How to Develop a Great Story Idea

How to Develop a Great Story Idea

30 Apr 2019 Fiction

If you jumped online to find writing prompts or story ideas, you’re in the right place.

But what I’m about to tell you may surprise you.

Novelists must think differently from other writers.

Our aim is to create a world our readers can get lost in. But it’s easy to become overwhelmed before we even start.

Do you struggle with ideas?

Or is your list so long you don’t know where to start?

Writing fiction is not about rules or techniques or someone else’s ideas on the internet.

It’s about a story well told.

Ideas are all around you, and you can learn to recognize them. Then you can write with confidence and love the process.

Need help writing your novel? Click here for my ultimate 12-step guide.

How to Wrangle Your Big Story Idea

Suzanne Collins says her idea for The Hunger Games came while channel surfing between reality TV and war coverage. Both featured young people, images blurred, and Katniss Everdeen came to life in her mind’s eye.

J.K. Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter travelling by train from Manchester to London King’s Cross in 1990.

William Faulkner says The Sound and the Fury began with the image of a young girl in muddy drawers up a tree, peering through a window at a family gathering. He had no idea who the girl was or what she was watching, but she intrigued him enough to cause him to create his novel.

I can’t promise story ideas that rival those classics, but you CAN unearth story ideas buried in your head. Here’s how:

1. Recognize the germ.

Most fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates and grows in your mind. That’s the germ of an idea that can become your story.

My first novel was about a judge who tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.

That’s all I had—along with its obvious ramifications. I knew guilt. I recalled being caught in a lie. I could imagine the ultimate dilemma—desperate to hide the truth while being responsible for stewarding it.  

That imagining became Margo, the novel that launched my fiction career.

Learn to recognize those germs as they emerge.

I know a novel idea has legs when it stays with me and grows. I find myself telling my wife or sons the idea and embellishing the story more each time. If it fades or loses steam, I lose interest in it and know readers will too.

But if it holds my interest, I nourish and develop it until it becomes a manuscript and eventually a book.

2. Write it down.

Free write without worrying about grammar, cliches, redundancy or anything but getting down the basics. (In fact, until you complete your first draft, take off your perfectionist cap and turn off your internal editor.)

And carry a writing pad, electronic or otherwise. Being old school, I like the famous Moleskine™ notebook. Ideas can come at any moment. Record ideas for:

3. Invent characters from people you know.

Fiction must be believable, even if set in a land far, far away centuries from now. That means characters must feel real so readers will buy your premise.  

Two failsafe ways to build credible characters:

  • Base them on people you know
  • Be fair with antagonists

Characters live inside you because of the people you’ve met.

Brainstorming interesting, quirky, inspiring, influential people and mix and match them. A character might be an amalgam of one person’s gender, another’s look, another’s personality, another’s voice

Don’t allow your villains to be one-dimensional, evil just because they’re the bad guy. Have credible skeptical characters. Give them motivations as strong as your hero’s. The best villains don’t see themselves as villains. They think they’re right.

4. Get writing.

The note-taking and research has to end at some point.  

You’ve got to start getting words onto the page.

Need help writing your novel? Click here for my ultimate 12-step guide.

Try the Greyhound Bus Challenge for Writing Ideas

Perhaps you’re struggling to come up with a viable idea.

Imagine a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. What’s on the corners? Corn? How high? Dusty fields? Snow? Mud?

A dot appears on the horizon and comes into focus as a Greyhound bus. Where’s it coming from? Where is it going?

It stops at the intersection. Is anyone waiting there?

Who gets off?

A man? A woman? A child?

How old?

Anxious? Excited? Scared? Relieved?

Carrying luggage?

Where are they coming from? Where are they going?

  • Are they dressed appropriately for the weather?
  • Are they running from someone?
  • Are they running to someone?

By now a character should begin forming for your novel. Decide on the worst trouble you can plunge them into and see where that takes you.

You Have What It Takes to Come Up With Great Story Ideas

Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story.

The story worlds you and I create and the characters we birth can live in the hearts of readers for years.

I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Need help writing your novel? Click here for my ultimate 12-step guide.