Monday, May 4, 2015

How do you know if your story idea is The Idea?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This is the first installment of a new series, Writing a Novel from Beginning to End.)

"Where do you get your ideas?" is one of those questions that any professional writer has been asked hundreds of times. It's something of an industry joke, really, but it's not that surprising of a question.

I have no musical skills. The idea of writing a symphony piece completely blows my mind. How do you know where to start? How do you know that it'll sound good to have flutes doing one thing and trumpets doing another? I'm sure, if I were to sit down with a composer, I would ask all kinds of questions that seem completely stupid to one who is musically minded.

I agree with Stephen King's famous quote that writers have no idea where story ideas actually come from. My husband, who's an engineer, never seems to get story ideas, whereas I see them everywhere, as I suspect many of you do too.

But the ideas I have aren't all equal. Some are just sparks, others more like fireworks that quickly fade away, and still others glow like a long-burning torch.

So how do you and I know if a story idea is worth pursuing? How do we know this isn't just another story idea but your best story idea?

If you're like me, your writing time is limited and you want to pursue the best story ideas. Here's the process I go through to determine if a story idea is wroth my time and energy:

1. Give it the time test.

You have your idea. You're super excited. You write down everything about it that seems important. Maybe you even start a Pinterest board and bring it up with a trusted friend or two. If you know how you want to start the book, you might even jump into that first scene.

One of two things usually happens to me at this point:

  1. The idea continues to follow me around, continues to nag at me when I'm driving or washing dishes. I can't help thinking about it.
  2. I totally forget about the idea in the shuffle of my everyday life. It might even be weeks before I remember that I had the idea.

If number one happens, I know I want to pursue this further. But if the second thing happens, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll never pursue it. Often times  it just means this idea isn't ready yet. (But definitely save it, because you never know when you'll figure out that missing piece. Here's how I keep track of my ideas.)

2. Give the idea a quick, "Does this have a chance of being a good story?" analysis.

I've talked about this in other places on the blog, and even in the Go Teen Writers book, but I'll repeat it here again. These are five qualities that commonly appear in books I love, and I like to try and figure out if my book has potential to have these qualities too.
  1. A main character in a sympathetic situation. (Using the examples of Harry Potter and The Help, Harry is an orphan being raised by a horrid family, and Skeeter is a white girl in the south in the 1960s who wants to help black maids tell their stories)
  2. A main character who is a hero in some way. (As a baby, Harry somehow defeated the darkest, most powerful wizard, though he's not sure how, and Skeeter is risking her life to tell an important story and provide social justice.)
  3. A unique storyworld. (Hogwarts School, and tumultuous Mississippi in the 1960s)
  4. A theme or takeaway message that will impact others. (Harry is capable of much more greatness than he had ever imagined, or in The Help, equality for people of all races.)
  5. A great ending. (Don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed Harry Potter or The Help, but the endings are great!)
A book doesn't have to have all these things for me to enjoy it. Gossip Girl doesn't really have a heroic main character or a great theme, but it's still an engrossing read and addictive series. The unique storyworld (a peek at the life of unbelievably rich and spoiled teenagers from old money families in NYC) makes up for it. 

I have no memory of where The Fault In Our Stars took place, other than the brief period in Amsterdam. Eleanor and Park is set in Omaha. Even without the complex storyworlds of other books, these are still two stories that burrowed into my heart.

But I've still found this list to be a good starting place when I'm trying to figure out where my idea might fall short.

3. See what else is out there.

Especially if you're wanting to pursue publication, you'll want to see if there are other books on the store shelves that are like yours. When I approach my agent with a new idea, this is one of the first things she checks on—has anything too similar sold recently, and does the market look favorable for this kind of book?

This doesn't sound very fun and artsy, I know. But you really don't want to spend six months writing a first draft of your very unique novel about Amish vampires in space only to discover that it already exists. Right?

Now, if I find that there's already something on the market that seems a little too similar to my idea, I don't give up. Instead, I start brainstorming how to make mine different.

4. Start writing the thing.

If, in step one, I didn't write anything more than a description of what the story will be about, I now write the first chapter or two. There's just something about being in the storyworld and being with the characters that makes it so much clearer whether this is going to work or not.

