The Big Idea: How to Find the Right Idea to Turn into a Book

Where do you get your ideas from? is a question writers commonly receive, and is probably one of the hardest ones to answer. Part of that is because the Idea Generation process is different from writer to writer, and part of it is because many of us simply don’t know. We might as well say we get our ideas from IDËA, the Scandinavian idea superstore. Makes as much sense as anything else we might say.

However, speaking with other writers over the course of the past few months, I’ve noticed that many of us don’t lack for ideas; we just don’t know how to turn those ideas into novels. This is something I’ve struggled with on a current work-in-progress: I’ve had ideas about this book for years (eight years and eight completely rewritten drafts, to be precise), but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally figured out how to wrangle the Idea into an actual Novel.

When I look back at all the books I’ve written (finished, that is), I tried to pick apart why I managed to reach the end of this particular story when that one was an abject failure. Because I like programs and formulas and systems-building (even though I hate math), I managed to distill Idea Generation into three components.

Characters, Premise, Plot.

Sounds pretty simple, of course. All books have these three components, but identifying these components is sometimes harder than you think. (Or it was for me, anyway.) If your novel has two of these three components, then the odds of you being able to finish writing it are pretty high. However, if your novel has only one of them, then you’ll probably find yourself floundering somewhere in the dreaded “sagging middle”.

First, some definitions:

  1. Character: the people who populate the story. This is pretty self-explanatory, but I will get further into this in a bit.
  2. Premise: the “hook”, or setup of the novel. What we in the publishing industry might call “high-concept” or what my old boss used to call “the handle”—the “nugget” you can get a grip on.
  3. Plot: what happens, or the journey, both emotional and physical. I’ve briefly touched on the difference between Plot and Story before (although I may get into this a little more in-depth later), but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call this point Plot.

Before, we start writing a book, I think I should note that it’s important to daydream. Daydreaming is the time when scraps of ideas come to you: the what ifs of Premise, the quirks of Character, the excitement of Plot. They may not necessarily be connected to each other, but all these scraps may become important or useful later. (Let’s call these wisps Story Seeds.) I think writing down these Story Seeds in a notebook or your phone is helpful, in case you might need something later.

How to decide what to work on.

This is different for everyone. Some people write because there’s a hole in their personal marketplace. Meaning, I want to read a book about zombie-engineers and I don’t see it on the shelves, so I’m going to write it myself. (Writing to the actual market is not the best idea.) Some people write to prove something wrong. As in, I read this book that I should have liked because it had all the elements I like in a book, but it was executed in a way I hated, so I’m going to fix it. (There is nothing wrong with this being your raison d’être for writing, by the way!) Still others have a character or an image that keeps coming back to them, and they want to figure out what the story is. Whatever the reason is, make sure it’s the “strongest”, the one you keep returning to, like worrying a loose tooth.

Identify which component your Story Seed(s) is(are).

I tend to start with Character. I often have an image of a person, a visual snapshot in my head. For example, in my current WIP, I had the image of a young girl, sitting on a rooftop in London, waiting for her best friend to arrive. Who was her best friend? What was the girl feeling? Anxious? Excited? Impatient? Why?

For the book I recently sold, I was suddenly struck by the image of a young woman in dingy 18th century clothes. She was in a barrow underground somewhere, and she was a musician. A composer. What was she doing there? Who was she? What was her family like?

Sometimes my Character Story Seeds come bundled with Premises, at which point I usually start writing, but sometimes they just float in the æther of my imagination, untethered to anything else. The Story Seeds I frequently come up with are Premise and Character. What if there was a system of magic where what was appropriate to practice was divided by class and gender? Why are there no California gothic stories? My Premise Story Seeds tend to drift and attach themselves to Characters without me having to think about it, but sometimes I have to go and pair up Story Seeds consciously.

I don’t talk much about Plot because I suck at it. This is generally because I’m a pantser, but when it comes down to it, I actively steal Plots from other things. Fairy tale retellings, movies I’ve seen, TV shows I’ve watched, etc. I don’t copy the Plots down to the letter, but stealing helps me find structure.

Identify which component(s) is(are) missing.

In the case of my current WIP, I was missing both Premise and Plot. For years, I lived with these characters; I knew their backstories, their histories, their futures, but what I did not know was The Point. Essentially, I didn’t know why other people should care about these characters. They didn’t have any purpose; they lived in an alternate past, but the alternate past was alternate because it needed to be to fit my characters, not because it served any other point.

I rewrote this book eight times. Between finishing other novels, I would keep coming back to this Story Seed. It wasn’t dead on the page, not like my retelling of The Magic Flute (that one just had a Plot, no Characters, and no real Premise either). I just needed to get the right elements together, the right chemicals, and get it started.

One night, I was watching Bear play a game of Magic the Gathering with his friends, which reminded me of one of my Premise Story Seeds. It was a system of magic I was noodling with, currently unattached to any Character Story Seeds or Plot Story Seeds. I had also been struggling with my WIP yet again just a few moments before and thought, Oh my god…what if my characters lived in this world with this magic system?

Boom. I had it now. Character and Premise. I started figuring out the Plot from there.

Of course, this system doesn’t work for everyone. But this is how I identified what wasn’t working in a current project. Why the “idea” wasn’t enough to fill a book. Hope this helps some of y’all!

What about you? What are your thoughts? How do you come up with your ideas for novels?


5 Responses to The Big Idea: How to Find the Right Idea to Turn into a Book

  1. Kim Graff Feb 2 2015 at 10:57 am #

    This is a great post! Thanks for writing it up 🙂
    I love how it helps to identify what the idea is in relations to the story, and how to really work on developing it more as well as figuring out what’s missing. It’s easy to get really excited about an idea, and just want to jump into it right away—but that usually leads to a huge mess for me. Next time I want to do that, I’ll pull up this post and re-read it to figure out a better game plan.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Feb 2 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    “Some people write because there’s a hole in their personal marketplace.” This is a great line, and my usual motivation. I know no author who writes like me. Writing to ‘fix’ somebody else’s story is what I’m doing right now, with my fanfiction epic, but in a publishable work I would try to tone it down. Do it, perhaps, but not as the purpose of the story.
    As for how the ideas gel, I often don’t know. I often have ideas, little things, that I try to develop and I can usually tell right away if they’ll make a book, or just part of a book. I often open up a document and write down a sentence or whatever comes to me, so I remember what I had. Many of these tribbles come with a strong ‘why’ element, and those are the ones I can make a complete story out of, short or long. The ones that just come with a ‘what’ or a ‘who’ might make a good scene in something else, but not a story on their own, or at least, not a very good story.
    Perhaps if I knew what the idea of the story was, I’d be able to query it better, i.e., at all. Most of my stories start with characters and a premise, and I develop the plot by following the characters. I tried once to do it with plot and premise, but the genre bailed on me and took the plot with it. Fortunately I had some strong characters before it did. My most recent story started with a first line (a Premise seed, I guess you’d call it) and a really strange Plot tribble that didn’t turn out at all the way I thought it would, when I combined it with the premise. My characters, as usual, did things their own way.

  3. Leeanna @ Feb 5 2015 at 8:59 pm #

    This is a very helpful post – thank you!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’ve noticed how different little ideas will start to click together. Sometimes it’ll take months, but I’ll suddenly have a connection between A and B. It’s pretty neat. Just another good reason why you should write down anything that pops into your head!

  4. Ella Apr 23 2015 at 4:50 am #

    Great job clearly describing such a vaporous process!

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