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?