Sometimes, like with the book I'm working on now, I write the first chapter and realize, "It'll work ... but it'll be a hard one." Other times I've written a first chapter, felt that something was off, and put the book away for a while. One time, I wrote a few chapters of an idea I felt was really unique, only to discover I didn't at all like my main character and that I dreaded spending time with her.

While there are still times where I write an entire first draft before realizing this story just isn't a good fit, going through these four steps really helps me to sift out great story ideas from good ideas.

What do you do when you have a story idea? Dive right in? Plan it all out?

Other posts that might be of interest to you:


  1. When I get an idea that seems like it may make a novel, I usually write down a simple summary and then try to expand on that, seeing if I can get something workable out of the Idea. I'm definitely a plotster. :)

  2. I get story ideas all the time, and usually I just dive in. If it really excites me, I continue on, but there are other times when it simply fizzles and dies...this is the case, mostly. I first got the Idea for my WIP a year and a half ago, and I couldn't sleep thinking about it. After a couple chapters, though, it got old, so I dropped it, only to pick it up around seven or eight months ago. Also, if I feel like jabbering on and on about it, it usually works. :D. On my WIP, when I wrote out the first few chapters back in the beginning of 2014, it totally sucked, but I felt a connection to my characters, a feel for the storyworld, and I also got a feeling it'll be hard. Which is why I've done countless rewrites and I'm still in chapter 4.
    Of course, I haven't totally finished a book yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed...

    1. You will soon, Jonathan. I was very similar in my early years, actually. It just takes finding the right idea and some extra determination to power through from beginning to end.

  3. Usually when I get a story idea, I'm already in the middle of another story. So I just let it hang out in my brain and if it doesn't go away, I say "Ok, when I finish my current WIP or hit a NaNo event, I'll write it."

    1. When you're a contracted author, you have to do that a LOT, so it's great that you already have so much practice!

  4. I can go one of two ways. The more common: I jump in and hope for the best. My current WIP, Transform, was one that I started writing about two days after I had the idea. I have gone through at least eight plots, and restarted twice, but the MC and I clicked and her
    story is still around over a year later. Sometimes (usually), though, a story started this way fizzles out after three pages. Happened three times in the past year, and many more before then. I can also just wait a few months until I have a better idea of the story, but this only happens rarely, since I'm not a plotter.

    1. If you're not a plotter, than I think your method really is about the only way to know if the story will work for you. I'm glad you clicked with your MC!

  5. My last gazillion WIPS have all been for series that were sold based mostly on the idea for the first much of my plotting and planning have been pre-determined by where the series as a whole needs to go.

    Last week, though, I was having one of those moments of "Okay, when am I ever going to come up with a new, independent-of-my-other-stories idea again??" and then the magic happened. I don't even remember what sparked the idea, but I knew it was a winner when, within 2 hours, I had plot, setting, and characters figured out. I even had a title, which doesn't always happen. It all fed off each other, which is just the most amazing feeling...

    1. Oh, I'm so jealous! Nothing's coming to me right now, and I really want to write! My current WIP is in the 6 week waiting period between writing and editing, and it's bugging me so much that I don't have anything to write.

    2. You should try looking through old journals..(if you have one) you never know what ideas you'll get! :D Try looking around yourself more, (as in when you go in public) study works! :D I know what you mean, I just finished my first novella for camp nano and don't have another idea yet..still, I'm sort of glad I don't so I can focus on editing. ;)

    3. I thought your idea was sparked by ME ;)

      I've actually been in the same place and felt semi-panicky over it. And then something pops up. While it can't be forced, you still have to be on the look out, I believe.

    4. Well yes, Stephanie, I suppose it was, LOL. I suppose I should say I don't where thinking about yours took a major detour. But it sure was fun. =)

    5. Agreed. I'm excited about that story!

  6. Usually my ideas will hound me..I try mixing ideas as well-it makes for more interesting stories and makes more sub-plots. :)

    Do you find yourself more productive with editing if you wait a week, or over a month? I was wondering it would make a difference..I really want to start, but am wondering if I should wait. Thanks!

    1. Sarah, it's probably different for every writer. If my schedule allows, I try to give myself 6 weeks away from the book. It's what Stephen King recommends, and it's always worked well for me.

    2. Oh okay, I'll probably wait around 2-3 weeks. Although I am reading it all over and taking notes, ect. :) After I do the basic editing, I'll probably send it to some friends.Thank you!

