OK, great! You have an idea. It’s exciting… you’re excited… I’m excited for you!
But it’s still just a sprout. A baby idea. A little nugget of potential.
Is it strong enough to grow up and support a whole novel?
I don’t want you to waste months of your life on the wrong story. I do not want you to write 40,000 words before you realize that your story just doesn’t have what it takes.
These 5 questions will help you work out what the 'right' story is.
Let’s start with an easy one! Do you love your story idea?
I mean, it’s obvious why I’m asking this, right? If you are not in love with your story, then no one else is going to fall for it.
Are you so excited by it that you want to start writing right now? Do you love it enough to spend the next year (maybe less, but probably more) of your life thinking, talking, and dreaming about this idea?
Answer 1: Honestly? No…
Take a trip back to the Idea Generator and just try again
Answer 2: Ummm, Yuh!
Congratulations! You passed the first test…
Can you describe your idea in one sentence?
Why? Because, right now, you only need two main details: your MC (Main Character) and your set-up. So if you can’t do this now then your idea isn’t clear enough. And if you start building a novel on shaky foundations… well, you don’t need to be a builder to understand why that will cause you problems later.
Think about your MC. You don’t need details, just a vague idea of who they are. As for set-up, this is the thing that turns your MC’s world upside down, or shifts them off the path they were on, or forces them into a change. It’s why the reader cares about their story in the first place.
Hint: start with ‘What if…’
What if… an awkward teenage girl falls in love with a vampire who lusts after her blood?
What if… a six-year old comes face-to-face with racial injustice when her lawyer father agrees to defend a black man in a Southern American town?
What if… a bored, young girl falls down a rabbit hole into a whimsical fantasy land?
Can you write a similar ‘What if’ question for your story idea? Give it a try.
Can you turn your IDEA into a PREMISE?
Ok, so you’ve got a killer sentence that outlines your idea in terms of main character and general set-up, but an idea isn’t a story. We need more than this one sentence before we start: we need a premise.
The difference between an idea and a premise is that a premise has a sense of direction; it makes it clear that you know where you are starting, where you are going, and – most importantly – why you are going there.
This is where goals and motivation come into play. Do you know what your MC wants? How about why they want it? Also, what are the stakes? I mean, what are the consequences if they don’t achieve it?
I’ll use the Alice in Wonderland example again. If the idea is ‘a bored, young girl falls down a rabbit hole into a whimsical fantasy land’, then the premise might be…
A bored, young girl, falls down a rabbit hole into a whimsical fantasy land where she meets a host of (possibly mad) characters during her attempts to find her way home and escape before the Queen can chop her head off.
What does Alice want? To escape Wonderland. Why? Because she wants to go home. What will happen if she fails? Well… she might just lose her head. (Bonus points for including any other important characters!)
Can you say what your MC wants, why they want it, and what the stakes are?
Is your idea unique enough?
Of course you’re going to be inspired by other writers and other novels. Unless, of course, you were raised by illiterate wolves. But there’s inspiration and then there’s just plain copying. Don’t waste your time writing a book that has already been written.
There’s no point writing about an orphan who finds out they have magic powers when they’re invited to magic school, UNLESS… that magic school is on Mars. Or that orphan is actually an orangutan. Or that magic school teaches the dark arts…
Do you see what I mean? It’s ok to have similarities but you also need something important and unique that sets your story apart.
Here’s a good test. Describe your idea to a book-loving friend, using the premise you came up with in Question 3. What’s their response?
Oooh, that sounds cool!
Great! Proceed to Question 5…
Or… is it:
Umm... isn’t that the plot of [insert title here]?
Ah. Ok. Not so great. But don’t worry! Either you tweak your idea to make the differences clearer or you come up with another idea. It’s honestly no big deal; experienced writers do this kind of testing all the time, and a lot of their ideas end up in the recycle bin.
Can you turn your PREMISE into a PLOT?
Now that you have a strong premise, you can start laying out your plot. Don’t worry about getting too detailed right now though. It’s essentially just a list of the key events in your novel, in the order they happen in.
The wizards over at Pixar often use this simple template for working out a basic plot.
How much of it you could fill in?
Once upon a time, there was __________ . Every day, __________ . One day, __________ . Because of that, __________ . Because of that, __________ . Until finally, __________ .
Start by introducing your MC and establishing what’s normal for them. Then insert the set-up (remember that life changing event that turns everything upside down?) After that, it’s conflict all the way! Every time something is going well for your MC… chuck more conflict at them! It can be anything that gets in the way of what they want. Put in as many ‘Because of thats’ as you need. Until finally… you arrive at the defining moment that everything else has been leading to.
It’s ok if you don’t know the exact ending yet. It’s enough to say something like ‘Until finally… the Pevensie siblings lead the Narnians in a great battle to defeat the White Witch’.
Why is it important to write your plot now? To check whether there’s enough potential conflict to chuck at your MC. If you can fill out the above template, you’ll know for sure that your story idea is strong enough to support a whole novel!
So, what’s next?
Now you know you have a viable idea, it’s time to give it structure.