A story idea! They come flying in at the oddest times – in the middle of the night, driving, washing dishes, even in the middle of a volleyball game. Without warning, the perfect hero swaggers into your mind and says "Tell my story!" A kick-ass, world-saving heroine zooms in from the future. A new plague threatens earth. The ideas are as endless as your imagination.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time. How do you know if your story idea is worth the commitment of time and energy it takes to write a book?
A Story Idea Is Not A Plot
A plot is a series of events in a story that move the characters and the story forward through conflicts and setbacks to a conclusion. So, once your story idea strikes, you need to work on creating a structure that builds on your original idea.
Before you sit down to write your first chapter or two, make sure you build out your idea so it will sustain a full story. Writing a good novel can take weeks, months, and, for some writers, even years. Before you spend so much time sitting down to write your masterpiece, spend a few hours checking to see if your plot will actually come together.
Put Flesh on the Bones
If you can add depth to your story idea, you’ll know you have the potential to create a story. Try these exercises to get a sense of your characters and the flow of the story.
1. Write a page about your main character.
Eventually, you'll have a whole book about your character. For now, write your main character’s current situation, what challenges he or she faces, a couple of special talents, her main character traits, and the major problem they face in the story. Focus on your protagonist and the traits he or she has to deal with the main problem. You’ll spend time later creating more; for now, focus on the highlights of who this character is.
2. State the central idea.
Every story has a theme. Whether yours is that good always triumphs over evil or that love conquers all, you'll want to spend some time considering the overarching message of your work.
3. Write your opening sequence.
Write the first few moments of your story. Consider it as a test to see how the rest will flow Introduce your main character and the situation he or she ends up in. You’re testing the waters, and you can pat yourself on the back for starting the story.
4. Create the major story points.
Long-time story advisor Randy Ingermanson calls these major structure points “three disasters and an ending.” Knowing what you know about your main character and the end, create the three major disasters that thwart your protagonist from reaching their final goal. See if these challenges are compelling, or fall flat.
5. Sketch out your ending.
Know where your story is going. Does your protagonist succeed or fail? Is the conclusion emotionally satisfying? Knowing the ending is helpful for first-time authors. Every scene you write must move the story forward. Every conflict moves your main character toward the final resolution.
6. Write a one-sentence summary of the story.
Now encapsulate the story in one short sentence. This should have three parts: the protagonist’s role, the protagonist’s goal, and the opposition that keeps them from their goal.
If you can do these exercises easily, your story idea has a good chance of being worth the time and effort needed to write a novel.
The Writer Mindset
Doing these exercises is like taking a car out for a test drive. Is it a comfortable ride? Does the transmission shift effortlessly? Are you comfortable doing these beginning exercises, not spending too much time and letting the ideas flow?
Depending on your genre, your novel will be 60,000 to 90,000 words or longer. That’s a lot of words and many, many scenes. And after you complete your first draft, you won’t be done. You’ll need to edit and revise everything from plot holes to spelling consistencies to grammar.
You’ll need a plot that makes things happen, built on a series of [conflict]. Without conflict, there’s no story. You may create interesting characters, perhaps, or a detailed setting, or the world’s most evil antagonist but until these elements are set in conflict that moves the story forward there is no plot. Don‘t get me wrong, these are good elements; they’re just not a plot. You’ll be giving your main character problems—many, many problems—to create conflict.
When you are excited doing the exercises and they increase your enthusiasm, you story idea has a fair chance of continuing on to become a novel. And when you finish writing and begin the editing phase, ProWritingAid will help you tune up your prose style.