  7. I get story ideas fairly frequently, but I just can't seem to do anything with them. Usually, I think it's because the idea is not big enough to make into a novel. I know I've read something about that before on here. Thanks for this post; I think it will be helpful!

    1. The dog in your picture looks so much like mine :) He's a border collie mix.

      Yes, I have a slew of ideas that are good, but not big enough. Not yet, anyway.

    2. Even when I get an idea that's not big enough for a novel, I jot it down in a file I call Idea King, so I can look up stuff later to add into my current project. Idea King now has around 70 story ideas and it's always fun to look through.

  8. I get ideas all the time, but most of them sizzle within a day or two. The keepers stick with me longer and tend to take up more space while I'm randomly brainstorming on a doc. My best projects I let 'soak' and then come back to them when I can't get the idea out of my head. Sometimes I even do experimentations with projects I know I will never finish, but I do to help me become better at dialogue, writing a large cast, trying a different genre, multiple POV etc. They tend to last a hundred pages and then I loose interest.

  9. Awesome advice. I recently began a new WIP in the midst of edits for a different one. At first, I was struggling with whether this was worth pursuing or not (especially since I felt like I should be completely dedicated to editing) but it. Would. Not. Leave. Me. Alone. So that solved that for me. I've almost completely outlined it and began writing it and the creativity fire is still burning, so I'm sticking with it for the time being!

  10. Story ideas come to me all the time. I usually dive into an good idea the moment when I know it's worth writing about. The other ideas I use when I get writer's block for smaller projects such as novellas and short stories. That way my mind can never get totally bored.

  11. When an idea hits me ('cause that's how it goes most of the time), I don't start immediately. I think about it for a while. Then I'll do some research or think about some story elements (perhaps draw a map of the location or read something about a certain kind of company that plays a major role in the story). If my enthusiasm for the idea is still there and still growing, I make a rough outline of how the story will look like. After that, and probably after some more research, I start writing most of the time. But to be honest, when I started with 'serious writing', I just jumped in. It didn't work for me, however. As soon as I did some proper preparation, I got to finish a first draft :)

  12. Story ideas come at me constantly, but since I'm working on other projects right now, I just write them down in my Story Ideas folder. Most of them fade eventually, but there are a few that have stuck in my head, so hopefully, I'll get to actually write them someday :)
    And I've had that problem with my MC before! Where I decided I didn't like her. I still wrote the manuscript, but I had 3 other MCs I did love while I tried to find something lovable about that MC. It took a while, but I managed to give her some good qualities, and I'll try to encourage those when Igo back to edits. :)


  13. I get ideas all the time. I swear. If I go a month without getting at least 3 or 4, I must be dead. (lol) But seriously, I have a folder on my computer to store them all, and I have about, uh...80-100 synopses right now. Lots of them are trilogies, so they're not all standalones, but it's frustrating sometimes because I want to work on ALL of them, and I can't!
    What I usually do is one of two things. Here's the first one:
    1. Idea pops in, write a blurb about it, leave it on the counter
    2. wait a week or so. if I can't stop thinking about it, I expand the idea into a small synopsis.
    3. If it's still going strong and my fingers are burning, I type a few pages.

    Next process:
    1. Idea comes. Freak out because it's awesome!
    2. Create very detailed plot and synopsis. Daydream to make it longer.
    3. Write a few chapters

    ...And that's pretty much how I do things.

  14. This post is really helpful, thank you so much! The story that is flowing around in my mind these days comes from a dream I had and I could remember everything so clear when I woke up, that I wrote down the basic situations. Mostly when I write ideas for a story down, it fades in my mind after a couple of days, but now everywhere I go, it follows me, it gives me certain ideas that might or might not fit in the story I wrote down. Now was my question is this story one of the ideas that could turn out into a real book? I found your post and i'll be following your steps to see if this is really a great idea.

  15. The whole "it already exists" thing frustrates me to no end. I'm currently working on a novel about a teen Mage (magician) and I'm stressed that it sounds too much like Harry Potter or other fiction works. Is there any sure-fire way to avoid this?

  16. I always have so many ideas going on inside my head. Normally, I'll get really excited, plan everything out, write 80-150 pages into a book, and then the dedication will go away, and I'll want to write about something else. I know that it's a good idea for a book, and if I polish it up, the story could possibly be really good. But it seems like I just want to keep writing new and different stories all the time. Any tips for how to stay with one main idea, and to stick with one story?