Friday, July 31

An Easy Tip for Developing Story Ideas

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I got a great question in the comments recently:
I would love to write a duology or trilogy but I can't start writing unless I have an idea of what I want the story to be. And I have no clue! I have a character and I have the universe and rules set but I'm just not sure what kind of story I want to tell. I have a very vague idea but nothing concrete and I can't start writing unless I have The Idea down. It's so frustrating. Any advice?
As I happen to be in "story idea" mode right now, this came at the perfect time. I've spent the last several weeks taking nuggets of ideas and turning them into blurbs and rough outlines I can write a novel from. Some of these nuggets were no more than a general idea, a character, or a cool "what if" premise, so I rolled up my sleeves and went into brainstorming mode.

It's all about concept and theme at this stage, because I'm nowhere near a plot. Until I can narrow the focus to something manageable, it's just too large to work with. The first step, is to figure out what general type of story fit the rough ideas I have.

I love using Blake Synder's Save the Cat and Ronald B. Tobias's 20 Master Plots for this. (Save the Cat is for screenwriting, but there's a ton of great advice that also applies to novels). These two books discuss traditional story categories, such as Snyder's "The Golden Fleece" or "Dude With a Problem." 20 Master Plots breaks it down even further with a "Revenge" plot or a "Rivalry" plot. It's easy to read through the various categories and consider how an idea works with that plot or category. 20 Mater Plots is particularly useful for looking at possible themes, because the classic plot structures discussed are very thematic in nature.

(For another angle, here's more on plotting your novel conceptually)

Here's a quick breakdown from Save the Cat:
  • Monster in the House: This plot deals with something trying to eat or kill you. Jaws is a great example here, or Panic Room.
  • Out of the Bottle: This plot deals with wishes and curses. Such as, The Mask or Groundhog Day.
  • Whydunit: This plot deals with the why of unraveling a mystery. Memento or Chinatown fit this format.
  • Golden Fleece: The typical quest plot. Road trip stories fall into this as well as classic fantasies. Like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, or Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
  • Rites of Passage: This plot is all about life transitions. Think Ordinary People or Stand By Me.
  • Institutionalized: A group of people stuck together. The Breakfast Club and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fit this type.
  • Buddy Love: Relationships and partnerships. Lethal Weapon is a classic, but it also applies to most love stories.
  • Superhero: Someone with an extraordinary ability in the normal world. This is more than just comic books, as A Beautiful Mind is an example. But it can also be Spiderman for the literal take.
  • Dude with a Problem: Average Joe, major problem. Die Hard is a classic example here. But it can also be quieter, like Schindler's List.
  • The Fool Triumphant: The overlooked underdog who triumphs. Forrest Gump or Life is Beautiful fit this style.
And here are the 20 master plot ideas from Tobias (these are more self explanatory, and much more thematic):
Quest, adventure, pursuit, rescue, escape, revenge, the riddle, rivalry, underdog, temptation, metamorphosis, transformation, maturation, love, forbidden love, sacrifice, discovery, wretched excess, ascension, and dissension.
Take your rough idea and look at each of these categories and themes. Some formats are clearly not the way to go for a particular story idea. Maybe revenge serves no purpose, or there's no monster in the house. But other formats click. Buddy Love might be the perfect format if you know you want to write about a relationship. You can further develop that by seeing which of the 20 master plots (themes) fits that relationship story and clarifies the theme. A Buddy Love about sacrifice? Maybe forbidden Buddy Love?

Just that small bit of structure starts the creative wheels turning because there's direction. You have a theme and a concept, and that makes it a whole lot easier to start thinking about plots and characters and how the story will unfold.

(More brainstorming ideas here)

The books break down each of the categories and plots in more detail, and it's well worth buying them for that. Seeing various aspects of a plot with examples sparks more ideas. What I like about them is that I can quickly see what I don't want to do, which makes it easier to find what I do what to do.

You could use these plots as templates, but that's not where the value lies. It's not about fitting your idea into a neat box, but using classic themes and categories to find what's relatable and universal in your own story. Everyone can understand a tale about revenge, or the fear of getting eaten by monsters. What you do with it past that is what makes your story unique.

Once I know what type of story I want and what general theme or plot, I write a query hook. It sounds crazy to write a query before you even have a book, but I've found the two paragraph (roughly) hook is the perfect format to force me to pinpoint my protagonist, core conflict, goals and motivations, and stakes. It won't be anything I'd ever show an agent, but it's enough to get me started on a book.

(More on using a query hook to flesh out your novel idea)

Often, when I'm not sure how to turn a rough idea into a novel, it's because it's too big to contemplate. There are too many options. A little direction gives me something to focus on, and then I can start making progress. Like finding a path through the woods. I might still be lost, but at least I have something to follow until I find my way.

