by Sandy Vaile
Too often I see authors enthusiastically start writing a novel, only to run out of steam part way through. In fact, only 30% of people who start writing a novel will actually finish it. It’s heartbreaking when a fantastic concept languishes in the bottom drawer forever.
You could be writing a shiny, exciting idea that doesn’t have the substance to support an entire book. A lot of this hinges on the main character (and it doesn’t matter if you prefer to plot or discover your way into a story).
A story’s rock-solid foundation comes from knowing who the main character is and what their journey through the story looks like, especially their motivations and “why” everything happens, which provides readers with a deeper understanding of the story as a whole.
This clarity is what turns your awesome idea into something tangible and purposeful.
Today, I want to explore the very inception of a story and how we can shape those initial ideas into a tale we are passionate to tell.
Any author who has ever attempted to write a novel knows it’s no easy feat to get to “the end.” It’s even harder to shape those words into a compelling read.
When we jump into writing with nothing more than a brilliant idea, it can result in:
The good news is, by following a few key steps, you can ensure your story has a solid foundation that will drive it through purposeful scenes, all the way to a satisfying conclusion.
The first kernel of an idea can come in many forms:
To turn the potential of any of those kernels of ideas into a brilliant story, there are a few key aspects that create a solid structure from which to build the whole story around.
Figuring out the core elements below at some stage, could make it a stronger manuscript, and hopefully prevent a big messy pile of I don’t know what the heck they should do next. 😊
A story that lacks these basic elements may be difficult to sustain and less likely to keep readers engaged.
My first book, “Inheriting Fear” started with this vague idea and story question:
When we are caught up in the exhilaration of creation and opportunity, it buzzes about our imagination like the butterfly-inducing thrill of a first kiss. While jumping straight into writing the story is exciting, it can lead to a burst of activity followed by collapsing into a pile of Where do I go next?
Giving some thought to the main character’s journey and what is driving them, is a great way to transform a vague idea and into a tangible concept. There are countless directions their journey could take, but knowing what’s important to the story makes it so much easier to focus on the ones that both excite you and align with the story’s central purpose.
Now is the time to take a breath and savor the thrill of creation.
Remember, during the early stages of a creative project (before writing and after the first draft), we are just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing which ones stick. As we write and edit, we can choose the ones that align best.
Jot down all the ideas that come to mind in relation to the kernel of an idea.
Here are some prompts to guide you. (I’m a huge fan of “What if?” questions when brainstorming.)
All of these things will help you gauge the potential of a story idea, by making sure it has the substance to become a fully-fledged book.
After doing all of that groundwork, you should have a better feel for who your main character is, what they want, and why they want it. This is what provides a stable base to build a story on.
Check that your story premise aligns with that character’s journey and if not, tweak it.
Building on the previous example of a vague idea, this is the story premise that came from it:
Now it’s time to give that “shiny idea” a chance to succeed by focusing all of the stuff from the brainstorming exercise in a single direction. The direct of the main character’s journey: from where they start to the goal they seek at the end.
Sort through all of your ideas and determine if they are aligned with the story premise and the main character’s goal. Any that aren’t aligned, don’t resonate with you or you simply don’t like, put aside.
This should leave you with heaps of potential for when you outline or start writing.
...take your time and be patient when coming up with possibilities that fit with your vision for the story. You may even find its direction has nothing to do with the initial kernel of an idea, but this doesn’t matter because it will have morphed into a solid concept you can wrap your mind around and see endless possibilities for.
You can be sure you have transformed a shiny idea into a solid story concept when you know who the main character is, what they want, and why they want it. The specifics of what’s going to make their journey difficult can evolve as you write, but those key details will keep the narrative on track.
Happy writing. 😊
What are your go-to tricks for turning your shiny ideas into solid story concepts? Are you a plotter or a pantser? What exercises or habits help you when you get stuck? Please share with us down in the comments!
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Note: If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering WITS readers a FREE masterclass, which reveals the real reasons few aspiring authors finish their novels (and how to avoid them).
Grab the Quit Procrastinating and Write a Publishable Novel masterclass here.
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Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She is an internationally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, and experienced fiction coach, supporting aspiring authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.
Having a writing coach is like having an industry expert in your back pocket, to hold your hand through the writing process and act as a voice of reason when you’re standing on a ledge. Sandy’s exclusive Active Storytelling Method helps authors find the hidden gems in their manuscripts and make them shine.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
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Thanks for hosting my on the Writers In The Storm blog. It's always a pleasure interacting with your enthusiastic readers.
Great questions all.
I'm writing what I really should trademark: The Great American Love Story. When I got the idea for my mainstream love story, back in 2000, the basic idea was how does character A, an older disabled woman, deal with her obsession over a movie star she never should have met.
The opposite of a meet-cute story, the obstacles seemed insurmountable: meet, much less get to know, and even less have a chance for a real relationship - how could I make it be not only possible, but plausible, probable? I think I have come up with the answer, but it took thinking through a lot. And is based on a very slow burn, and being forced to make decisions that affect other people, all along.
