Story concept is the cornerstone of a novel. Being able to succinctly answer the question, “What is your book about?” is important. But knowing how to elevate that story idea is what can take you from an aspiring writer to someone who’s sold.
You’re a writer, so story ideas probably come to you at all times. Maybe you’re jogging or showering or just about to fall asleep and boom! An idea floats into your head. It’s great to be creative, but once you have the basic outline, the hard part comes in. What is going to make your cool idea “extra” enough to get published? How will you go from concept to a page-turning plot? Here are four ways to strengthen your story concept.
#1: Amp It Up
Whatever your story idea, see if you can push it even further. Let’s take a concrete example. Lots of people like to do retellings, but the people who amp it up become best-sellers. Cinderella has been retold countless times. There is apparently something timeless about female subjugation, women’s labor, and complicated familial (though not by blood) relations. Oh, and a handsome prince!
Let’s take, for instance, two juggernaut retellings of the basic idea of Cinderella. One is Marissa Meyer’s young adult novel, Cinder. It’s set in a futuristic China, and Cinder is a cyborg mechanic in love with a prince. Their relationship threatens intergalactic war. This, folks, is “extra.” This is also what a massive bestseller looks like.
To take the concept of “amping up” to greater heights still, consider Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. Here the forced servitude of one woman is multiplied by tens of thousands of women. The dystopian novel, and award-winning TV series of the same name, asks what would happen if young women were forced to use their wombs to give babies to the men who are their masters. Talk about the ultimate forced labor!
Whether you amp up the characters, make their problems world-wide, add plot twists, or set your story in an exotic world, push yourself. Push your idea. Don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone.
#2: Try Another Time
Let’s say your story concept, whatever it is, is set in the modern era. Imagine it in another time or place. How would it complicate your characters and their choices? What about the past or the future or another country or city will add to your conflict?
#3: Get in Character
How can you amp up your characters? Try imagining a heroine as a hero or vice versa. What problems would they likely encounter if they were of the opposite gender? What if they were gender non-binary?
Does your main character secretly long for something she doesn’t have? How does his unfulfilled desires fuel his actions? How would your character be a different person if something in his past hadn’t happened?
It sounds mean, but make your characters’ lives hard! They’re fictional—they can take it! What if your “every man” hero had a hidden talent? Or an illness, mental or otherwise? Or a murderous brother? Or a klepto-mother? Or some other secret? Push your characters to be distinct.
#4: Don’t Be Yourself
Of course it’s natural to want to write what is familiar to you. After all, you have a unique point-of-view, which could be exciting to your readers. On other hand, writing someone with a similar background, gender, education level, and personal history can hamstring you too. It’s easy to get stuck in “what’s real” instead of pushing yourself and your characters into the world of fiction. Writing about someone different than you can be freeing. Liberate your imagination!
My main suggestion for strengthening your story idea is to amp it up. I recommend that you try the prompts I gave you on your own work-in-progress. Try each new tactic and see how it goes. If you’re not quite to the planning stage, use your favorite book or movie to test these suggestions. Can you make an even bigger, better story?