by Sandy Vaile
As writers, we’re painfully aware that not every story idea that sparkles in our mind turns into a gem on paper. With the intense competition of four million book releases each year, it’s crucial to ensure the idea behind a book is compelling and marketable. If only there was a simple way to test ideas and be sure they are worth spending time on.
Well, there is!
Whether you’re a meticulous planner or prefer to discover plot details as you go, refining that initial idea into a solid concept can save considerable stress and wasted time, because it provides a strong foundation for the writing process. Getting clear on a few key elements will give you an anchor to tether every part of the plot and transform it into a cohesive narrative.
Wonderful ideas send excitement tingling through our limbs as intriguing situations and enthralling characters come to life. This often spurs us to jump straight into writing, however, without validating that a concept is robust enough to sustain a whole novel, we may be setting ourselves up to waste countless months and finite energy on disconnected situations and dull characters.
There’s a reason the question authors are most commonly asked is, “How do you come up with ideas?” It’s because people confuse exciting ideas with solid story outlines.
While these things can certainly lead to a story worth writing, they are no more than the first kernel of an idea. The spark that ignites the avalanche of brainstorming and development needed to be able to assess the merits of an idea. Any idea can be turned into a viable story, but if the direction it needs to go in order to have sufficient conflict and stakes, doesn’t excite you, then maybe this idea isn’t the one to spend your time on.
In order to have confidence that an idea has the potential for a book, we must get clear on the story concept and protagonist’s journey.
The good news is that you can test these things before you write a single sentence. (The even better news is that if you have a partial book or first draft that isn’t working, this process will help you figure out where the issues are.)
When it comes to discovering if a story will inspire you enough to write it and capture the imagination of readers enough for them to pick it up, it helps to understand what sort of book you are writing and for whom.
Having the idea for an event, interesting person or question to ponder, doesn’t mean it will develop into a host of characters with desperate desires, serious stakes or captivating conflicts. It’s the motivations and struggles behind the idea that turn it into a compelling novel.
Readers want to be entertained or inspired so determine:
Understanding why you want to write this story in particular is a good way of sustaining curiosity and inspiration throughout the long and sometimes arduous process of writing a novel. I recommend not writing to trends (unless you’re a prolific and experienced author), instead focusing on ideas that will resonate for years to come.
Research which genre (and subgenres) your story might fit into, their average word count, common themes and features. Look at similar books and publisher’s submission guidelines for ideas.
Find the aspects of the story you’re passionate about exploring by asking questions like:
This where the rubber meets the road in story development because without a driven character at the heart of every decision you make while creating a book, the plot is unlikely to gain traction and likely to peter out or fall flat.
There may be several main characters, but the benefit of knowing which is the one, is having them drive the story and all the other characters and subplots revolve around them. This prevents the dilution of the core concept by keeping the plot focused.
At the heart of every great novel is a flawed character who desperately wants something that’s difficult to achieve. They capture imaginations, draw readers into the pages and linger in their minds long after the book is complete.
A plot is a series of events that get characters from start to finish, but the character arc is why they take the journey and persist when the going gets tough. Even plot-driven stories, like Lord of the Rings, have flawed and motivated characters driving the plot.
When characters struggle to overcome problems, they need to adapt in some way, changing the way they approach the situation or what they believe. Who they are at the end of the book is different to who they were when they started on the journey.
Going to a little effort to flesh out the protagonist’s character arc early on, provides a fantastic foundation of driving forces for a novel. Inner conflicts deepen the emotional impact of the story, adding complexity to the plot.
Outline who the protagonist is, their main desire (goal), what’s motviating them to want it and what/who will be working against them.
Now take the development one step further and answer these questions about the protagonist:
Being able to succinctly articulate what a story is about, will help keep you focused on the whole point of writing it, as well as being the perfect starting point for queries that lead to more ideas and for developing marketing copy.
Then, at a high level, you can see if there is something interesting about the concept to induce readers to want to know more.
You don’t need to know all of the events that will happen or the ending. The aim is to create a sentence (or two) to encapsulate the core elements, like the protagonist’s goal, motviation, stakes and conflict.
You may want to explore a few different formats for fleshing out the story idea like:
Create a succinct sentence or two (called a log line or evelator pitch), which identifies key elements that will capture the interest of the right readers. It may include some or all of these: what the protagonist wants, why they want it, what they stand to lose if they don’t succeed, and the person or force working against them, where and when the story takes place, any distinctive aspects.
I personally find it helpful to write a short summary of the key aspects of a story. It doesn’t have to have all the details figured out, like a synopsis, but focuses on the core concept and protagonist.
I refer to this summary before I plot or write each chapter because it reminds me what’s important about the story and keeps me tethered to the reason I’m writing it.
Write a couple of paragraphs that expand on the elevator pitch. Include who the main characters are (e.g. protagonist, love interest), their internal character arcs, any key crises you’ve decided on already, the inciting incident that starts them on their journey, and what’s at stake if they fail to achieve the goal, what villain (or antagonistic force) will be working against them.
At this stage subplots and minor characters don’t matter, make a note of them but stick to the core concept in the summary.
Once you have thought deeply about the story idea, you will have a strong feel for whether the concept is robust enough to generate enough intriguing situations and complications to support a book. It should automatically peek your curiosity and raises questions about who, why and why, therefore, providing you with plot threads to explore.
If you struggle to amass all of the above information, it’s a sign the idea lacks clarity or depth. Then you can choose whether to move onto another idea or work harder to add the emotional depth and dramatic leverage needed.
Depending on your confidence and network, you may like to test the appetite for a story or highlight potential issues before writing it. You can do this by:
Validating a novel’s concept is a critical step in the writing process because it saves time and frustration by ensuring an idea has the potential to become a compelling, emotionally resonant book.
Taking time to test a story idea will pay dividends by revealing the purpose behind writing it and instilling you with the confidence to fulfill your creative vision.
If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day.
I’m inviting WITS readers to be the first to Test Your Story Idea before wasting time writing a whole novel (or figure out what’s wrong with your current WIP) during a one-month private coaching program with Sandy Vaile, so you can be sure it’s worth writing.
Have you ever written a story you loved but didn't go over as you'd hoped? What methods do you use to test your story ideas?
Sandy Vaile is a traditionally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, with more than a decade of experience in the industry, who empowers 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.
Sandy is also a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. Living in the McLaren Vale wine region means lots of prosseco and cheese platters in her down time.
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