You’ve Got Story Ideas. Great! Here’s Where to Start with Them

February 2, 2015

Last Monday, I wrote about ideas. Specifically, how to “get” them as if they are a thing you can buy at a shop. The gist of the argument was that coming up with ideas is mainly about training your brain to gobble up information in everyday life in ways that allow you to break it apart and then put it back together as your own thing. Next you have to embrace your ideas and not reflexively assume they’re all crap (the hard part).

If you’re doing work on creative projects with any frequency, whether as a hobby or profession, there’s a pretty good chance that coming up with ideas is not the real problem. You probably started doing it precisely because you had ideas and decided to do something with them.

While I think exercising your brain so that it becomes more effective at producing ideas is important and worthwhile, idea production is not typically a challenge for me. However, the first steps of evaluating them often is. That’s what we’ll talk about today.

Ideas are necessary but not sufficient for writing. Books, movie scripts, magazine features — they all start from ideas, but it’s a long way from there to a finished product. Creators have to decide which ideas are worth exploring, building into something more.

In his post on how he writes a novel,* Chuck Wendig breaks down some pretty useful points to consider when evaluating the viability of an idea.

The question for writers should never be, “How do you get your ideas?” but rather, “How do you shut them up to get a night’s sleep?” My mind is a moon colony constantly being pelted by little fiery asteroid-ideas. Ideas are not my problem: they fill up the ol’ brain-bucket pretty quick.

The problem is figuring out which ideas are:

a) interesting to me beyond the moment in which they are conceived

b) potentially interesting to other humans who are not me

c) potentially interesting to the giant amorphous blob known as the “publishing industry”

d) about a character in a world and not just a world

I found this list to be a good framework for discussing a process by which ideas can be evaluated. It seems every writer has one, but I’m still working on mine. Let’s look at each of these items in greater detail with a focus on its application to how I work currently.

Ideas Interesting beyond the Moment in Which They Are Conceived

Item a) resolves itself pretty quickly most of the time for me, and I suspect for most people. There are ideas where in one thought you go, “oh, wouldn’t it be neat if a vampire dinosaur had to rescue his family from an evil alien species of sentient rhododendron bounty hunters?” Then in the next you go, “probably not.” And then in the moment after that you think, “oh look, something shiny.”

Thus, the world is saved from your alien shrubbery versus vampire dinosaur novel because it was really no more than a passing thought.

Some people like to save every little thought they have, jotting them down in collated pages of smashed up tree pulp or, more practically if you ask me, typing them into Evernote. I don’t do that. I wait until it least passes the threshold for item a) above. Sometimes that’s virtually instantaneous and other times it means waiting until the same idea creeps up a few times. I don’t hesitate to save something if I think it might pass the threshold, but I am willing to be pretty ruthless with random flights of fancy.

Ideas Potentially Interesting to Other Humans Who Are Not Me

Moving to item b), I want to point out that the first three items in Wendig’s list contain the word “interesting” in reference to various audience types. This is important. The myth persists that authors, musicians and so forth should do nothing but follow their muses, that any work not done simply because it makes your heart sing is not worth doing and a betrayal of artist principles. That’s fine and dandy for those who are independently wealthy, live on the largesse of benefactors, pay their bills through some other method, or for some other reason do not care if their art is rewarded with compensation. It’s a load of crap for everyone else. For those of us who want to make writing a career,  we must consider whether there’s any possibility of an audience for what we do.

I want to be clear here. I do not think writers ought to consider what stories they create purely in terms of possible audience. I cannot imagine looking at demographic research and trying to focus-group a book idea if it wasn’t something I was interested in doing otherwise. That’s why Wendig’s list starts with whether the idea is interesting to himself. It should be. It has to be. Otherwise writing it will be miserable. But it would be similarly silly to not stop and consider what probability exists that a given idea could find some kind of audience.

That’s one of the reasons creators have turned to tools like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo before embarking on a project. It allows some basic market testing for their ideas. If a project gets funded, it lets the creator know there’s a market for the project. If it doesn’t? Well, maybe it’s in that person’s best interest to move on to something else.**

So yes, I do this now. When I consider the ideas I have, I absolutely take into account whether it might appeal to an outside audience. I vet things by talking to my wife, friends, family, the checkout person at the grocery store, the guy on the bus wearing a foam hat shaped like a banana. Anyone who will listen, really. Getting feedback is important. Do it early. Do it often.

