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.
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
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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