An idea, a spark of inspiration, is the atom of any novel. Every book starts with an idea, but sometimes it feels easier to come up with them than it is to turn them into an actual manuscript with characters, theme, and…oh yeah, a plot. I’ve had to learn the hard way that a concept is not the same thing as a book. Here are some steps you can take to turn a great idea into a book.
Once you have an idea, it’s time to brainstorm. Resist the need to be perfect when brainstorming. Now is the time to sketch out how your idea might be populated with characters who do things (i.e., a plot). Don’t box yourself in—let your imagination run free. If “free” is a little scary or amorphous, ask the idea-generator: what if.
What if my proposed protagonist were a different gender, race, profession, age, etc. How would it change the story? This will help you nail down why you’re writing about any given person. Follow the same path for plot lines and setting. Don’t settle for the first concept that comes to mind. Try out a few answers to the what if question.
Research for Inspiration
Often learning more about the time or setting of your story, or perhaps the profession of your main characters, will help you keep the ember of inspiration burning. This happens for me all the time. Once you’re in idea-mode, learning about the workings of a real setting or fun facts about an actual time can help you see potential conflict, which is another way to say: plot. Maybe you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but reading or researching about it can help.
This part is hard…for me at least. I tend to resist wanting to “write the book before I write the book” but an idea is not a story. An actual story requires a character who wants something he/she can’t have (easily). Nailing down a compelling goal for an interesting person who must face increasingly difficult challenges to achieve that goal is hard. And utterly necessary. This part might take you a bit of time, but it helps a lot to have a plan in mind for the story before you stare at a blank page and blinking cursor.
Once you’ve got a basic story idea (i.e., plot), focus on your characters. What is your protagonist’s goal and why is it worth reading four hundred pages to see if she’s going to get what she wants? What makes this character sympathetic or funny or worth caring about? Brainstorm scenes and scenarios that will develop your character. That type of specificity should get you going. Here’s an in-depth post on developing your characters: 4 Tips to Developing Character Backstory.
Embrace the Paradox
On one hand, take your time. Moving from a vague idea to an actual plot of a novel is hard to conceive overnight. But, on the other hand, don’t get stuck in the thinking stage forever. You eventually need to start writing. This is a problem I often have. I want to know what my story is about before I begin, but I can’t figure it out until I start writing. My advice (for what it’s worth) is to dive in if you get stuck in the planning. I often find my characters and voice once I start writing.
Remember that the ideas/planning and writing stages aren’t sequential. You don’t have to complete one to do the other. You can toggle back and forth. Sometimes I know how I want a story to start, but then I don’t know what to do in the next scene. That’s when I go back to my plan and get more analytic before I write myself into a wall. The key to developing an idea is to be willing to try it. There’s more to writing a novel than that first spark of inspiration, but with planning and perseverance, you can do it!