A novel is never based on a single idea.
It needs literally hundreds of component ideas, all working together. Yet the uninitiated often begin a tale based upon a single premise.
I've heard people say, "I'm going to write a story about a guy who wakes up and finds a vampire sucking on his neck."
"Okay," I say, "tell me more."
"Well, that's it," the newbie author will answer. And I know that this really isn’t a story yet, just an in inciting idea, one that starts a novel.
I now need to know more.
Who is the victim getting attacked? Who is the vampire? What is the vampire's intention? Is it just another were-bat looking for a quick meal, or is it the man's girlfriend trying to give him immortality? Where does this story take place, and when? What happens next? What does the man do to resolve the problem? What is interesting or unique about his efforts? How does it end?
In short, a story isn't just one idea, it's a conglomeration—basic concepts about characters, how and why they act, and how others react to them. If you analyze even a short story, one that is only ten pages long, you'll find that the author makes dozens, maybe even hundreds of choices regarding milieu, character, conflict, theme, and treatment.
So, how can you tell before you start a story if your ideas are even worth pursuing?
That's not always an easy question to answer. I've sometimes started a story thinking, "This is going to be great!" But midway through, I'll find that my interest is flagging. Sometimes the ideas just don't work as well as I'd imagined. Yet most of the time, thankfully, I complete my projects. I've written well over a hundred novels and short stories, but I've only abandoned three or four. Often, the tale turns out to be far better than I’d first imagined. I start working words onto paper, and something magical happens.
Many times, I've seen others write stories that I had considered writing, but rejected—and the stories were hits. For example, I once plotted a novel about people re-creating dinosaurs on an island in the South Pacific. A plane crashes on the island, and a family on the plane was going to have to cross the island to escape. Then I thought, “Naw, that’s too Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Michael Crichton ran with the idea, and three years later Jurassic Park became a hit.
The problem is, of course, that one basic idea doesn't make a story. There are component ideas that the author doesn't often think about when forming a story—but the author finds gems as the account progresses. So if you want to sell your story, whether you're pitching it to an editor, an agent, or a Hollywood producer, it's important to get them to experience the entire story. Your goal is to intrigue them with just a few of your ideas, to lure them in. But how can you tell if you've got good formative ideas at the base of your story?
Here are some guidelines:
1) Ask yourself, "Is this idea original?"
A certain degree of novelty is desirable for a story. You don't want to write something that's indistinguishable from the work of a hundred writers before you. You need to raise the bar, and if your work is consistently original in some major ways, not only will it sell, you'll tend to get rave reviews and plenty of word-of-mouth advertising.
So if you're writing a story about a haunted house, you're coming to the tale with a lot of baggage. We've all seen hundreds of such stories. In fact, time and again I meet authors who are writing derivative tales—haunted houses, stock fantasies, cozy mysteries—more as an homage to other works than from a desire to sell. But that approach to writing just doesn't work. Even if you're writing a story in a well-defined genre, in order to make a sale you need one new twist that hasn't been seen before—at the very least. Several original subplots or twists is even better. In some genres, originality is the key to a sale. For example, fantasy and science fiction rely upon a sense of wonder to grab an audience. So you can’t sell well in those genres if the story is easily recognizable as a stock piece.
There is of course a subset of fantasy that relies far more upon a sense of nostalgia for success than a sense of wonder. There are a lot of gaming novels set in Tolkienesque worlds that use standard monsters and characters of certain races or classes. But even with all of the nostalgia, you'd better bring something new to the table.
Of course, some genres don't require much originality. If you're writing a Regency romance, you're relying far more upon nostalgia to grab your audience than originality. I've read many a Western where it seems that nothing differs from one novel to the next other than the names of the characters.
So if your core concept is not original, ask yourself, How important is originality to making a sale in my genre, or making a name for myself as an author.
2) How exciting is this idea to you personally? If the story doesn't grab you as an author, if you don't feel deeply compelled to write it, the chances are good that you won't finish.
If you're not excited, you need to look for twists to make it more interesting. You might ask yourself questions like, "What could I do to the world in my story to make it more interesting?" or "Are there deeper social conflicts that I can explore?" Or, “Is there a certain sense of style that I could bring to this that hasn’t been seen before?”
Be warned that sometimes an idea that really feels powerful to you doesn't interest others at all. Usually, this happens when you're looking at ideas for conflict. Conflicts that are deeply personal are conflicts that you'll often be interested in writing about--but they might leave others cold. For example, years ago, my closest friend was a gay man. In many of his stories, he would write about male friendships and bonding, sometimes telling love stories that ended tragically. He was a fine writer, but his work didn't really gain the praise that it deserved. I suspect that it was because he was writing for mainstream magazines, and a lot of people just couldn't relate.
So you have to ask yourself: "Are the conflicts that I'm dealing with here more personal than universal?" Sometimes the truth is that they just might be. If you write a personal story, it may be deeply cathartic for you. But don’t be dismayed if the piece doesn't sell.
You can, of course, seek opinions from others to see just how much they like your ideas. Years ago, I used to have brainstorming sessions with my writing group. I found that if I would come up with a twenty or thirty ideas before a session and then toss them out, all that I really had to do to gauge which ideas were worth pursuing was to see how they were received. If people in the group became excited --if their voices raised as they discussed an idea; if they talked about it for a great deal of time; if they too became excited and began elaborating on the idea--then I'd seriously consider using the concept. I soon reached the point where I didn't have to ask anymore. I could feel when an idea would be widely accepted.
3) Do your ideas feel organic? Does the story feel that it is growing naturally?
When you first begin creating a story, ideas can get glommed on rather haphazardly. You may find for example that you haven't thought enough about your character's motivations. If a shy and retiring character suddenly starts an argument just because the plot demands something from him, then you haven't done your job.
In short, the story should progress logically from beginning to end. If it doesn't, you're in trouble. So you have to take your characters and the situation into consideration, and then try to get the best performance that you can from them. Often that means that you'll have to revise your thoughts. You may have to take the plot in a different direction—even if it means that you have to throw out the whole ending to your story, or back up and rewrite an earlier portion.
4) Ask yourself, "How will my story affect the world at large?"
Have you ever read a story that makes you feel rotten? I've read plenty of stories by authors who were smutty, hopeless, and small-minded. In the end, regardless of how talented that author might be, I will usually put their books down and stop reading. So I will admit that when I'm generating a plot for a story, I consider how it might affect my readers. I would like to leave them wiser, more compassionate people. I'd like them to be hopeful for the future while recognizing that the world can still be a dangerous place.
Given this, if my story doesn't work for me on a moral level, then I might need to revise.
This isn't always an easy call. I once got a review from Publisher's Weekly that called my novel The Wyrmling Horde a "thunderous" tale that ultimately left the reviewer feeling that the story was dark and hopeless. The reviewer was right. The odds of my character Fallion succeeding in his quest to heal the world go from slim to none—apparently. But that is more a problem that comes from the fact that we're moving into the darkest part of the story cycle. If you look at Frodo Baggin's journey to Mount Doom, his odds seem pretty dismal when the novel is at the 80% mark. So I wrote a novel that is uncharacteristically dark—as it should be.
In short, if I feel that a story has sufficient novelty, if the ideas excite me enough so that I feel compelled to write it, if the ideas all fit together neatly in an organic whole, and if I feel that the end product will properly represent who I am as an author and a human being, then I'm ready write—and not until then.
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”