Friday, December 12, 2014

Storming the Brain: Coming Up With Ideas

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

I can’t.

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)

Who's Involved?

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? 
I’ve learned that problems with lots of gray areas work great for putting characters into situations where there is no real right or wrong, and the choice is as tough as it can be. The potential for inner and outer conflict is high, and there's lots of plot to mine there.

(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?
For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Second Star to the Right.


  1. HAHAHAHAHA I do "What if" with my husband too. Thats where MOST of my ideas come from. He's my sounding board. LOL

  2. Love this idea. My husband's an engineer and he doesn't get into the whole writing thing, but maybe this is a way to involve him. LOVE this!



  3. It's so helpful for me to talk through my ideas with my husband too. He thinks in such different ways than I do so he always comes up with neat angles and additions I never would have come up with to spice my stories up.

  4. Annie: Creative husbands can be so handy!

    Martina: Oh, that would be great for you guys. I hope it works!

    Jessica: Mine too. We approach everything from totally different directions.

  5. Martina: My husband's an engineer too. He also doesn't quite "get it" when I bounce ideas around. I think some practice with the What If game would help him open is mind!

  6. I love your articles. You write the way I write, so they're always helpful. I write historical fiction, so one of my brain-storming exercises is just to figure what kinds of things could happen to my characters in their setting. Like, how many ways could I kill someone at Gray's Inn in the sixteenth century and make it look like an accident? What's happening on the public stage at this time?

    But figuring out everyone's agenda is definitely the best way to keep the plot motor humming. Especially those busy, busy bad guys...

    1. Thanks! Figuring out the bad guy's plan is always useful since so much of the plot depends on them.

  7. Great tips here. I brainstorm while reading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. He suggests lists, so I make lots of them!

    1. Me too! I love writing books. I always get lots of ideas when reading them, too. Maybe it's the different focus, or using a different part of the brain? Whatever it is, it works.

  8. I love how your posts interlace with one another. Many many thanks for your generosity!

    1. My pleasure. Glad you like the links. There's so much information on the site, and I wanted easy ways for people to find what they needed.