Wednesday, January 20, 2021

5 Steps to Your Next Novel Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Want to write a novel, but you just don’t know what to write about? This easy process can help.

Finding fresh novel ideas is a daunting process, even when you know exactly the kind of story you want to tell. But sometimes you don’t know what you want to write, or you have a vague idea of a concept but aren’t sure how to take it beyond that.

Maybe you know the types of novels your like to read, and the movies and TV shows you enjoy watching, and you know you want something along those lines, but still can’t find the right idea to develop. It’s just too overwhelming.

Sometimes, you just need a little help guiding your muse to the right idea for your novel.

Not knowing what you want to write about is frustrating, and it could cause you to jump into writing a novel with an idea that’s not yet ready. Diving in too soon often results in hitting a wall a few chapters in, which leads to even more frustration and a fear that you can’t be a writer after all.

If you’re stuck on what to write or where to go with your idea, try this exercise:

Step One: Pick three genres or novel types that most interest you.

Think about your favorite books or movies. The types of stories that stay with you long after you put down the book or turn off the TV. The genres that excite you are good places to start for your own novel.

The stories you enjoy can help you narrow down the genre, and knowing the genre helps you better understand what types of tropes, plots, and characters will go into your idea.

For example, if you list three mystery/thrillers, then you’ll likely enjoy writing something with a mystery, or a detective, or a person trying to solve a puzzle, escape a terrible situation, or stop a disaster from happening.

(Here’s more on Using Story Archetypes to Find Your Plot)

Step Two: Pick three types of plots you most enjoy.

If you read a lot of the same types of plots, there’s a good chance this plot will come easy to you. You’re familiar with the tropes and clich├ęs of that concept and will be able to bring fresh ideas to it.

Look at your bookshelf—is it filled with murder mysteries? People overcoming their demons? Grand adventures into the unknown? Personal struggles of hope and redemption?

What you enjoy reading can help guide you toward the type of plot you might develop, and where your novel’s core conflict might lie.

For example, if you chose three plots with twists and turns and lots of surprises, you’ll likely have fun with a twisty plot or one with a lot of discoveries and revelations for readers.

(Here’s more on An Easy Tip for Developing Story Ideas)

Step Three: Pick three types of characters you’re most drawn to.

Think about your favorite characters. Maybe they’re heroes who always do the right thing, or troubled souls in search of redemption. This type of character could make a great protagonist for your story. Perhaps pick your favorite trait from multiple characters.

The characters you love can help you determine who your protagonist is going to be, which in turn can guide you toward how your plot and genre choices would best suit that character.

For example, if you chose twisty mysteries with a protagonist who always does the right thing, you might be looking at a clever mystery or thriller with a hero who might be challenged to do the right thing in a tough situation. Or if you chose a romance with redemption plots and characters who get in their own way, you might have a love story with flawed people who redeem themselves and find love.

(Here’s more on The Practical Guide to Using Character Archetypes in Your Novel) 

Step Four: Pick three settings you’d most like to write about.

Do you find yourself flipping through travel magazines dreaming about Hawaii? Or passing a rundown farmhouse on the way to work that starts the creative wheels turning? Places you can’t get out of your head could be the perfect location to set your novel. Write them down.

Locations you’re drawn to can help you decide where your novel will be set, and knowing the setting helps you determine they types of inherent conflicts or problems your protagonist might face.

For example, a story set in high school faces different daily challenges than one set in war-torn Afghanistan, or the mountains of Peru.

(Here’s more on 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Setting)

Step Five: Pick three themes that appear most often in the stories you enjoy.

Themes are often the glue that holds an idea together. If you chose themes of forbidden love, that’s a good hint that writing a forbidden romance could be for you. Or maybe you’re drawn to overcoming overwhelming odds, or being the underdog. Or love finds a way. Or you can’t fight city hall. Maybe all your choices simply deal with “self-discovery.”

This step is a critical one, because the theme often sets the tone for the entire novel. Themes are about bigger, universal issues.

For example, if the theme is redemption, you know your story will revolve around someone searching for redemption. If it’s self-discovery, then the characters will be acting in ways to discovery who they really are. Exploring the theme will guide the plot.

(Here’s more on What Every Writer Should Know About Theme)

Now, hone your ideas into something you can develop into a novel:

Look at your lists of favorites and pick:
  • One genre or novel type that most interests you (for example, fantasy)
  • One type of plot you most enjoy (for example, heist)
  • One type of character you’re most drawn to (for example, the dark hero)
  • One setting you’d most like to write about (for example, the Arctic)
  • One theme that appears most often in the stories you enjoy (for example, personal sacrifice)

Finally, put it all together:
A fantasy heist plot, set in an arctic environment, with a dark hero who will have to make a personal sacrifice.
This gives you a framework from the ideas you enjoy, and enough freedom to create your own story with these details.

Now you have this basic idea formed, look at each piece closer and start fleshing it out.

Take the dark hero and turn him or her into the perfect protagonist, and figure out what sacrifice they’ll have to make, and how that fits into the plot.

Explore the possible problems a heist set in the Arctic might entail. Keep brainstorming until the novel takes shape and you’re ready to dive in and start writing.

(Here’s more on Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel)

Ideas can sometimes be overwhelming because they’re too big, but a little help can narrow them down.

We often want to keep adding things to an idea to make it bigger, when in fact, narrowing it down usually leads to better novels. Instead of pulling ideas from everywhere and trying to add everything into one book, choose a few strong concepts and dig deep into them.

Not only will this make the novel easier to write, it will let you fully explore those concepts and satisfy your readers.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Run through this exercise and see what story ideas you come up with. If the first doesn’t grab you, keep mixing and matching until something sparks your imagination. Feel free to keep something on your list if it resonates with you, and change only the steps you aren’t happy with yet.

Have you ever wanted to write, but didn’t know what to write about?

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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  1. We love this section of your book. I always struggle with theme, though. When I decided I wanted to try a collaborative novel, this was the method we used. It worked better than I could have imagined. Unfortunately the book was put on hold thanks to the pandemic. We're hoping to get back to it this spring. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! I suspect theme would work really well for a collaborative book. Hope you're able to get back to it soon.