Ideas Potentially Interesting to the Publishing Industry

This is frankly not a terribly important consideration for me right now, at least not in the same way as it is for Wendig. While  self-publishing is part of my career strategy, that’s not why I say I’m not concerned with the traditional publishing industry. And yes, at some point I hope that my writing is “published” in something approaching the traditional sense. Gimme a taste of that good marketing budget money! Mmm…you hear that? That’s the sound of the forces of corporate machinery marshaling to get my words to as large an audience as possible. I want that someday.

But right now I am not too worried about that stuff. The extent to which I consider the publishing industry now is more or less trying to keep within some of its general guidelines for what types of books stand a little better shot at getting published. For example, I do not intend for my first book to be a 230,000 word opus that eschews traditional grammar and sentence structure because it is ART! For one, that kind of thing would not pass items a or b for me anyway, but I know it more or less stands zero chance in the industry.

Ideas About a Character and Not Just a World

And here we find the biggest source of struggle for me when it comes to my ideas. I had not even really realized it until I read  Wendig’s post. It made my eyes pop out of my head like a horny cartoon wolf. “Yes! That’s what happens to me!” I thought.

As I said above, I have ideas all the time. More than I can possibly use. What I don’t always have are ideas for well-formed characters. The first thing that pops into my head about a possible story is often just the world in which it might be set. This comes, frequently, in the form a ‘what if’ question. What if climate change washes out the coasts and forces everyone to move inland, setting off territorial disputes? What if humans colonized Venus? What if a military coup took place in a previously stable democracy?

There’s nothing wrong with getting ideas this way. The ideas above could make for really interesting stories. But without developing the characters that drive them, there’s not really anywhere for them to go. I often get stuck at this point, but I’ve been working on a few quick questions I have started asking myself to help determine whether to keep digging when my idea is about just a world and not a character.

Here goes:

  1. Does the world/setting itself inspire me enough to want to write about it even though I don’t know who the characters are yet? In other words, what is it about this world that makes it worth it for me to figure out who the interesting characters might be?
  2. What are the circumstances that led to this world or the events unfolding within it that I think are worth writing about? Important events draw out good characters or shed light on characters who might seem mundane but are suddenly thrust into circumstances that change them.
  3. What sort of characters might be caught up in this world or series of events? Are they driving the events? Victims of circumstance? On the outside looking in?
  4. How are the types of people affected by the world identified in item 3 interesting? Presumably they exist before the story you’re telling and at least some of them will exist after. Why should I care about their place in this world?

Congratulations! You Now Have a Viable Idea

The bonus that comes with going through these questions is they can serve as a skeletal outline for the story itself. You’ve already got the world. You’ve spent a little time thinking about the events that have transpired before the story and some that will transpire during it. By searching for the interesting characters that inhabit that world and are affected by its events, you’ve got all the ingredients for a good story.

Reaching this point is both satisfying and important. Assuming you’ve used the other three items in Wendig’s model, you now you’ve now got all the prerequisites to actually write your novel. There’s still a long way to go, obviously, but feel good about this much. With limited time to work on things, it’s critical to figure out what you’re most excited to do as well as what has the best chance of success.***

At some point I want to go into greater detail about what comes after this point, but I think I need more experience actually doing it before I feel like I have something to really say about it. In the meantime, I will continue to use and refine my method for processing ideas so that I’m in a position to turn those ideas into stories.


*He’s pretty quick to point out this may not be how you should write a novel. You need to figure that out for yourself, but looking at the processes others use can give you ideas or make you challenge your own assumptions.

**The use of crowdfunding sites for art projects is predictably controversial, owing mainly to the myth I outlined above. See the recent Stacey Jay debacle for an example. Here’s a summary and a couple of opinion pieces about it (there are many). I might write about this further someday. It’s an interesting topic and there’s a lot to talk about. My basic, oversimplified feeling is that anything that gives creators control over their work, how they do it, how they seek to distribute it without forcing people to do something they don’t want to is basically groovy.

***Success has lots of definitions. Could be monetary. Could be getting published. Could be just creatively fulfilling. The point here is that excitement alone is not a guarantor of success.

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