Ever have an idea for a story that you thought for sure would become the next Great American Novel only to flame out when you couldn’t write past the third chapter? The truth is, not every story idea that crosses your mind is worth writing about. So how do you know which ones are viable as a novel or short story while others are better left as a stand-alone scene, or worse, dumped in the trash?
In a recent Reedsy webinar, author S. J. Watson spoke about the idea generation process and how writers can determine which ideas are worth developing. .
Watson said the idea generation process can be divided into four segments:
* Finding story ideas and recognizing them when they show up organically
* How to retain those story ideas
* How to determine if an idea has the potential to become a novel
* How to keep the original idea from going off the rails, and what to do if it does.
An idea is “a sense that something is possible,” he said, and they can come from anywhere around you. But he cautions writers to keep them close to the vest.
“Ideas are like hose pipes,” Watson said. “If you overshare an idea too soon with your family and friends, it might poke holes in it.” Once the holes are poked through, the story tends to lose its novelty and impact.
To generate meaningful and relevant story ideas, there are several things writers can do to prime the pump.
- Show up at your desk every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Ideas don’t show up automatically. You still have to put in the time and effort before ideas begin to flow.
- Observe your surroundings. Look out the window or take a walk. Notice something on the street that you don’t normally see, such as a mobility scooter or a three-legged dog. Then brainstorm different scenarios about what you see. You may surprise yourself by coming up with a viable story idea.
- Write when you’re half-asleep. The brain isn’t quite awake then and it can amplify the connection between seemingly different ideas. In this half-sleep mode, you’re less likely to censor yourself.
To retain your ideas, keep a notebook. Either carry one in your pocket or purse or use the Notes app on your phone. Any time you notice something in your environment, overhear a conversation, or get sudden inspiration, jot them down. Watson admits he rarely looks at his notes, but the act of writing ideas down helps him to retain those ideas for easy reference later.
Connecting the Dots
Which ideas are worth turning into a full-fledged novel? Watson said ideas begin with the sense that something big could happen, such as winning the lottery or getting into a car accident. They open doors to broader concepts, and they invite random scenes and characters to show up. You may have two seemingly unrelated scene concepts, yet there may be a thread that connects them within a single story.
Also ask yourself several questions about the story’s viability:
- Does the story idea stay with you, and do you feel a desperation to work on it? Some ideas come and grab you by the throat, demanding your attention.
- Can you visualize the protagonist or antagonist?
- Do you see the conflict? Do you know the characters’ goals?
- Most important, can the problem in the story be made to feel relatable, such as learning that a family member is terminally ill?
Another possible approach is to take other people’s ideas and remix the elements to make them your own, Watson says. Whatever approach you take, make sure you don’t second guess yourself.
Drifting Story Lines
If the story drifts from the original concept that you envisioned, you may need to make adjustments. If, at the 20,000 word mark, the story seems to be heading in a different direction than what you intended, take a step back and review the work you’ve done so far. If the changes in the story scare you or excite you, then keep going. You may be on the right track even if you don’t have a clear idea where the story is headed.
However, if the new direction of the story isn’t exciting, it may be a sign that the story is too safe. Watson suggests backtracking to the original spine of the story and starting over from there to regain the excitement. “Occasional drifting is okay, especially if it takes you to scary or exciting places,” Watson says. “If you drift too far away from the original intent of the story, it may need to be scrapped. Occasionally returning to the story spine can help you make sure you’re in the right place.”
Story ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Knowing which ones are viable as potential novels, and which ones aren’t can save you a lot of time and needless effort.