What's your favorite trick for coming up with story ideas? 

Writing exercise time! (contest aspect is closed)

Since ideas are things folks don't particularly like to share on the internet, this week's exercise can be a Play Along at Home one.

Take a "no clue what to do with this" idea and use these categories and themes to develop it into a rough query hook.

If you want to do something public just for fun...

In 250 words or less, come up with an idea using one of these three prompts:

1. A society that made a huge discovery and the ramifications of that discovery

2. A cat who can sense the dead

3. A girl named Lou who isn't what she appears to be

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. Are you a mind-reader or what? I've been stuck with a general idea about a cat (a kitten, actually) who can sense the dead, which is from a distorted childhood memory. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it, and now suddenly I'm scrambling to catch the ideas as they fall on my head. Oh, I better get off the internet and write all those ideas down before they vanish!

    *Rushing to sacrifice an imaginary kitten to random number generator gods*

  2. Great suggestions. I have a general idea for book one in a trilogy but not much of an idea of where it goes in book 2 and 3. I'll use some of these suggestions to try to flesh it out.

    And I think it's a great idea to have your story formed enough to write a query before you start writing. That's a great tip.

  3. Here I'll break the ice for everyone. Not a W-I-P, just something that popped into my head. Hah! Always a dangerous place :)

    Thankfully, everyone ignores Louiza “Lou” Rolland – exactly how she prefers it. When her classmates do acknowledge her existence, it’s usually “Here sooey-Louie” or some other fatso joke. She finds comfort in their heckling. It makes her feel safe and, more importantly, forgettable.

    She learned years before that the perfect way to hide in plain sight was to appear as a chubby, awkward teenage girl. Sure, she could transform herself into a jaw-dropping, homecoming beauty, but that’s the problem – by mere thought, she can manipulate her appearance to impersonate anyone. If the world discovers her ability, every government agency and crime cartel would hunt her down, just like her mother and generations of ‘cloners’ before her.

    Then, a hit-and-run accident leaves Lou badly injured along the side of the road, and Jonathan Hunter, the captain of the high school football team, finds her shifting uncontrollably between multiple facades. Since no one can find her father, Jonathan and his family nurse her back to health and shower her with an unconditional love that she hasn’t experienced since her mother’s death.

    Yet, the one bad night descends into a living nightmare as Lou learns that someone would rather kill her than exploit her, her father sits at the top of the suspect list, and the police detective knows more about her mother than she does. Oh, and to make matters worse, Jonathan just asked her to the prom.

    1. Just seeing this post and then read the comments. Man, I would really love to read this! Exactly my kind of story!

  4. Swati, I have gremlins who seek out writers who are stuck :) Funny though! Glad this help open the creative floodgates. Good luck!

    Natalie, I love the pre-book query. Something about that short, goal/conflict-focused format makes it easier to get to the heart of the story.

  5. A society that made a huge discovery and the ramifications of that discovery

    We held our collective breath; millions watch as the camera entered the hole we had drilled through the stone. Fifteen days and blunted diamond bits, I shivered.

    The voice whispered in my ear, and simultaneously reverberated around the world in seconds; every eye and ear was waiting. “Lights are through.” The technician informed me.

    I switched the red toggle and light exploded in the chamber blinding us, as we watched the monitors.

    Dust and small stones floated past the camera lens.

    I toggled my control set and set the camera lens on wide, the LED lights followed, a cowl blazing around the articulated black snake of the camera.

    The first images pixelated and blurry had my hands playing the board.

    A whistle of appreciation reverberated in the head set, and for the first time the long awaited chamber under the Sphinx was seen by human eyes.

    Thousands of reporters started speaking at once relaying the energy and tension to the world watching with bated breath.

    “The twin columns of all human knowledge,” The voice of our head archaeologist spluttered in disbelief. “The sonogram had shown two blocks,” he said commented, not hiding his excitement.

    I panned the camera and lights and zoomed in for a close up. The one gold Colum had thousands of lines of writing and pictures, and next to it stood the identical Colum in stone with the same intricate carving.

    The first images began broadcasting and a stunned silence followed.

    I could only assume the images I was showing the world were energy devices, flying vehicles and machinery for manipulating stone.

    A brave lone reporter’s voice started, “The lost human knowledge!” he said rather shakily and then his voice grew stronger. ”This unprecedented find, vindicates the thousands who predicted this over the years. His voice drowned in the cacophony that followed.

    Instructions poured through my headphones and telephones began ringing everywhere.

    My board went suddenly black, I looked up in shock the screens in the room had a message, ‘We apologise for the technical difficulties, transmission will resume shortly.’

    I had not noticed the men in black battle armour who now, firmly and silently began evacuating us from the ops room.

  6. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    As a pantser, I still struggle to plot or plan anything before I begin! I was intrigued by the question you were posed, I love that people aiming for the same outcome can approach it from such different positions.

