Don’t wait for your novel idea to just come to you– go out and hunt one down! Here are 5 shortcuts to finding that stroke of genius.
1. Read Opposing Viewpoints
In Story Engineering, author Larry Brooks recommends developing a concept by using ideas that stem from a series of “What if?” questions. As long as your idea prompts more and more “what if’s,” you know you are on to something. Jump start your curiousity by looking at Greenhaven Press’s Opposing Viewpoints Series or At Issue Series.
- Ask your local library for Greenhaven Press’s educational little books on controversial contemporary topics which present several essays taking opposite sides on a hot issue. The list of titles ranges from National Security to Paranormal Phenomena to Biomedical ethics.
- These work great for fleshing out the conflict between your hero and villain, because (surprise!) they will likely hold opposite beliefs on a major issue. (Think Harry’s good magic vs. Voldemort’s dark arts; Katniss’s independence vs. The Capitol’s stability).
- Example: In Greenhaven Press’s Genetically Modified Food from the At Issue series, I read that some plant genes can be modified to concentrate heavy metals from the soil into its leaves rather than the edible part. This allows for the use of municipal sludge as fertilizer. What if the gene messes up and concentrates the metal into the tomatoes . . . .What if my hero is the only one who realizes that this will happen? Or, what if the gene sucks up too much metal from the ground and the whole world becomes iron deficient. . . . and what if the hero needs to work for the villain to learn how to stop it? Or, what if the fertilizer company that uses the municipal waste wants better-quality fertilizer, so they start fortifying drinking water with weird additives that end up back in the waste… what if these additives have amazing side affects on us? And on and on….
2. Set the Grand Stage
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Best Sellers explains that the bestselling novelists “set their characters against backdrops of enormous scale and consequence” by “placing their heroes and heroines on expansive historical or social stages.” (HL Ch. 3).
- Head back to the library to browse the documentaries. Look for 20th Century Turning Points in U.S. History, a series that highlights pivotal points in history by using original footage and authentic recordings. Take notes when you find a “grand stage” that excites you!
- Even if your story is in a different country or far in the future, you can still look to history as inspiration for fantasy. (And if your story takes you to another planet, check out the SciFi Ideas “Systems and Worlds” page.)
- Example: Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was published four years after Twilight first came out, and the market was pretty vampire-saturated by that point. But– by weaving the vampires into a significant period of our history, it all seemed fresh again.
3. Take a hint from the Gods
The Harry Potter Books, Twilight, and The Hunger Games all use mythological symbols and references. By now you’ve heard that Suzanne Collins partially based the Hunger Games on the ancient myth of the minotaur. Why not browse some timeless stories for inspiration?
- Check your library for an encyclopedia-style book on Mythology– there are zillions. But not all mythology has to be Greek and Roman! Consider looking at Egyptian, Native American, and Asian myths and folklore for even more stories that have stood the test of time. Maybe you will be inspired by a character’s relationships or discover an exciting plot point.
- There’s always the Bible for inspiration too. Think C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. (There are also lesser known Bible stories that may provide inspiration— Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter parallels the Book of Esther. Pretty sure I wrote a term paper on that during my high school days…)
- Example: I came across the Greek God Hephaestus in an encyclopedia and soon became enamored after doing more research at Theoi.com. He’s the god of metalworking, and I really like the idea of a god who had to make his tools when everyone else gets to throw lightning bolts. (He also made Achilles’s armor and Pandora’s box. A real behind-the-scenes guy.)
4. Extra! Extra! Let the news work for you.
- If you have a general idea of a topic or person that interests you, customize your google newsfeed to always show relevant stories. Maybe you want to create a fabulous tycoon like Elon Musk, who dabbles in rockets and electric cars, all while dating Cameron Diaz.
- Visit Reuters’s Oddly Enough page, which defines stranger than fiction. Today’s headlines include “Australian scientists microchip bees to map movements, halt diseases,” “Penis pumps cost U.S. government millions, watchdog cries waste,” and “Photographer sued over topless photo atop Empire State Building.”
- Example: I saved the general topic “Health” in my google newsfeed. One day, I saw two headlines side by side: One said that the number of people with dementia would triple by the year 2050, and the other said that the national birthrate was at an all time low. What if the young hero lives in a world where more people have dementia than there are people to take care of them? What if the people with dementia still return to their old jobs, and there isn’t anyone to stop them from driving buses, wearing police uniforms, wandering around hospitals wearing labcoats? What if the people with dementia still remember the old pass codes to entire secure areas and cause a breach? And on and on…
5. Use a generator PLUS a photo prompt
This one is mainly to get your fingers typing– I find that once my fingers are going, I’m a little more willing to type whatever stupid idea pops into my head, whereas if I weren’t already typing, I may be reluctant to start unless my inner critic decides it’s “good” first…and when does that ever happen?
- Play this writing game: First, generate a random story starter. Second, head over to the Full Focus Photo Blog, click on the Editors Choice slideshow, and pick one photo from the last 24 hours. Third, start writing: create the missing link that reconciles the story starter with the photo.
- My story starters included “The new sleep walker served breakfast in the huge truck at sunrise for the FBI” and “The smiling lawyer took pictures near the house in 2003 to cover things up.” I tried to reconcile these with the picture of a perfect white swan floating down a residential street in Britain after a flood. Did the lawyer know the neighborhood would flood? Is the lawyer covering up the damage to the house, or the fact that he let the magic swan loose? Did the sleepwalker accidentally release an evil flock of genetically engineered swans? And on and on…
I hope you use these shortcuts (which are really the beginnings of research) and stumble across a great idea for your novel. The most important thing is to pursue a storyline that you are genuinely interested in, otherwise your boredom will show through the work.
P.S. After all of this idea-prep, don’t forget to sleep next to your notepad in case your mind works better in altered states of consiousness!