In last week’s article, What Should I Write About? Finding Inspiration, I addressed a reader who was having difficulty finding ideas to write about.
Today, I’ll respond to another letter I received, from a different reader:
I’m going to my home town for the summer, and I would like to write a novel within the 3 months that I will be there. I know that I have a lot of inspiration, but the RIGHT idea never comes to me. I have so many ideas, but none make me feel like I have to write about them. What should I do?
My impression from this letter was that the writer has plenty of inspiration, but has difficulty focusing on which ideas are story-worthy.
Many writers struggle with this issue, perhaps even more so than finding inspiration: is my story idea good enough for a novel?
How do you decide which ideas you should pursue, and which you should toss?
How to Focus Your Story Ideas
Deciding on which ideas are keepers is a process. Try some of these strategies to help you narrow down your inspiration:
- Keep a journal. It may sound like hackneyed advice, but it bears being repeated because journals truly are helpful tools. Carry a pocket-sized one around with you and write down ideas immediately. If you find it difficult to turn a particular inspiration into words, that may be your first clue the idea could be more trouble than its worth.
- Play around with ideas. When you get a vague inspiration, use some visual strategies to help you explore the possibilities. Try looking at photographs or magazine pictures, browse Flickr, or use a whiteboard to create a visual representation of your inspiration. The more you play around with your ideas, the more you’ll learn what will work, and what won’t.
- Focus on conflict. So many times, we get inspired by a scene or a set of characters, but we give little thought to what conflict will drive our stories. If you identify your conflict before you focus too much on other elements, you’ll be less likely to drift into the land of worthless story ideas.
- Write a logline. A logline (or one-sentence pitch) s a short description of your story–around 25 words long. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says your logline should include your main character, the conflict, what’s at stake, the action that will help them achieve their goal, and the setting if relevant. (Click here for more great advice on loglines from Ms. Gardner.) Writing a one-sentence summary of your idea can help you decide whether or not you should proceed.
- Pitch a friend. Once you have some loglines written, try them out on your friends to see which ones pique their interest. Often, a fresh pair of eyes can help you see any potential problems you might otherwise miss, and therefore save you hassle in the long run.
- Write an outline. If your idea makes it past the one-sentence pitch, write an outline. Include characters and a brief synopsis, then address the key areas of 4-part story structure. The more in-depth your outline, the better the chances your story idea will succeed.
What’s your process for weeding out unworthy ideas and ephemeral inspirations? How do you distinguish the good ideas from the bad?
Join the discussion
There are some really good ideas here. For me, when I’m struggling with a character or story line, I take a good look at what I’m writing about. Does it excite me? Am I thrilled about telling this story and seeing where the characters end up? If the answer is no, or even a hesitant yes, I reconsider the story I’m really trying to tell. Writers, like most things, need energy to keep going. Without it, you may just be going through the motions of putting one word in front of the other. If you’re concerned about your story, write an exercise with your protagonist. Write out everything you know about him or her. Talk about their childhood. Favorite foods. Broken hearts. First kiss. Write a synopsis of their life as if it were to be published (but knowing that it won’t). If there’s still something missing, maybe you need to reassess the character you’ve chosen to drive the plot.
Thanks, Scott 🙂 I also rely a lot on how excited I am about an idea, because I know what it’s like to get 50,000 words into a book and realize you have to be completely committed to finish it. Thank you for your added tips!
Virginia Bell says
Thank you for this post. I’m having trouble focusing on conflicts for my characters. Any more suggestions?