Once you’ve made the decision to write a book, the next step (if it’s not what inspired you to write one in the first place) is to decide what story you want to tell. In some cases, there will be no question as to what you want to write; you’ll be consumed by one idea that you have an overwhelming hunger to explore.
However, it’s very common to have multiple story ideas that you love so you struggle to choose which one to focus on. You may also have a lot of story ideas but none that are exciting you at the moment or just a bunch of fragments that aren’t really a part of any particular story.
When you have the itch to write but you are finding it hard to commit to one idea, it can be frustrating. Especially with NaNoWriMo coming up soon, if you are caught in this predicament, then hopefully this post will help you get some clarity and find your way to an idea that you can sink your teeth into.
How to Choose a Story Idea
Coming Up with An Idea
If you’re in the situation where you aren’t even sure what to write, here are some things to think about that may help you get the wheels turning.
Draw inspiration from a song, photo, piece of art, music video, etc. Explore things you know you love and see if any of it strikes an idea. Ask yourself how you could turn them into a story or use the emotions they make you feel as a starting point. Go on a hunt for fresh pieces of inspiration in places like Pinterest, Tumblr, WeHeartIt, and YouTube. Let yourself be inspired. My short story, The Soul Broker, was inspired by a photo I saw on Pinterest of two well-dressed people having a serious conversation at a party. I started asking myself who they could be and what they could be talking about, and the idea of an angel and a demon debating humanity was born.
Take a story you love and put it in a different genre. This is a fun exercise that can have you coming up with a lot of interesting ideas. What would happen if you told a story like Love Actually in a fantasy setting? How about Lord of the Rings in space? This trick has been used a lot in the film industry and has produced some incredibly successful results.
Ask “what if?” You can fall down a rabbit hole of compelling questions which you, as the author, can answer in your own creative way. What if a demon and an angel met in a bar? What if the angel gave the demon a proposition? What if the demon tried to turn the angel? These are some of the questions I asked myself when developing The Soul Broker. You can use a piece of inspiration as a jumping-off point for questions or start with the questions themselves. Is there anything you’ve ever been curious about? News articles, history, and documentaries are other great sources to inspire compelling questions.
Follow the fan fiction principle. Do you have a favorite story or series that you’ve imagined other characters and storylines for? Obviously, don’t recreate that exact world and background, but you can use the pieces that speak to you as springing boards to create something entirely new. For example, Cassandra Clare was inspired by the Harry Potter series to create her own reformed version of Draco Malfoy. Her character, Jace, ended up being one of the main characters of her popular Mortal Instruments series. Though there are many differences between Harry Potter and Mortal Instruments, you can see where she was inspired by various elements.
Don’t restrict yourself. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but self-imposed limitations are killers of creativity. Do you have any ideas that you think aren’t good enough to work on? Are you trying to fit yourself in a box of what you think you should write because it’s more commercial/marketable, popular, or what other people you know like? Do you avoid writing certain stories because you think someone will judge you for what you want to write or that no one else will resonate with it? Be honest with yourself and identify where you could be cutting off your creativity and holding yourself back from exploring the ideas that truly light you up. Trying to fit yourself into a box is never going to lead you to work you are truly passionate about.
Choosing a project to work on is a very personal thing. It needs to make you feel some kind of way before you can even hope for it to affect someone else. Here are some elements to look for to make sure you’re on the right track.
Lead character(s) with strong motivation. It’s a common piece of advice, but what exactly does it mean? It means your main character has to be an active force in their own life. It means they need to have a strong desire for something, something they can actively pursue, something readers can understand and get invested in, and something you can throw a whole lot of blocks in front of to keep things interesting. You have to feel for them. If you love your protagonist but you’re struggling to stay interested in the story, there’s a good chance their motivation isn’t strong enough. It’s the beating heart of everything.
A story you can’t get off your mind. Do you find your mind constantly wandering to it when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, taking a shower, walking your dog, driving to work, laying in bed at night? It should have you asking “what happens next?” and keep you invigorated by the possibilities. If it’s not lighting you up in the honeymoon stage, there’s very little chance you’re going to find that later in the process.
Lots of scenes and dialogue already coming to mind. A good sign that your story has legs is when scene and dialogue ideas start flowing to you effortlessly. The characters are speaking to you, the story is coming to life. Little pieces consistently spring up. If this isn’t happening, then there is probably a disconnect somewhere.
Starting with nothing but a single character or idea? Embrace the life of a pantser and challenge your creativity for the month to see what happens when you have to figure things out as you go. Look at it as a creative exercise rather than a project you’re determined to publish. At worst, you’ll have strengthened your creative muscles and had a lot of fun along the way. At best, you’ll surprise yourself by finding your way to a story you never would’ve found had you not embraced the challenge and kept going through the dark.
Read/watch plenty of other fiction throughout the month to keep your cup full and your storyteller mind fed. Not only will it sharpen your storytelling skills and keep you in the right headspace by surrounding yourself with the craft, but you never know what will inspire you.