"Are you a plotter or a pantser?"
Extreme plotter here. I plot with Dramatica, a flexible yet deterministic screenwriter tool that has so many intricate connected questions that you essentially make all your critical decisions ahead of time. I don't recommend it for the faint of heart - it takes years to get a good hold on many of the concepts and then figure out how to apply them.
But I'm miserably slow due to illness, and I can't afford to spend time writing much that won't eventually fit the end. So the connections between characters and plot and themes get designed in from the beginning.
I liken it to building a skyscraper: if you don't design steel, water, pumping, and sewer lines from the very start, you're going to have a horrible time trying to hook them all up after you've finished building.
"What are your go-to tricks for turning your shiny ideas into solid story concepts?"
Pushing them to their limits to find out where they're iffy, where the logic breaks poke through, and solving those before much writing. If you want to get across a raging river after storms on stepping stones, the placement of said stones has to be solid, close enough together, with no gaps - and possible no matter what the water level.
Problems get solved by brainstorming before plunging in to try to give them form. And there were some real doozies.
"What exercises or habits help you when you get stuck?"
Everything I do is IN writing: I have miles of journal entries, dated and time-stamped. Everything I do is documented. I work the problems out in a journal entry, or in a file added to my Scrivener structure, so that when I come to write a scene, I know the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why - and all that's left is to get deep in the mud and find out HOW these characters are going to make all that happen, preferably in a way I've never read before.
The first book took me 15 years, the second 7, and I hope the third is faster.
Thanks for asking!
Alicia, your story sounds fascinating.
I've never heard of Dramatica, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'll have to check it out. Ha ha, I love the skyscraper metaphor!
I too like to figure out those building blocks ahead of time because it helps me know what's working and what's not. I find I do a lot of planning work, but as the story progresses and I get to know the characters better, rely on more high-level views.
Best of luck with your WIP.
This is such a good post, Sandy! I've started and put aside quite a number of projects over the years, and now I recognize why. They were shiny ideas. They didn't have legs. I spent way too long on one book that I was determined to make work. You can't force it. You just can't. I was terrified before I started the next one, book one of a fantasy romance series, that it would end up with the dust bunnies, but it became my recent release The Witch Whisperer after utilizing the One Stop for Writers Character Builder and the site's other amazing tools; studying Lisa Cron's Wired for Story; Bell's Save the Cat; and many more helpers. I did a detailed outline of the story before I started writing it, had solid characters with their GMC's. I was excited about the story, and that excitement carried me through to the end, and a contract. So, yes, I'm the consummate plotter. I write my early drafts in Scrivener and utilize some of its organizational tools for research, images, synopses, etc. I'm using all my tools for book two in the series. Thanks for this post. The writing exercises are most helpful, and I do love what ifs.
Hi Barb, thanks for sharing your tips and reading material.
I'm thrilled that this post resonated with you. Even if you prefer to only have a very high-level outline of your story and discover all the exciting bits and pieces along the way, knowing a few key things can help.
I know how you feel with being terrified that your next project won't work, because I've had failed stories too (there was a lot of blood sweat and tears figuring out what worked for me). You can even save a discarded story if you start from scratch and make sure you understand your character's desires and motivations deeply.
Happy writing with the what if questions.
Thanks for the clarifying post. I appreciate the actionable steps.
You are most welcome, Kris.
Thanks for reading and best of luck with your current story.
I started with a single visual image, a vast crowd of dust-covered people walking out of a CBD in ruins towards a bridge, towards me. My city. My CBD.
That was four years ago. My YA novel has just undergone the red pen of a professional editor, and will be polished and ready in April.
Oh Julie, that certainly is an evocative image!
That's awesome that you have been able to see this idea through to a satisfying conclusion. What sort of character exploration do you do?
And best of luck sorting through the edits and publishing.
Thank you. It wasn't so much a shiny idea as a very dusty one. It sort of grew organically - the genre, the characters, the plot, the settings, all very slowly unfolded and developed. As I thought about it, some things just obviously would have been there, events would have necessarily followed, and then caused further changes. It involved lots of research, close attention to news reports of similar events. Everything just fed the next scene or revision of scenes, the deepening of characters and sharpening of goals and motivations. And lots and lots and lots of rewriting and patience.
That sounds a beautiful, organic process Julia.
It's so exciting when a little piece of the puzzle presents itself and fits with all the other pieces.
I look forward to staying in touch and hearing about your publication and next story.
Thank you. I think your question stops a reader in their tracks to reconsider what they've been working on, and why it's not going anywhere. It could save us writers a lot of disappointment and wasted time if we view our work with this question in mind.
Exactly the purpose of this blog, Julie.
Sometimes all it takes is for someone else to throw questions at us (or a list of them) to get us thinking more deeply about the "why" of it all.
I am a pantser with a plottery glaze.
Your exercise is helpful. Thank you!
Gidday from Australia, Ellen.
