Once I have a general idea of the world and the conflicts, I’m better prepared to see what people I can put into it and how their backstories and goals can grind those conflicts together. Sometimes the characters aren’t even named until the story is more fully developed. They’re just concepts, like the best friend, or the bad guy, or the possible ally who might be a villain. Ideas of the types of people I might throw together.
(Here's more on discovering your characters)
Who Wants What and Why?
Finally, I look at goals and stakes. If I don't know what my characters want and what they’re risking to get it, the story will just ramble through a lot of description with nothing actually happening. I might also look at my themes to see if any have started to develop that can help shape the plot choices the characters will make. I explore:
- Who wants what and why.
- Who is most likely to be involved on a personal level?
- Who would it be against it and why?
- Where can the huge failures occur? (Because that might just turn out to be what your protagonist is after)
- What situations would lend themselves well to the growth of a character?
(Here's more on two questions to ask for stronger goals and motives)
Brainstorming is a great way to dig deeper into an idea to see if it really does have the legs to carry an entire novel. The more layers we uncover in the early stages, the higher the chance that the story can work as we hope. Any idea that falls flat after a few minutes is one that would probably have us banging our heads against the keyboard by chapter three.
What are your favorite brainstorming or idea-building techniques?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Second Star to the Right.