    The story category information is fascinating, and will definitely help once I actually make myself sit down and plan.

    I was interested that you said you were currently in brainstorming mode. Would you kind giving me a brief breakdown of the steps you go through in writing a book? The more I speak to other authors, the more interested in get in the different ways that people do things.

    thanks again

    oh, here's my query. It might explain why I'm a pantser :)

    A cat who can sense the dead.

    Spots is pretty typical for a cat. She spends much of her life sleeping, and the rest of it eating, or chasing the reflection of her owner’s watch along the dining room wall.
    Her owner works as an undertaker, her days spent making the dead ready to be stared at by mourning relatives. Said owner, Shelley, is lonely, longing for a relationship, but battling daily with the turn-off of the nose-twitching stench of formaldehyde, and a conversational style that revolves around the subtleties of staving off rot around the eyes.
    Shelley returns home one night, and is attacked by Spots, who retreats into the bedroom cupboard, and proceeds to tear up her shoes. Through the careful application of catnip and love, Shelley persuades her to come out, only to find her hissing at a spot on the air.
    The spot, of course, turns out to be a ghost, the spirit of the rather handsome Mr Edwards, recently killed in a car crash, and so begins a somewhat unorthodox and not entirely satisfactory romance.
    As the relationship progresses, and her craving to be with him increases, she must make the terrible decision. Does she stay with Spots, and find love amongst the living, or can she end her life, and live forever with the man/ghost she loves?
    Can the love of a good, if slightly creepy cat, ever be enough, or will the lure of never having to change the litter again win out?

  7. I liked this enough that i may have to write this story sometime. :)

    Lou didn’t want to be the God of Mice. She only answered that stupid ad because she wasn’t making enough babysitting to pay her half of summer camp this year. Now she is stuck as temporary relief for the regular mouse god, and she will have to hide a constant stream of furry supplicants from her mom, her friends, her teachers, and especially from super-cute Dan down the street. Because, oh yeah, if anyone finds out what she is doing, she will be turned into a mouse herself. Forever. Lou’s plan? Keep a low profile and wait out the clock – foiling cat bullies and answering mousey prayers only as required.

    But when her friend Ellie invites Lou to help prep her family cabin for summer one long weekend, Lou can’t say no. Everyone knows she is an outdoors nut, and Ellie is hopeless in the woods. Plus, Dan is part of the group, too. Maybe she could offer him some canoeing lessons...

    Except the other Animal Gods are waiting for her at the cabin. They aren’t happy having a human in their ranks – even as a temp. They insist Lou help solve their human-related issues, or suffer the consequences. How is Lou going to juggle cabin repair, endless rodents, romance, and a pack of pissed-off gods? More importantly, can she keep Dan from stumbling over the Divine Skunk in the outhouse?

    Next time Lou applies for a job, she is going to read all of the fine print first.

  8. Michael, sure. My ideas are usually scattered. Sometimes they're just a setting, a premise, or a character, sometimes just a title.

    My first step is research and world building. The amount varies, but I want to get a sense of the kind of world I want to write about and the potential problems and conflicts. I like to create a world I can put the idea into, and the world always triggers additional ideas for conflict.

    Then I take the idea and figure out the problem that book will try to solve. (My core conflict) What it is that my protagonist is going to do.

    Next I figure out why, so I know my stakes and some general idea of the character arc (I can't figure out the arc fully yet until I pick a protagonist, but often I know the theme I want to explore).

    Things are usually pretty general at this stage since I'm working out the pieces.

    Then I pick my protagonist. I usually have an idea of who this is before I start, but if the idea was sparked by setting I might not know yet. If the idea was sparked by a character, then I'll do more character work before plot and stakes. But this is where I figure out the character arc and how that will conflict with the plot arc.

    Stories don't always develop exactly the same way, and the pieces are very interwoven as I work. Like I'm moving each element forward a step or two at a time as I figure pieces out. I need to know X about the world before I can pick my hero, then I need to know Y about the hero before I can choose my stakes.

    Once I have the basics down (protagonist, core conflict, stakes, setting, antagonist), I do a quick key points outline. Opening goal, inciting event, act one turning point, midpoint moment, act two turning point (dark night of the soul, which is character arc related), and climax. They're vague at this point, but it allows me to get a feel for the scope of the story.

    Then I write a query blurb. Having to put words to paper forces me to come up with the specifics. That gets me a fairly solid core conflict, stakes, and first act to work with. (since queries typically only cover the setup for the book with a nod at how it ends)

    Next, I flesh out my outline, using a combination of Blake Synder's beat sheet from Save the Cat and Michael Hauge's character arc structure. That's when all the real plotting work comes in. I have to figure out how to get from the opening goal to the end. Still broad strokes mostly, but whatever specifics I figure out, I add.

