There’s nothing quite like a shiny new idea. It’s filled with hope, promise, the potential to be the best thing we’ve ever written, and maybe be the book that makes our dreams come true.
Which is why it’s both exciting and terrifying.
Ideas can come to us as nuggets of inspiration or full-fledged books complete with character arcs and plots. Obviously, if we’re lucky enough to get a full-blow idea we just dive right in and start writing, but those nuggets take more work to turn into a novel.
A great place to start is by asking a few basic questions to pinpoint the critical elements of both the plot and the characters.
1. Who wants what and why?
This will help you find your protagonist and determine what his or her goals are, as well as the motivations for those goals. All novels need a plot, and understanding who is driving that plot will help you figure out what kinds of things need to happen in the novel.
Perhaps it’s a man who wants to save his wife from kidnappers before she’s killed, or a girl who wants to find the monster that murdered her father and avenge his death. Or it’s a woman who wants to find love and prove she’s not unlovable like her cruel mother always told her. Whoever your book is about will want something for some reason.
2. Who would be against this goal and why?
Heroes have villains, and this will help you determine who (or what) your antagonist is. The protagonist can’t just waltz up and get the goal, she has to earn it, and to do so, she needs to struggle against forces trying to keep her from it.
The antagonist might be someone deliberately trying to foil the protagonist, or it might be a society that makes what the protagonist wants impossible to achieve. It could even be the protagonist herself who’s getting in her own way, and she needs to learn how to overcome that flaw. It might not even be personal, but a force or nature in the way of what the protagonist wants.
3. Is there one major conflict or problem that needs solving?
It doesn’t matter if your book is a quiet character journey or a action-packed thriller, there will be a conflict and a problem that must be resolved in order for the book to end. Even if you have no idea what that ending will be when you start, try to determine the basic problem the protagonist is facing and where that first step might be to resolving it.
Also look at both your potential external conflicts (the conflicts that will help drive the plot) and the internal conflicts (the conflicts that will help create the character arc). The more these two conflicts tug the protagonist in opposite directions, the more unpredictable (and compelling) your story can be.
4. Who is the most likely person (or people) to be involved in this problem on a personal level?
You might know what the situation is and how it’s bad, but not know who’s caught up in the middle of it (possible if you’re a plot first, character second kind of writer). This can help you figure out who your protagonist and antagonist might be. Try looking at the types of people associated in this problem and see if any of them have more at stake that might make them good characters.
It can also help you find supporting characters to flesh out your cast. Try looking at the various people this problem might affect, from those directly involved with it, to those affected by the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) involvement. The unaware daughter of the shifty bad guy might just make the perfect love interest, or the person the protagonist needs to sway to her side during a critical plot point.
5. Where might the problem be made worse and how?
While you don’t always need to know how a plot will unfold (this is part of the fun for many writers) it can be helpful to look for places in your idea where things can go wrong or become very complicated for your protagonist. If you can’t think of any escalating problems, that’s a big red flag that the idea doesn’t have the legs yet to become a whole novel.
Aim for three situations where the stakes might be raised and the problems worsened. That could give you a beginning problem, a middle problem, and an end problem to work toward as you write the first draft or outline the entire story.
6. What situations would lend themselves well to the growth of a character?
Do the same thing for your character arc to determine how the protagonist might grow and what lessons you might want her to learn over the course of the novel. If she’s the same person at the end as the beginning, that’s a red flag that she might just be acting out plot, and doesn’t really have anything to gain (or risk) by going through this experience.
If you can connect the character arc with the escalating plot problems, even better, as that creates a plot and character arc that will braid together for a well-rounded story. If you can’t connect them at this stage don’t worry, that might be something you look for as you write the first draft. But try at least to see how the experience might change the protagonist to give you something to aim for.
You can flesh out these questions as much or as little as you’d like depending on the type of writer you are. Pantsers might do nothing more than think about them before starting a novel, while outliners might use them as the skeleton of the book and build scenes from there. Use them however they inspire you to make the most of that shiny new idea.
How do your ideas usually come to you? What do you do next?
Looking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. Find out more about writing at my site, Fiction University, or find me on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.