Put Your Ideas to the Test

It’s one of the topics you see most often on writers’ blogs and online forums: where do story ideas come from? Generating ideas that have the right stuff is one of the most vital aspects of fiction writing. I would submit, however, that this is the wrong question to ask. The bigger question is: does your story idea pass the test? Does your idea have enough substance and depth to generate a successful novel?

How do you find out? Put your idea to the test. When you come up with an idea, ask yourself:

  • How specific and original is the idea? “Boy meets girl” isn’t very original or specific. How about this: blind boy with a gift for music meets mute girl with a love for music. Their parents are very controlling and do not want to see them get into a relationship. In the right hands, there’s a good story there.
  • Does your idea lend itself to the development of an interesting cast of characters that grow organically out of the plot? Man trapped on a deserted island is a riveting (if over-used) idea, but you can’t create a cast of characters (at least human ones) if most of the action takes place on the island. Unless of course you have Tom Hanks to play the main character in the movie.
  • Does your idea pass the “who cares” test? Write down your idea and the outline for a few opening scenes and then ask, Can I get someone else to care about this story? How?
  • Can you take your idea and identify at least a dozen key scenes or turning points? Does the idea have the potential for rising action?
  • Is there enough (or any) inherent conflict and tension to sustain the story? Do you have characters with competing goals?
  • Does your idea lend itself to an interesting setting, or multiple settings?
  • Does your idea touch on larger themes?

Sometimes an idea can arise from something as seemingly minor as an emotional reaction to an event or a news story. My current work in progress was inspired by my disappointment over Christine O’Donnell’s victory over Mike Castle in the primary election for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware in 2010. The story has nothing to do with those events. It’s not a story that espouses a Democratic or Republican philosophy. It’s my take on the rise of celebrity candidates, our broken political environment and what it means for our country.

There is no shortage of ideas. Keeping a list of story ideas is a sound practice. Not all of the ideas you come up with will have the potential for a full-blown novel. That’s why it’s helpful to put your ideas to the test.

How do you know when your idea for a novel has potential?


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6 responses to “Put Your Ideas to the Test

  1. For me, the idea is only the catalyst that starts the process. Sometimes the idea is the theme, which generally will stay with me through the ever changing twists of the plot. However, if the idea is a situation, this starting point usually gets overshadowed by all the elements wrapped around it. And from the layers of structure needed to build that first spine of a plot, I come up with a stronger idea that will hold the story together.

    This is the fun part of writing: the discovery process when the characters seem to write themselves and pull the story into a direction you hadn’t thought about.


    • Irv,
      Thanks for your email. I am preparing a post on the lessons I learned from writing my first novel. One of the major lessons was the book you start out to write may not be the book you end up writing. As you point out your characters take on a life of their own and that can be really fun. You never know the strength of your idea until the get into your story and watch it go in unforeseen directons.


  2. I’m with Irving. The idea is a critical starting point, but I’m perfectly comfortable starting work on a story that I only have a beginning for. The rest of the story tends to inform me of its existence as I write. Characters I may have never considered pop up as the scenes play out. Motivations for action become more clear to me.

    It’s a great process. I would even go so far as to say that I enjoy the discovery of the story as I write every bit as much as I enjoy the finished product.

    • Jamie,
      Yes, the discovery part of the process is neat. I found when writing my first novel that the characters took on a life of their own and by tne end the dialogue was almost writing itself. The idea is just the starting point.


  3. I’m always relying on the direction of my ideas to guide me. For me, writing an idea down is different from thinking an idea up. My strongest ideas are storylines that I see in my mind that I am trying to get down on paper. When I’m anticipating what happens next (or thinking up) I invariably go down a wrong alley. I then have to go back to the original idea and the words that follow to show me the way through.

    • Nancy,
      Thanks for shaing your insights. I often do a lot of pre-writing in my head when I come up with an idea. If it has potential I start writing. What I found with my first novel was that the story I started out to write was not the story I ended up writing. That process of discovery is one of the most fun aspects of writing.


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