Welcome to my How To Write A Novel series (the title of which is rather self-explanatory). I’m taking you through the key components and most common questions I get asked about novel writing – from the very first idea to how to know when you’re done – in a way that aims to provide real, practical, and not-so-generic advice, so you can write a novel you’re proud of, as painlessly as possible (but let’s be honest, you’re birthing something here – there’s going to be at least some pain involved).
1: HOW TO COME UP WITH AN IDEA
Why does the right idea matter?
Coming up with ideas – the story idea formula
How to choose between story ideas
What makes a good story idea
Surely I just need any interesting idea?
Writing a novel is a long-term endeavour. Once you’ve started, you’ve got to see that sucker through to the end, and (depending on your style and process) that can take a while. Some people have so many ideas they can’t work out which idea is the best one to choose, whereas others may find themselves drawing a complete blank. I usually find the idea stage as one of the most exciting parts, though also the most stressful, of the entire novel writing process – at this point it can literally be anything, though you’re going to be with this idea and these characters for a long time, so you need to choose wisely.
So how do you come up with the right idea for writing a novel? First of all, get that notion out of your head. There is no right idea – just better ideas than others. I strongly believe the right kind of writer can make any idea a good one – it’s just whether you would want to. Going off of an idea once you’ve already started can make a project incredibly painful and laborious to work on, which is why you want to pick the best one you can.
But let’s start at ground zero: coming up with ideas.
There’s no magic formula for a story idea, but if there were I’d calculate it something like this
It amazes me that, when most people learn I’m a writer, their first question is “Where do you get your ideas from?” To me, I can’t fathom living and not having ideas, but then I have to remember that not everyone’s life purpose is to tell stories.
The question, I think, comes about from people believing story ideas just come at you one day, satisfactorily formed with a beginning and an end with all kind of characters in between. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. There’s a chance that bolt of inspiration might happen, but most of the time I’d describe a single novel idea as a collection of many ideas, all multiplied together.
As a writer, you just need to keep an eye out for these individual ideas and collect them.
These are the kind of ideas that are everywhere. They’re interesting pieces of gossip you hear, a detail from a news story that piques your curiosity, a stray thought you have when doing something mundane, a spark of something inspired (not copied) by watching a TV show or reading a book. That’s all they need to be: snippets. A single thought or detail.
For example, you might be watching the news and hear about a kid who’s designed a new piece of computer software, and it gets you thinking about how cool and clever that kid must be – what are they like, what kind of life must they have?! Then maybe a few days later you’re looking up at the stars and you wonder what it must be like to be up there, all alone, or you hear about the latest space mission getting ready to launch and that gets you thinking about astronauts and what their adventure is going to be like. And then perhaps you’re running late for a really important meeting and you turn left onto a main road and find yourself trapped in stationary traffic and you think if only’d I’d known, I’d have gone a different way. And maybe that gets you thinking (while you’re sitting in your car with nothing to do) about time travel, or freewill, or alternate realities.
On their own, none of those ideas are fully formed novel ideas. When you started thinking about some whizz kid – perhaps you went as far as forming a picture in your mind, giving him a name and a life and started imagining an entire fictional character – maybe you thought he’d make a cool protagonist and wanted to write about him, but that’s where the inspiration ended. He’s a cool character, but what does he do? Where’s the story for him?
And thinking about space or astronauts is cool, but you need a compelling context and narrative (not gets lost in space) for that kind of genre to work. Other than that, it’s just a setting or another character.
Similarly, a storyline around an alternate reality is cool, but those scenarios don’t come alive without the right kind of character and theme.
As you can see, all these ideas on their own are great, and they’re useful, but they’re not a novel. However, something does start to take shape when you multiply them all together. Maybe getting stuck in that traffic jam finally filled in the missing piece of the equation, and suddenly your brain starts running all kind of calculations and formulating all kind of answers. Your whizz kid could have designed a new piece of technology for spaceships, and somehow he ends up being drafted onto one – maybe this is the future where space travel is a bit safer and it’s more believable that a precocious kid could go into space – but then maybe when he comes back it’s not the same version of Earth that he left. Or maybe there becomes two of him, from two different universes, or he finds he can jump through time at will. None of those are particularly original (time travel space stories have been done to death, after all), but I literally thought of those in the last three minutes while writing this blog post.
