Monday, June 26

Birth of a Book: The Idea Stage: Clarifying the Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Early Stages of a Novel Series

In this series, I’ll be analyzing the early stages of writing a novel. Part One is the Idea Stage, focusing on my own four-step process of developing an idea enough to turn that idea into an actual novel. First, we went through step one of the process, The Inspirational Spark. Last week, we discussed step two with Brainstorming the Idea. Today, let’s move on to step three, take what we brainstormed, and clarify the idea.

Step Three: Clarify the Idea

After brainstorming an idea, I have a much better sense of how the story might unfold and who will be driving that story. There’s a lot still to develop, but I have enough to give me a rough idea of the plot and book. I can see what I want to focus on, even if it’s still vague in spots.

For example, I’m usually good at creating beginnings, but my endings are always fuzzy in the early stages. At this point, I’ve written enough novels to know I need a much clearer ending before I start writing or I’ll wind up writing and revising extra drafts. For my current Middle Grade Fantasy, my ending is “catches and stops the XX from destroying her town” (sorry, no spoilers!). This is fine for now, but not nearly enough to actually write this ending. During the plotting stage, I’ll spend a few days doing nothing but figuring out the specifics of how she catches and stops XX.

The most useful way I’ve found to clarify an idea is to write the classic pitch line. If I can sum up the general idea in one or two sentences and it sounds like a solid story, then I know I’m ready to move on to testing the idea. If I can’t, then I’m not ready to move on. But at least I’ll have a better sense of what’s still missing.

For example, if I’m strong on premise but weak on conflict, my pitch will usually sound more like a description of an idea than a book summary. “An orphan girl has the ability to heal by shifting pain.” It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t give me enough to know what she does with this ability or where the actual problem lies.

These clarifying pitches can take any form you want, but mine usually fall into this format:

[Protagonist] + [the problem the protagonist faces] + [what the protagonist has to do to fix it] + [why it’s bad] + [what’s at stake if the protagonist fails]

The pieces can move around as needed, but this covers the basics and lets me know whether or not I have enough of the idea worked out. Let’s take the example from my novel The Shifter and plop it in.

[An orphan girl who can shift pain] + [discovers her sister has gone missing] + [she must find and save her] + [without revealing her ability to soldiers occupying her city, who will use her as a weapon against her own people if she’s caught] + [and get to her sister before she’s killed].

Clearly this is not a pitch line I’d ever show an agent or editor. This is for me and me alone to figure out the important elements of my story. Rough as this is, I can see how the story is coming together and the critical elements of that story. This will be enough to guide me to the next step (which is testing the idea).

Let’s break down these elements further:

[Protagonist] This is who the story is about and whatever important details you need to know that affect the story. It might be a name, a general description (such as my pain-shifting orphan), a group of people—whatever matters most about this character.

[the problem the protagonist faces] This is the conflict and problem the book will be about. It’s not the subplots, or internal character arc, but the one thing that has to be resolved or you have no book.

[what the protagonist has to do to fix it] This is the main goal for the protagonist, and might even be the climax of your story (though not always—it wasn’t in my example’s case). This is what will drive most of your plot.

[why it’s bad]
This shows the general sense of the conflicts, often the internal conflicts or character arcs. There’s always a catch with a good plot—fixing the problem is rarely straightforward, and this encompassing some of the twists, turns, or additional problems that will make solving the main problem harder.

[what’s at stake if the protagonist fails] This covers the consequences for not solving the problem. It’s fairly common for this to be the weakest element of the bunch, because it’s often easier to setup a great story than to develop good stakes to motivate the protagonist.

You can add elements to this clarifying pitch if you want to, so don’t feel you have to stop at a few sentences. If your story has a strong setting aspect, you might add a line that describes the setting and how it affects the story. You might add a second protagonist if the story follows two people. Feel free to mix it up as needed. The goal is to capture the core pieces of the story so you can better understand what you want to write.

What to Do if a Piece is Missing

It’s normal to have pieces missing from these clarifying pitches. We’re still figuring out the idea and finding what works and what doesn’t. So if this happens to you, simply step back, see what still needs brainstorming, and keep working. It’ll probably be easier to guide your brainstorming sessions since you’ll know exactly where you need more information.

After going through this exercise, I’ll end up with a solid one sentence or small paragraph that summarizes the important story-driving elements of my idea. I’ve clarified what it’s about, and where my plot will come from. The next step is testing this refined idea to see if I can actually write a whole book from it. We’ll discuss that next week.

Do you write pitches for your ideas? How do you clarify or hone your ideas?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel WorkbookRevising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel WorkbookRevising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).   
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  1. This is exactly the stage that I'm at right now!

  2. Great tips, Janice. I've picked up writing after 4 years and am writing but also planning it out more clearly right now. You're always so helpful.

    1. Thanks! So nice to hear you're writing again :)