    Then I write a synopsis, which usually starts off detailed and gets more vague as I near the end. I've been trying to figure out my ending better before I start these days. I've had too many books get problematic in the end by not being clear enough before I started.

    Finally, I do a chapter by chapter breakdown, writing about a paragraph each. Some are detailed, other loose, some I have nothing written at all if I'm not sure exactly what will happen there (but know I need four chapters between X event and Y event for my structure). I flesh out and revise the outline as I write. It's my way of brainstorming on paper and updating the story as I go. I need to see the story unfold to fill in the blanks.

    After all this is done, I start writing. I like to do a quick draft of three or four chapters, then revise a little to focus the story, since writing it clarifies whatever questions I had a bout a story.

    I outline, but I pants as well. I know where I'm going in the story (those key structural points) but not how the characters are going to get there. I like to figure that out while I write so it stays spontaneous and grows organically by the character's actions. For example, I might know they need to break into a house to steal something, but not how they'll do it. That'll happen as I write the scene.

    And that's about it until the revisions start :)

    Amy, cool! It's always fun when a book idea comes out of nowhere.

  9. Hi Janice
    Thanks so much for that, it's very kind of you.
    I'm astounded at the amount of time you put in before beginning to write. I'm not sure I could through all that before I actually started writing!
    However, I am determined to have a go at planning, and this gives me a great template to start from, so thanks again. :)

  10. Great suggestions! I have an entry based off of "A girl named Lou who isn't what she appears to be." It's not much (probably because I'm more of a pantser than a planner. I like to discover my story and worlds as I go). Here it goes!

    Lou Starr isn’t who she appears to be. She is a thirteen-year-old genius and lives on an island. All she has is a father, a brother, and a lighthouse. Lou lives a double life. As soon as the sun sets, she changes. And nobody knows who she’ll become. With a new identity comes a new set of memories, and Lou struggles to remember who, out of the hundreds of others, is really her.

    One night, when Lou – the rebel punk– is writing her new memories in a notebook, a ship sinks. The lighthouse lights flash and illuminate the vessel inside the churning sea. The only survivor is a fourteen-year-old girl, a rebel punk. Who changes personalities after dark.

    Together, the two girls use Lou’s notebook to scratch the dust off a mystery older than they are. And more important than they would dare to imagine.

  11. I have the opposite problem. I already wrote the firs book in my trilogy but then realized that I should open it differently, so now I'm making book 1 book 2 and writing a new book 1, but it's hard keeping everything the way it needs to end up.

  12. Michael, it sounds like more time than it really takes. Sometimes I can go through that process in a day or two, and the outline and world will develop as I write the first draft. Some books take more work and I might spend a month or two developing the story before I write it. It varies a lot by book. But you can easily add some structure to guide you without spending a lot of time on it.

    SA, that can be rough, especially if small changes at the start end up making major changes later. It's nice that you're able to work on the whole trilogy though. :) You aren't stuck with what came first.

  13. Fun distraction. Here it goes:

    Being a cat with eleven toes, half a tail, and a prickly temper does not make for many garbage can dining invites, especially when you’ve got most the pet cemetery trailing after you, wailing about century-old waterbowls. But Pinky Kipper has her eyes on something bigger anyway: Rip Van Rugger, a sleek half tiger living in an NBA player’s mansion. The top of the kitty heap. And also someone who wouldn’t give Pinky the time of day, except for one thing: he’s haunted by Kuba’s Khan’s ghost. And Kuba is not as petty or insubstantial as Pinky’s ghosts. Pinky is about to make Rip an offer he can’t refuse… Pinky just hopes she’ll survive it.

  14. A cat who can sense the dead

    Margot Turner has become every woman’s worst nightmare: a crazy cat lady. Her newest tabby, Grimm, brings her total to eleven. Despite her husband’s protests, Margot can’t stop taking in new cats. Her husband can’t see these cats as her sad excuse of compensating for her infertility.

    On her way to see a new fertility doctor, Grimm sneaks out of the house to discover a dead body. The mutilated corpse becomes one of many bodies Grimm discovers. Margot’s multiple calls to the police station to report dead bodies leads to an investigation on her. The police don’t see a long jump between crazy cat lady and plain crazy. Apparently claiming to be home alone with eleven cats while watching Gilmore Girls on DVD is not a valid alibi.

    Margot must enlist in the help of her baby sister who is a police detective in Miami, her husband’s electronics store, her mother’s baking skills, a neighbor girl’s sticky fingers, and Grimm to clear her name.

    Through her discoveries, Margot will come to understand the real meaning of family and what it means to be a mother.

  15. I plan to write a book about a cat with 9 kittens, and they will be sold and separated from each other. The cats can talk and the mother, Snowball, is on a quest to keep the kittens.