What my calculation hopefully proves (if my maths is correct – sorry, couldn’t resist) is that pretty much anyone can come up with an idea. You just need a unique character, and a what if scenario. Then keep asking why. Keep pulling out the flaws and finding answers, or throwing up different options to see if you can come up with something better. What would happen? Why? Then what? Why? And what if…? Why?
Now I have too many ideas – how do I know which one to pick?
I’m going to be annoying here and say this is a highly subjective (and therefore personal) question. The right story for you is the one that excites you the most. It’s the one that resonates the most.
What does that mean? It’s the idea you feel like you have to tell. You need, with an unexplainable passion, to let this story out and unleash it into the world or a piece of your soul will die. It thrills you and terrifies you and sends so many ideas bouncing through your brain you cannot wait to spend all your time with all those characters already.
It should be an idea you think you will love even when you hate it. Because trust me, after weeks and weeks, months and months, you will get frustrated. By something. And when you’ve finally tackled that first draft and let it sit and re-read it and realise you now have to edit all that into a second draft, and then a third draft, and then maybe even a fourth draft, only to have someone else then pull it all apart… you need love. You need passion. You need a deep-seated, intrinsic, tied-to-your-soul feeling about that story to keep pushing forward.
What I would warn about is the ‘honeymoon’ phase. This is the initial excitement you feel about an idea, where you’re certain this is right, you know this is the one, you’re ready to dive in and vow to commit to this until the bitter end because nothing has ever excited you more.
Just give it a few days. A week. Let your brain (and heart) mull it over. Just to be sure.
Because let me put it another way (and this realisation used to help me out a lot): writing a novel could take around a year (if you’re lucky). This means, for that entire year, you cannot write any other ideas you have.
Say you’re the kind of writer who has one idea a day (and that’s a serious low-ball). That means there will be 364 ideas you cannot do anything about, because you’re writing this one. And say you write a novel every year for the rest of your life (and that would be some good going). That means you’ll probably only have about forty to fifty projects you can work on. Ever. And that might seem like a lot, but if you have 365 ideas a year (minimum), then your entire life’s work doesn’t even cover 11% of one year’s worth of ideas. (And you didn’t think you’d ever need maths.)
So don’t think about whether this is the right idea – ask if it’s worth all the others you’ll have to turn down. And if the idea calls to your soul, the answer will be yes. You will need to write this idea.
My point is, if you’re going to commit to a story idea, then you have to be platonic about it. So you better make damn sure it really is the one for you.
There’s one other thing, which the calculation doesn’t account for…
A story (if it’s a good one) doesn’t just tell a story. It makes you feel it.
The idea is one component. It’s the railway track, if you will. It gives your character momentum and a route, but there needs to be an actual train they can get on for them to be able to go anywhere.
The train is everything in the story that’s not part of the story. (And yes, I’m purposefully speaking in riddles now – sorry.)
I’ll explain. As I said, a good story should make you feel something. And going from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z might fill you with a sense of accomplishment for the character, but, really, who cares?
To make a story one worth telling, it needs emotion. It needs stakes.
The events themselves should directly impact your unique characters (meaning the results of any outcome will affect them in significant and profound ways, and wouldn’t be the same if you were to replace any other random character into the same situation). But there should also be a story – an untold one – that’s taking place at the exact same time. This is the subliminal theme that makes us, as readers, feel and think. It’s the reader’s journey. And if you find you can craft a compelling reader’s journey through the characters’ emotional and personal journeys, which aligns with the events of the actual plot, then you’re onto a good idea. Just make sure it doesn’t bore you and isn’t all contrived: those three elements should all naturally be there – you should just need to unearth them.
- There’s no such thing as a right idea – just ones you’re sure you care enough about to stick with until the very end.
- Story ideas are often born from many little ideas joining together to make one big idea.
- Take note of little details of people, situations, and thoughts that interest you – you never know when one might slot together with others.
- When you think you have an idea, make sure it calls to your soul, as you’ll be stuck with it for a while and you don’t want to regret choosing it over other ideas when they (inevitably) come along later.
- Make sure your idea tells more than just a story – your reader should go on their own journey and feel or learn something as well.
This is part of my “How To Write A Novel” series – find more here.
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