By Nick Stephenson (Part One of… Well, several).
Note: this guide has been prepared with Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction in mind (eg, non-fiction that tells a story). If you’re writing a more conventional how-to book (eg, how to solve a particular problem), things are a little bit easier! In which case, you can skip parts 1 and 2 of this series and head on over to the final page, where we discuss the publishing process. And if you’re stuck for ideas for your how-to book, or you’re struggling to plan out the content, drop me a line in the comments section at the bottom of the page and I’ll point you to the best resources and get you what you need.
With that in mind, let’s get started, shall we?
“I make them up, out of my head.”
This is a question that comes up all the time, and – according to Neil Gaiman (who’ll pop up a few times in this section) – this is most definitely a question that should not be asked of writers.
But people will ask nonetheless, and on some occasions will even proffer up their own ideas for you to write – thinking it will turn into a million-dollar blockbuster.
Unfortunately, as many writers already know, the “idea” isn’t really the difficult part. In fact, ideas are pretty easy to come by when you know where to look. It’s the execution of those ideas and the craft of turning them into an interesting story that takes the real effort.
That being said, a great book almost always starts with a great idea. So in this first part of the course, we’re going to look at how to “train your brain” to come up with great ideas, and how to “test” those ideas to see if they can be fleshed out into a full story or novel.
Then, in subsequent sections, we’ll take a look at how to actually write the damn thing (including a few structure options to help you plot the whole thing out in record time), then polish it up, publish it, and start making sales.
And, as I said, it all starts with “the idea”.
Which is such an important step of the process, I’m going to turn it into a quote:
“A great book almost always starts with a great idea.”
There. With that out of the way and everything official, let’s jump in.
“Ask the question that must not be asked of writers!”
The answer, than? Well, we don’t really know where the best ideas come from – there’s no golden rule. They come from inside our own heads; a giddy mixture of our own unique experiences, views, hopes, and values.
But a lot of it is daydreaming – or nightmares, in Mary Shelly’s case – and there is no single answer. But you can come up with ways to spark ideas, and follow a process to flesh them out. A new idea may end up being a combination of old ideas, presented in a new way.
So if you combine existing ideas you can come up with something new. Examples:
And so on. It’s been said before, there are no new stories. And I tend to agree with Mr. Twain:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
A lot starts with asking “what if”. Or taking two established concepts and throwing them together in “mash up” style. Or, in some cases, taking familiar story tropes and changing the characters, setting, circumstances, and tone to create something fresh. Let’s look at some examples:
These are all popular examples – but you can put your own “spin” on them and come up with something new (compare the Pixar movie The Incredibles with the TV show The Boys, for example – same conceit, radically different execution).
“What if” ideas work especially well for sci-fi, fantasy, and other types of speculative fiction, and their various subgenres. Other genres might work better with another method:
James Bond meets Pride & Prejudice – how would a suave, aristocratic spy operate during the Napoleonic wars? How would he/she keep a balance between serving their country and fulfilling their social duties? (In fact, this would definitely be more interesting with a female lead…)
Animal Farm – on a desert island… Lord of the Flies springs to mind. What about another Orwell classic? Nineteen Eighty-Four on a desert island. That might have legs… Thoug bNineteen Eighty-Four was largely inspired by Aldus Huxley’s A Brave New World, which itself was accused of plagiarising the 1921 novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (see, no new ideas…). But that’s 4 literary classics all based on similar themes and ideas.
Romeo & Juliet meets Boz n The Hood – so, yeah, this is basically Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. You can take pretty much any classic story and put a genre spin on it to create something exciting.
Maybe the books you write don’t easily fit into a “mashup” or “what if” situation. No need to worry! In fact, many stories (like some Romance genres) thrive on taking established tropes and structures and mixing them up with fresh characters, settings, or backdrops.
Examples – you take the classic “boy meets girl” (or “boy meets boy”, “girl meets boy”, “vampire meets werewolf”, whatever) and mix it up by changing a prominent factor of the story:
Layer on different settings, time periods, and conflicts and you’ve got yourself a brand-new story.
Or, maybe you’re writing a crime novel, or thriller novel. Again, the basic conceit is the same – the protagonist must solve a crime / avert disaster. But you can switch up the nature of the crime or the “impending disaster”, throw your characters into a new environment, and boom – you’ve got yourself a new story (there’s a reason there are so many Jack Reacher or Poirot books – largely the same story each time, but with new characters, motivations, dangers, and settings).
See anything in common here?
The best ideas combine the familiar and layer in a dash of the unexpected. The ideas that actually work are those that can support a full book.
It’s not difficult to come up with 5 “ideas” a day. Grab a notepad, spend fifteen minutes a day coming up with some. Some – or even most – might not work, but it gets the brain working.
At the end of the week, take your 35 ideas, pick your favorites, and test them out – can they be fleshed out?
Let’s take a look at how to do that…
Believe it or not, almost all stories follow just a few major themes / structures. Seven, in fact.
This is a concept from a book by Christopher Booker. And while a “novel” – or the writing arts in general – don’t necessarily need to comply with these, it serves as a reminder that stories follow similar arcs in general, and that “an idea” can be developed using these roadmaps as a guide.
But.. there is a step missing between “idea” and “plot”. The foundation of the plot – with all its character arcs, themes, beats, and forces – is driven by the structure of the story. The “what happens when” of your book.
To get to that stage – where your roadmap is laid out in front of you – the “idea” needs to support the journey you want to take readers on.
So, to take an idea to the next level, we need to turn it into a PREMISE. From there, we can start mapping out “what happens” – in however much, or little, detail you choose – but first we need to understand the core elements of the book.
The foundation of every compelling story needs:
If one (or more) of these things are missing, the reader isn’t going to care as much as they should.
Ideas aren’t the hard part. With fifteen minutes a day, you can come up with several dozen ideas a week (or more).
Take your favourite idea – can you write a sentence or short paragraph and create a premise? Is the conflict real? Are the stakes high enough? If so, write it out.
So the next part… how do we take this simple premise and expand it into a full story? What needs to happen? How do we write the book, get it ready, and publish it?