Tuesday, 25 May 2010

How to take an idea and develop it into a novel

Anyone can have ideas – but how do you keep them relevant to your story without stifling your creativity?

I have talked on this blog before about building plots from a heap of ideas – but how do you go about generating those ideas in the first place? How do you push ideas to the limit and then generate new ones that facilitate the story you want to tell?

Here's a technique that may work for you – it has two phases: cultivate ideas until a workable plot idea emerges, then use that prototype plot to drive further ideas that develop it.

Like everything, it starts with the germ of an idea – a character, a scene, a theme – 'I want to write a book about blah, or I have this great idea for a character' etc. The key at this stage is to not rule anything out, no blocking of ideas at all, every idea must be tested and pushed and given equal weight. Nothing is too mundane – in fact, mundane is good – we must look for majesty in the mundane.

A brief example – lets decide we want to tell a love story; lets have a scene, a love-making scene – fairly pedestrian so far right? So let's work it harder – forget love let's make it a sex scene, on a kitchen table. More interesting. The man is married, but this isn't is wife – a little more dramatic – we're also starting to get a character here - but still adultery stories are fairly ubiquitous. So how can we twist this? Perhaps his wife knows and encourages his peccadilloes? Perhaps it excites her? So he reluctantly does these things for her. Now we're getting somewhere. Clearly our guy would be an accomplished lover but there would be an emotional and moral vacuum in his life waiting to be filled by – our female main character. Let's make her academic and wholesome – someone who's rejected the advances of men who desired her for her body, and went for someone who loved her for her intelligence – but there's part of her that's dissatisfied. We have a proto-plot emerging here – our Lothario is going to fall in love with Intelligence girl, but she's going to refuse him for some reason, he will either give up everything for her and end up with nothing, or they will end up together but at great cost.

Now here's where the next phase kicks in – once we've got enough character and story for a potential plot to emerge – we need to push it further. The proto-plot will suggest key turning points and will generate questions that need answering – how will these two to meet? what is it about this girl that makes him fall in love with her? why does she refuse him? All we need to do is provide as many answers to these questions as we can, until we find something earth-shattering.

As you can see, the idea is not to limit your thinking but to keep it focused on your original ideas with a view to developing your story and characters. And the great thing about it is at this stage you can throw it away more cheaply than 75000 words – but it's much more likely you'll come away with at least one thing you want to use, if not a treatment for a whole novel.

In summary:

1. Make the mundane unique or interesting to create complex and dramatic scenarios from which prototype plots can emerge.

2. These pseudo-plots will suggest key turning-points that generate story-questions that need answering - answer them as imaginatively as possible.

Ideas are cheap, it's what you do with them that counts.


  1. Hey you do the same things as I do! Great post, and well explained. I want to see what you so with this one - when are you going to write this it?!

  2. Great article.

    I do freelance editing, and it's just about a given that the manuscripts my clients send me show that they never did this. They never took the time to develop their premise and construct a solid plot from it. They just took that initial seed of an idea and started writing.

    I get it. Writing is the exciting part; all that planning stuff just feels like work that's getting in the way of your fun. I am every bit as guilty of having done that myself.

    But I don't do it anymore, because it just never results in the book I wanted it to be. Sadly, most of my clients haven't learned this lesson yet, and I end up being the one who has to tell them that the book may well be a tear-down. It may be un-fixable as a draft because they never bothered to build a solid foundation for their story.

    Anyway, great post. I hope it goes viral, because boy do most writers need to learn this skill.

  3. @Roz - actually, it's quite close to the next novel idea I'm working - so you might just get to see it. I must be doing something right if you're doing it too!

    @Jason - Hi, and welcome. Good to have your feedback and reassuring that this resonates with someone who's business is it to fix stories as well as write them.