I am pleased that a discovery writer found the exercise useful too. I think we all do much the same stuff, just at different times. (I also secretly believe that pantsers can hold a whole lot more information in their minds. For me, if it's not written down I instantly forget it.)
Glad you enjoyed the article and happy writing.
Excellent article. My own first novel started solely with a “what if” about how a group of people woke up to find themselves sealed in familiar surroundings would deduce and react to discovering they’d been kidnapped by aliens. I was most interested in how reasonably intelligent people might actually handle it. This led me to questions how they were captured and for what purpose, which led me to their and the alien’s conflict and objectives, then ultimately to a heavier theme and more complex plot.
Their initial goals (escape and/or warn Earth of the alien’s plans), morph into something more as they learn more of the alien technology and consider all the consequences.
Overall, in the course of my writing, the process pretty much fit your description. Moreover, I’m now completing work on my second book, a “what if” of how they might realistically accomplish the difficult solution they decided in the first. There’ll be two more stories, already plotted, to bring them full circle to being able to face the aliens on a (more) level playing field.
This second has been a much greater challenge to write, since there are so many factors to consider to keep the story realistic and believable.
Thanks for your kind words.
Your story premise sounds exciting!
I am a big fan of “what if” questions to get ideas started and to problem solve. I love how you've shown one thought leading to another and then another. The best part is that we have no idea where that initial kernel of an idea might lead.
It sounds like you're on a roll with a whole series of books planned. My books are all standalones, but I sympathise that keeping all the threads of a series together would be quite complex. Do you have some kind of cheat sheet or map to keep track of things?
Sandy-To be honest, I didn’t even start with a story idea, only that first scenario. What might logically happen next, then next, came from pantsing.
A short way in I realized I’d painted my characters into a tight dramatic box, impeding the action. So, I branched off into a couple of separate but linked sub-plots where I could alternate between threads to always keep reader’s’ attention.
As I saw all these threads needed to neatly join back together I realized the need for plotting. At this point too, I began to recognize a theme, sneaking in through my characters’ dialogue.
Discovering I’d (inadvertently) inserted a theme made me re-examine my characters’ philosophy and motivations, and how else they might view their duty and roles in dealing with the challenges. As result, I saw them embracing an even larger challenge, impossible to accomplish in one story. Then, not even in two stories.
One result of all this “what then” is that opening up the story gave me greater room to develop my characters and personalities-using craft skills I learned along the way from reading and excellent feedback from a terrific local critique group (whom I credit greatly).
Its sequel is nearly done, but with the setting (back on Earth) and their new task (solution) so world changing, the technical research and plotting demands are quite challenging.
Outmaneuvering aliens, it seems, isn’t nearly as hard as overcoming human bureaucracy and political posturing.
Thanks so much for sharing, JH.
It's amazing how much we learn about our characters and stories just writing our way through that first draft. I'm a plotter, but no matter how well I think I've planned beforehand, I make myriad decisions as I write and the story turns out different to what I first envisaged, plus I will have a much deeper affiliation with my characters.
Enjoy finding your way through this series.
I'm mostly a pantser, but I do some plotting, and I keep notes, so a plantser?
Great to meet you, Denise.
I tend to think we're all a blend of plotter and panster, we just do the same things at different times. Even different stories by the same author sometimes lend themselves to different processes.
What is your current story about?
Hello, I consider my self the most extreme plotter, after ninety thousand words I think I have it pretty much mapped out. Took some time to understand my characters. Good thing they were patient.
My trick? I work on several shine new ideas at a time. time away from one fuels the subconscious plotter in me, he does all the work. I just write.
Hi, Sam. Thanks for sharing your tip.
That's super interesting that you work on several ideas at a time. I can see how it allows time for each one to grow and for you to see if it has legs.
Thanks Sandy. I have a plethora of novel ideas in file, some with first sentences, paragraphs, or even a few chapters, but then got stalled.
One in particular, a space opera, has been tapping me on the shoulder for quite some time. I have 6 beginnings and never got past chapter 7.
I set it aside and finally figured out that though the idea was sound, I was starting it in the wrong place. I couldn't get the rest of the plot to fall in line from where I tried to force it to begin.
I always knew the client of my down and out female PI would die, but I kept putting it off. So I started out with the murder and took it from there. More bodies hit the ground, hijinks ensue, but I'm on chapter 11 and still going. Sure it's only 4 more, but it's 4 more than I had.
That's not a bad problem to have - loads of ideas.
Wow, that is awesome how changing the starting point of your story got you going. Well done in thinking outside the square. It's not always easy to see a different way to do things in our stories, because we become married to those initial ideas.
You'll probably find you know the main character so much better by the time you write your way through the whole story, which will give you ways to layer even more emotional depth and motivations into the story as you edit.
As for your other discarded ideas, I find doing a brainstorming session and some day dreaming about the characters that might inhabit the story, a good place to get the creative juiced flowing.
Best of luck with your writing. I look forward to staying in touch online.